Fragile Things

Summary: An encounter with a quantum rift sends Janeway and Chakotay on a journey through what might have been.

 

Characters: Janeway, Chakotay, Voyager crew

Codes: Janeway/Chakotay

 

Disclaimer: Paramount built the amusement park. We just play in it.

 

Notes: All quotes are from Neil Gaiman’s Fragile Things story collection, and I’ve borrowed heavily from the TNG episode Parallels.

 

Warning: Dubious consent elements in a couple of chapters.

Rated E

7. Every Glittering Kiss - Janeway (III)

Stardate 51138.8

 

In a perfect world, you could fuck people without giving them a piece of your heart. And every glittering kiss and every touch of flesh is another shard of heart you’ll never see again.

 

 

If I never wake up to the sickbay ceiling again, it will be too soon.

 

“Doctor?”

 

“Captain.” The Doctor appears at my bedside, tricorder out. “How are you feeling?”

 

“Fine,” I lie. “Report.”

 

“You appear to have fainted during your beam-out from the Xen’tu ship. I expect you can blame it on your habit of taking minimal rest and nutrition. I’ve provided you with a hypospray that should stabilise your electrolytes and restore some much-needed vitamins into your system.” He finishes his scan and flips the tricorder closed. “You’re cleared to return to duty.”

 

Xen’tu ship?

 

My head hurts too much to make sense of this right now. “Could I have an analgesic?”

 

The Doctor presses a hypospray to my throat. “Commander Chakotay informs me that the negotiations are progressing well, and you’ve been invited to return to Captain Kli’xek’s ship to finalise them tomorrow. Until then, Captain, might I suggest a hot meal? And eight hours’ sleep tonight won’t hurt, either.”

 

“Thank you.” I slide down from the biobed and stride out into the hallway, where I stop short.

 

I’ve never heard of the Xen’tu. This is clearly not my original universe. I know I should brief the senior staff immediately and get them working on the information I’ve gathered so far each time I’ve shifted realities to figure out why the last attempt to send me home failed.

 

Right now, though, all I want is a little time alone.

 

“Computer, what time is it?”

 

~The time is 1603 hours.~

 

The start of Beta shift; the Janeway of this universe would be returning to the bridge right now. I step into the turbolift. “Deck one, ready room. Computer, send a message to the bridge that I’ll be in my ready room.”

 

~Acknowledged,~ the computer replies as the turbolift whisks me upward.

 

In the ready room, I pull the other Janeway’s computer toward me. “Computer, list crew complement of the USS Voyager, beginning with senior staff.”

 

First officer, Cmdr Chakotay; tactical chief, Lt Tuvok; flight controller, Lt Thomas Paris; chief engineer, Lt Joe Carey

 

“Computer, pause display.” I stare at the monitor. “Where is B’Elanna Torres?”

 

~Lieutenant B’Elanna Torres’ status was recorded as killed in action on Stardate 48785.8.~

 

The Vidiians. I scrub my hands over my face. God, how has this ship survived without B’Elanna?

 

“Continue display.”

 

Operations officer, Ens Harry Kim; chief medical officer, Emergency Medical Hologram; medical assistant, Kes

 

“Pause,” I order again. This time, I’m smiling. I hadn’t seen Kes in sickbay, but now I resolve to return as soon as possible.

 

Another thought occurs to me. “Is Seven of Nine aboard?”

 

~Negative. There is no crewmember by that designation aboard the USS Voyager.~

 

“Computer, display all captain’s logs pertaining to the Borg.”

 

The console chirrups and I’m watching myself describing the discovery of a Borg corpse on the Sakari homeworld. “Skip to the next log.”

 

Captain’s log, stardate 50695.1, my counterpart recites. We’ve encountered a species known as the Mikhal Travelers at the border of the Nekrit Expanse. I’ve made contact with a Traveler called Zahir, who has agreed to supply us with stellar maps spanning through and beyond the unstable region of space ahead of us. He claims to have travelled past the far reaches of the Expanse and has warned us that it borders Borg territory. He recommends we follow a course that will take us around Borg space, and has suggested a number of different routes.

 

Clearly, this Janeway followed Zahir’s advice. So, no encounter with Riley Frazier and her cooperative, no battle with Species 8472, no attempted alliance with the Borg.

 

“Display the course of the USS Voyager through this quadrant,” I order, and the screen switches to a star chart with a course that begins at the Caretaker’s array, meanders through Kazon and Vidiian space, Swarm territory, the Nekrit Expanse…

 

Wait. The stardates don’t match up; this Voyager should have emerged from the Expanse a good three months later than it did. Somewhere along the way, they’ve made up some time.

 

A wormhole? Some kind of borrowed technology? I trace the stardate anomaly backwards, and then I realise.

 

This ship never backtracked to New Earth.

 

But this Chakotay and Janeway are registered members of the crew, so that must mean they were never stranded there.

 

I wonder what that means for their relationship. Considering that New Earth was a pivotal experience in both previous realities I’ve experienced – and, if I’m honest, in my own – never being marooned together might mean their interactions in this universe are completely different.

 

But that kind of speculation will have to wait. I turn back to the star map on my screen. This ship’s current location is ten thousand light years further from Earth than where my Voyager sails. And the course they’re currently following will add another two decades to their journey.

 

I wonder how this Janeway has reconciled that, in her mind. Had she considered taking the risk and entering Borg space anyway? Or had it never occurred to her? Did the loss of B’Elanna, with all her fire and ingenuity, convince that other captain that there would be no miracles for this Voyager?

 

And on a more selfish note, how am I supposed to get home without help from B’Elanna or Seven?

 

=/\=

Still avoiding the crew, I order soup and crackers from the replicator in the ready room and eat a solitary dinner at the desk, perusing the other captain’s official logs. It’s curiosity that drives me, though whether I’m trying to understand her or find reasons to second-guess myself and my own decisions, I couldn’t say.

 

At 1930 hours the Doctor comms me to suggest – rather acerbically – that I follow his earlier order to get some rest – “and I don’t mean continue to work in your quarters, Captain, I mean rest.” I grumble about it, but privately concede he’s got a point. I didn’t sleep last night, after all. I switch off my console and head for deck three.

 

Yawning, eyes half-closed, I enter my code and step into my darkened quarters. Tired and distracted as I am, I barely have a moment to realise I’m not alone before I’m roughly grabbed and pushed up against the bulkhead, my arms twisted tight behind my back, my face pressed to smooth duranium. One hand grips my wrists together in the small of my back, and as I open my mouth to scream, another clamps down over it.

 

I struggle, kick, wriggle, but a body presses up against me, immobilising me, and I feel the cold click of metal cuffs around my wrists. I manage to get my teeth around one of the strong fingers across my mouth and hear a pained hiss as I bite into it, but my attacker simply clamps his fingers under my chin, holding my mouth closed. And then I feel his other hand curving around my waist, pushing inside my jacket and under my turtleneck, sliding up, up, over my breast.

 

Fear pulses through me and my body stiffens, and then just as my instincts are about to take over and I determine to fight this, fight him, I feel lips against my neck, a light grazing of teeth, and I recognise his scent. Shock holds me still, my muscles loosening of their own volition.

 

“That’s more like it, Kathryn,” he whispers, his breath warm against my ear as his fingers trace the underside of my breast, pushing my shirt up on his wrist. “Things go so much more smoothly when you behave yourself.”

 

There’s cool air on my stomach; he’s pushed my shirt up to my neck and is taking advantage of his access to my bare skin. His fingertips brush my nipple, circling, and I hear him chuckle as it hardens at his touch. He presses against me from behind, letting his hand smooth downward, thumbing open the fastening to my pants.

 

Chakotay,” I try to protest from behind his palm, but all that comes out is a close-mouthed moan. He slips a knee between my legs and taps my ankles apart. His hand is inside my clothes now, stroking and curling, and this time my moan is unmistakable. He bends to suck lightly at the point where my jaw curves into my neck, and I barely realise I’m tilting my head to allow him access.

 

He dips a finger inside me and curls it forward as the heel of his hand presses on my clitoris, and I can’t help bucking sharply, a groan caught in my throat. “Good girl,” he murmurs approvingly as I start to push my hips against his slick, stroking fingers, and the sheer condescension of it brings me back to myself. My eyes, which had been drifting shut, snap open.

 

“I want both hands to touch you,” he says in my ear. “So I’m going to take my hand off your mouth now, and you’re not going to make a sound, are you?”

 

Glad he can’t see the triumph I’m sure is flashing in my eyes, I shake my head.

 

His hand lifts, and I bark out, “Janeway to sec-”

 

Before I can finish, the hand is clamped back down. “What the hell, Kathryn?” he hisses. “You really want Tuvok to come storming in here and find you like this? Is that some new kink you haven’t told me about?”

 

I blink as his words sink in. “This is some kind of game?” I try to mumble against his imprisoning fingers.

 

“What?” he asks, and I growl to let him know I want to speak.

 

He loosens his fingers enough to let me grit out, “Let go of me now, Commander. I’m not kidding.”

 

I feel him hesitate, then he withdraws his fingers from inside me and drops the hand covering my mouth, stepping back. I try to move my hands and am reminded of the cuffs.

 

“Get them off me.”

 

He presses the release button and the cuffs drop to the floor. I yank down my shirt and fasten my pants, suck in a breath, and face him.

 

Chakotay’s jaw is tight, his arms crossed over his chest – his naked chest, I can’t help noticing, thankful he’s still wearing pants at least. “Care to explain?” he demands.

 

I straighten my shoulders. “I don’t know what kind of … activities you and your captain are used to indulging in, Commander, but I’m not her.”

 

His only response is a raised eyebrow.

 

I try again. “I’m Captain Janeway, but I’m from an alternate universe. There was a quantum rift and a transporter accident, and I’ve been…” I trail off as I see him smirking. “What?”

 

“You always were imaginative,” he replies. “How do we play this one? I’m the Maquis brute and you’re the innocent, trapped Starfleet waif? Or are you going to tie me up this time?”

 

“This isn’t a joke,” I snap, then press a hand to my head, which has unsurprisingly started pounding again. “Look, Commander – could we sit down? We clearly have a few things to sort out.”

 

“Be my guest,” he says sarcastically, waving a hand toward the couch. The captain’s couch, in the captain’s quarters, in which he is clearly quite comfortable. I take the armchair instead, in case he gets any ideas about sitting too close to me. He doesn’t miss it, of course, as he settles on the couch opposite my chair.

 

I tear my gaze away from his bare torso. “Would you mind getting dressed first?”

 

He snorts, but snags his undershirt from the floor and pulls it on. “Okay,” he says, a smile still tugging at the corners of his mouth. “I’m listening.”

 

=/\=

By the time I’ve finished telling him my story, the sardonic smirk has been completely wiped from his face.

 

“So you and your Chakotay are the only ones you’ve encountered in all this quantum shifting who don’t have a, uh, sexual relationship?”

 

I glare at him. “That’s really the salient fact you’re taking from all of this?”

 

“Well, you have to admit it does seem like there’s some kind of kismet factor at play here,” he mutters, then holds up his hands as my glare intensifies. “All right, okay. So we figure out how to get you back home. Where do you want to start?”

 

“Unfortunately, we don’t have B’Elanna’s expertise to call on –” I start unthinkingly, then halt at how completely insensitive that statement is. Chakotay’s face is frozen. “I’m so sorry,” I whisper.

 

He gives a short nod.

 

“Seven of Nine’s efforts were invaluable as well, although obviously she’s not here. But I’m pretty sure I can build on what the three of us figured out together. Harry Kim should work with me, and I’m sure Lieutenant Carey can pick up most of it.”

 

“Seven of Nine?”

 

“A former drone we liberated from the – never mind,” I sigh. “I don’t know what kind of protocols apply in this situation, but it’s probably best I don’t pass on too much information. Who knows what could contaminate your future?”

 

“Right,” he mutters, getting to his feet. “I’ll have Kim and Carey meet us in engineering.”

 

“You don’t have to be there,” I fire back immediately. Right now, I’d be a lot more comfortable if this Chakotay were as far away from me as possible.

 

He raises an eyebrow. “If I didn’t know better, I’d say you and she were the same person after all.”

 

I stand, hands going automatically to my hips at his challenging tone. “And why is that, Commander?”

 

“Let’s just say she’s not known for her excessive trust in me.”

 

“She made you her first officer, too,” I point out.

 

“Yes,” he agrees. “And then she spent the next three years treating me like some kind of over-promoted lackey. Yes Captain, no Captain, how high, Captain.”

 

“I can’t believe that.”

 

“Well, she’s a little different after hours. Likes to take the pips off then.” He folds his arms, looks me up and down. “Or have them bitten off.”

 

I can feel the colour heating my face.

 

“Mind you, she gives as good as she gets,” he goes on conversationally, taking a measured step or two towards me. “When she invites me here for dinner I never know if I’m going to be meeting the buttoned-up captain,” he’s close enough now that I can feel the heat radiating from his body, “or someone Starfleet wouldn’t even recognise.”

 

I’m finding it hard to breathe.

 

“How did it come to this?” I’m not really asking, but he answers anyway.

 

“Seska.”

 

I jerk back.

 

“I was still sleeping with her when she betrayed us to the Kazon,” he goes on, grimacing. “Kathryn wasn’t too happy when she found out.”

 

“You …” I have to swallow against the sudden dryness in my throat. Did my Chakotay lie to me about that, too?

 

“She came to my quarters the night Seska took off.” He’s looking at my face, but it’s clear I’m not the captain he’s seeing. “Gave me a thorough dressing-down about inappropriate fraternisation. I got angry. I grabbed her, kind of pushed her up against the wall. But she’s the one who kissed me.”

 

She kissed him - and presumably, more than that - so early in the journey? I’m finding this incredibly hard to believe -

 

God, he’s still talking.

 

“One minute she’s reprimanding me for not keeping my dick in my pants, the next she’s on her knees trying to suck the whole thing into her mouth. At that moment I wasn’t sure if she was going to bite it off or swallow me alive.”

 

He grins suddenly, his eyes focusing on mine.

 

“She’s a wildcat in bed,” he says silkily, and I flinch as he traces one finger along the line of my jaw, his other hand circling my wrist and tugging me toward him. “Something tells me you would be, too.”

 

“Get. Your hands. Off me. Now.”

 

He laughs, letting me go. “She swore it was a one-time thing, and for a long time she kept her word. Then she discovered Seska had an ally on board, and she conspired with Tuvok and Paris to root him out. Kept me out of the loop. I was pretty pissed off when I found out. Not surprised, though. She never did trust me.”

 

He moves away, ambling casually around the room, trailing his fingers over surfaces as he talks. I can’t take my eyes off him.

 

“I confronted her about it in her ready room after Jonas got himself vaporised. Threw my rank bar down on her desk, told her I wanted off her ship. I meant it, too. I guess she could tell, because the next thing I know she’s got her hands in my pants. When I fucked her that time she begged me to stay. I told her I would on one condition. I’m sure you can guess what it was.”

 

“I don’t believe you.” I feel sick. I would never behave that way. Never. And neither would the Chakotay I know.

 

He shrugs. “Maybe you’re different people after all. Maybe not.” He circles back to me, too close; I hold myself perfectly still. “Maybe you’ve thought about it.”

 

“No.”

 

Yes.

 

He cocks an eyebrow and I can’t help flushing.

 

“Thinking about something and actually doing it are not the same, Commander. And I don’t need to use sex to get what I want…”

 

Even as I say the words, I remember flirting with Gath, the Sikarian First Minister, trying to convince him to let us use their space-folding technology. I think about impersonating a prostitute to gain access to the prison on the Mokra homeworld. And then there were missions I’d undertaken long before we landed in the Delta quadrant. Letting the Talarian ambassador chat me up at a ball on Betazed at a time when the Federation-Talar alliance was on new and shaky ground. Inviting myself to an intimate dinner at the home of a Bajoran vedek Starfleet had suspected of colluding with the Maquis. Sitting in a dingy bar on Regulon, draping myself over a Ferengi who’d made a few too many suspicious trips between Cardassian space and the Orion Syndicate.

 

And I think about the way I’ve long behaved with my first officer - all the touches, the candlelit dinners, the lingering glances and suggestive teasing – and my protest dies in my throat.

 

I can’t excuse what that other Kathryn Janeway was apparently willing to do to keep her first officer on her ship and by her side. But neither can I unequivocally declare that I might not, in her circumstances, have done exactly as she did.

 

And my Chakotay… I remember how consumed with anger he was when he first came on board Voyager, how grim and battle-hardened, how accustomed he was to a hard-scrabble, cynical life. What if he’d believed from the start that I never really trusted him? What if I’d proven it, over and over? What if we’d never become friends? What if I’d seduced him early on in the journey in deed as well as in thought? Would he have taken any advantage he could grasp, used any weapon in his arsenal, to secure the safety of himself and his crew?

 

Maybe if the captain and commander of this world had been stranded together as my Chakotay and I were, they’d have moved past this power struggle and found a more equitable, less adversarial relationship. Maybe not.

 

“All right.” I draw myself upright, forcing myself to meet his eyes. “Point taken, Commander.”

 

“Then, if we’re not going to get naked,” and there’s that smirk I want to slap right off his face, “I suggest we get down to engineering.”

 

=/\=

I explain my predicament to the two officers I’ve selected to help me, then assign Lieutenant Carey to work on stabilising the transporter targeting scanners and Ensign Kim to realign the deflector to emit the subspace differential pulse. By two in the morning we’re ready to make our first test attempt. As we walk to the transporter room I find myself weaving a little, my feet unsteady. Chakotay catches my arm.

 

“When did you last get some sleep?” he asks me quietly.

 

I have to think about it. “Two universes ago,” I answer finally.

 

Chakotay stops short, still holding my elbow. “Lieutenant,” he says in his normal voice. “Carry on with the tests and report your findings to Captain Janeway in the morning.”

 

“Excuse me, Commander?” I try to summon up a glare but find my eyes are almost crossing with fatigue.

 

He hides a smirk. “I believe the Doctor ordered you to rest, Captain. I’ll escort you to your quarters.”

 

I plant my feet mulishly. Carey and Kim have stopped a few respectful metres away and are glancing between us.

 

Chakotay leans in. “You’re exhausted,” he says, his voice flat. “And from what you’ve told me, this universe-shifting is pretty hard on the body. You need to be at your best. It won’t kill you to wait a few hours.”

 

“Fine,” I snap, too tired to continue arguing. “You supervise the tests. I don’t need your help getting to my quarters, thank you.”

 

I turn on my heel and promptly stagger, bracing a hand against the bulkhead to keep from falling. Chakotay is beside me in an instant, his hand warm on my lower back.

 

“Yeah, I can see you don’t need help. No arguments, Captain. I’ll see you home. Besides,” he adds, his voice lower as he guides me into the turbolift, “our Captain Janeway was scheduled to continue negotiations with the Xen’tu in the morning. They seem to be a somewhat unforgiving race and we need their minerals. If we can’t guarantee her return, I’ll need you to take her place.”

 

I stare at him. “In my universe, I’ve never met the Xen’tu. I can’t step midway into a negotiation without a briefing first.”

 

“All right,” he answers as we step out on deck three. “I’ll brief you now. And after that, you go to bed.”

 

I start to protest, not even knowing what I’m objecting to anymore, but am overtaken by a yawn. Chakotay snorts. We’re at the door to my quarters now, and he leans over me and enters the access code then ushers me inside.

 

“Sit,” he orders, moving to the replicator, and I sink onto the couch before my knees can give out. He returns with a steaming mug of something that’s definitely not coffee.

 

“What is this?” I demand suspiciously.

 

“Chamomile tea.” He hands it to me, and grins when I screw my face up at the taste. “Trust me, you do not need any more caffeine in your system. This will help you sleep.”

 

“I doubt I’ll need any help in that area,” I mutter. “You’d better talk fast, Commander.”

 

“Kathryn was speaking with a Captain Kli’xek. The Xen’tu are warp-capable, obviously, but only since about a century ago. They’ve just come out of a long conflict with a neighbouring species and the majority of other contacts they’ve made since they became space-faring have been less than successful. They were highly suspicious of us at first, even fired off a few shots before we disabled their weapons. Kathryn had to do some fast talking to convince them we were friendly, and they refused to meet us on Voyager. She and Tuvok had to transport to their ship.”

 

“Where are you up to in the negotiations?”

 

“Fine-tuning. We’ve agreed on a trade. Their ships are composed mostly of paricium, which has become a fairly rare element in their solar system. We’ll replicate sixty barrels of paricium in exchange for seven tons of polysilicate verterium and twelve of monocrystal cortenide. Carey’s confident he can composite them into verterium cortenide. Should be enough to reinforce the warp coils for a good few thousand light years.”

 

“Speaking of which,” I wrap my fingers around the cup and settle back against the couch, “it seems you’re still on course for Earth, despite taking a twenty-year detour around Borg space. I’ve been meaning to ask you if you’d had a conversation with your captain about that.”

 

“You mean instead of accepting we’ll probably never get back to the Alpha quadrant and finding a planet to colonise? Oh, we’ve had that conversation.”

 

“And?”

 

“And we disagree.” He shrugs. “She’s the captain.”

 

“Oh, so you do still respect that?” I can’t help asking him, somewhat tartly.

 

To my surprise, I can’t read his expression. “I always have.”

 

“Then what the hell –” I break off. I really don’t want to discuss their relationship again.

 

It’s too late, though. He leans back in his corner of the couch, legs stretched out, his gaze on my face. For the first time since we met, his voice loses that cocky tone.

 

“I told you before that I agreed to stay on board if she’d consent to warm my bed. But that’s not the whole truth.” He tugs at his earlobe, not meeting my eyes. “I guess you know about my background - why I left Starfleet to join the Maquis?”

 

He glances up long enough to see my nod.

 

“I’d lost all respect for the Federation and Starfleet. But when she offered to work with me to get our people back - when she destroyed the Caretaker’s array – I knew then that she was someone I could respect. Someone I would follow, wherever she led. I trusted her from the first day we met, so when it became clear that she didn’t trust me that same way, it cut me pretty deep.”

 

He looks down at his hands.

 

“It took me a while to understand why I made that deal with her – that I’d stay on in exchange for being with her. Longer than it should have, probably. About six months after Jonas was killed, Kathryn took Paris and Tuvok on an away mission to a planet called Akritiri. They were accused of mounting a terrorist attack and sent to prison. It was two weeks before we found them and mounted a rescue. Kathryn had been beaten so badly she was in sickbay for a week afterward. And I realised then why I hadn’t slept almost the whole time she was gone, why I spent every moment I wasn’t on duty by her bedside.”

 

He smiles, and his whole face lights up. I suck in a breath, unable to take my eyes off him.

 

“You know why, don’t you?” he says as his eyes search mine. “Don’t pretend it isn’t the same in your universe.”

 

I shake my head slightly, but it’s not a denial, and he knows it.

 

“I guess I live in hope,” he says softly.

 

I wonder if his hopes will ever be realised. It seems to me that they might fade long before she ever grants them. They’ve started this all wrong, just like the Janeway and Chakotay in the previous universe I visited. They should have built their friendship first.

 

God, I need to be alone right now.

 

“Well, it’s late.” I place my mug decisively on the low table and stand, swaying slightly, as he stands to face me. “I think I’ll go to bed.”

 

He grins, raising an eyebrow. “Want me to tuck you in?”

 

I can’t stifle the laugh that bubbles out. The sheer audacity of him … “Thank you, but I can manage.”

 

Something makes me step close and place my hand on his chest. He looks down at me, his lips curled at the corners, and his hand comes up to clasp mine.

 

“Good night, Chakotay,” I murmur.

 

“Good night, Kathryn.”

 

I fall asleep smiling.

 

=/\=

It feels as though I’ve barely closed my eyes when the alarm wakes me at 0600. I calculate that I’ve had about three hours’ sleep in the past forty-eight, and the mirror tells me I look like it. I borrow some makeup from this Captain Janeway’s supply and help myself to a double-strength espresso or two from her replicator.

 

Lieutenant Carey and Ensign Kim are waiting for me in the transporter room at 0700. “Captain, during your last transport you said you heard someone mention a tachyon surge,” Harry says immediately. “We think that surge was the reason the transport attempt terminated in the wrong universe. It probably interfered with the annular confinement beam.”

 

“If we tune the deflector pulse to an inverse tachyon field as well as running the transporter energising coils above maximum, we think we can stabilise the matter stream enough to compensate for any tachyon flux during transport,” Joe continues. “We’ve conducted three successful tests using biospecimen containers.”

 

“Good work, gentlemen. After I’ve met with the Xen’tu, will you be ready to try the real thing?”

 

“We’ll be ready when you are, ma’am.” Carey smiles at me.

 

“Then I’ll be back as soon as I –”

 

The deck bucks beneath my feet. Red lights pulse along the bulkheads, klaxons blare, and Chakotay’s voice comes over the comm.

 

~Red alert. Captain to the bridge.~

 

Voyager dips and shakes, and I’m halfway out into the corridor before he’s finished speaking, Harry on my heels. “The Xen’tu?” I ask him as we enter the turbolift.

 

“Could be, Captain.” Harry’s mouth is set. “Our first meeting didn’t start out too well. I thought you’d established good relations with them, though. I mean, our captain did. Her progress reports indicated it was going well.”

 

The ‘lift deposits us on the bridge and I stride down to the command level, staggering as the ship takes another hit. “Report.”

 

Chakotay looks up from the console between our chairs. “Another Xen’tu ship just dropped out of warp and started firing on us. I’ve tried hailing them and the ship we’ve been liaising with, but Captain Kli’xek insists he’ll only speak with you.”

 

“Status?”

 

“Shields at thirty-eight percent. Weapons are powered and at the ready, but they outgun us, Captain.”

 

“Hail them.” I draw myself up. “This is Captain Kathryn Janeway to the Xen’tu ships. Cease your attack or we’ll be forced to defend ourselves.”

 

The viewscreen changes and I’m looking at an imposing, yellow-skinned humanoid. Whorls of skin pattern his temples and jaw, and his head is topped with a tufted grey-and-white mohawk.

 

“Kli’xek,” Chakotay murmurs to me softly.

 

“Captain,” I address him. “Why has your ship fired on us?”

 

~I will explain,~ Kli’xek answers quickly. ~But I’m not prepared to do so over an open communications line.~

 

“Very well. I’ll contact you on a secure line from my ready room. Janeway out.”

 

As the screen returns to a view of the two enormous Xen’tu ships hanging in space, I jerk my head at Chakotay. “Join me, Commander?”

 

He stands at ease out of sight of my console as I activate a comm link to Kli’xek’s ship.

 

~Captain,~ Kli’xek greets me. ~I apologise for this unwarranted attack.~

 

“Would you mind telling me why your ship fired on us?”

 

~The ship that fired on you is not an official representative of our people. Unfortunately, in the wake of our war with the Qailar, several factions have rebelled against the government on our homeworld. One faction has gained significant support in the past few years and has declared independence. Its ships roam the sector, attacking both our own vessels and those who attempt to trade with us.~

 

“And you didn’t think to mention this before?”

 

~I apologise, Captain. I did not expect any trouble.~

 

“Captain Kli’xek, we follow a prime directive that does not allow us to interfere in the internal politics of alien species. You’ve put me in an extremely difficult position.”

 

The alien begins to shift uncomfortably. ~I regret that, Captain. But we need your paricium. I would be willing to double our contribution of the minerals you require if you’ll consent to trade with us.~

 

“What about that other ship? Won’t they resume attacking us if I agree?”

 

~My ship is a match for theirs, Captain, and they know it. I’ve warned them to stand down. I would prefer to avoid a conflict, but if necessary I will protect your vessel from them.~

 

I can’t help sighing, rubbing my temples against the headache that’s making its reappearance. “Allow me a few minutes to confer with my first officer, Captain. I’ll contact you shortly. Janeway out.”

 

As soon as the screen goes blank I look up at Chakotay. “Well, here we are. What do you think, Commander?”

 

“We could go a long way with the verterium cortenide we’d get out of those minerals,” he answers. “And Kli’xek’s ship might be able to take them on, but Voyager would take some heavy damage in a fight.”

 

“But can we trade with him?”

 

“You’re worried about the Prime Directive, and you’re right to be. But you know we’ve had to bend the rules on occasion out here.”

 

“That doesn’t make it right.”

 

He drops into the seat opposite. “Then how about a compromise? Contact the other ship. Maybe we can come to an arrangement that suits everyone. Surely they need paricium as well, and they might have something else to trade for it. Food supplies, dilithium.” Chakotay smiles a little, dimples appearing briefly. “We might even be able to help broker a peace between these factions, even if it’s temporary.”

 

“And we’d be breaking the Prime Directive by doing so, even if our intentions are good. You know what they say about the road to hell, Commander.” I can’t help smiling back at him, though.

 

“It’s not as though the Federation stays out of alien politics in the Alpha quadrant,” he points out. “Acting as the peacemaker between two factions or races in conflict isn’t unheard of on a diplomatic mission. And besides, as you’ve said yourself frequently, we’re all alone out here. The more friends we can make, the better.”

 

“And if we upset the balance of power in this sector?”

 

He meets my gaze evenly. “It’s already upset. From the sound of it, the Xen’tu are heading for a civil war. If peace is the desired state, don’t we have an obligation to help them reach it?”

 

The corner of my mouth quirks up. “You can be extremely persuasive when you want to be, Chakotay.”

 

The look in his dark eyes is undeniably smoky as he gazes back at me. “Yes, I can, Kathryn.”

 

I sit up, trying not to blush. “Well, thank you for your input, Commander. I need to get back to Kli’xek now. If you’ll excuse me?”

 

Smiling a little, he gets to his feet and ambles out of the ready room. I have to take a calming breath before I reactivate the comm link.

 

~What is your decision, Captain?~

 

“I’d like to invite you and a representative from the other ship to join me on Voyager,” I answer. “I’m hoping we can come to an arrangement that suits all parties.”

 

~I would be prepared to accommodate your request, Captain, but I doubt the other captain will agree.~

 

“Who’s in charge on the other ship?”

 

~The captain of the vessel is called Mhink. Allow me to contact him to present your proposal.~

 

“It might help if you patch me through to him.”

 

~Very well. Activating multi-way channel.~

 

The screen splits, displaying another yellow-skinned, mohawked Xen’tu. This one looks decidedly less friendly than Kli’xek.

 

“Captain Mhink,” I greet him. “I’m Captain Kathryn Janeway of Voyager. I’d like to assure you that we have no hostile intentions toward you. We’re strangers to this part of space and were unaware of your political situation.”

 

~What do you want from us?~

 

“A face to face meeting would be a good place to start. Perhaps we can find something in common if we talk.”

 

~Doubtful,~ Mhink retorts. ~Our experience with alien races has been unpleasant.~

 

“I’m hoping we can prove the exception. I’d also be amenable to discussing trade options with you, as well as with your fellow captain. Would you transport to my ship?”

 

~No,~ he says decisively. ~But you may transport to mine.~

 

I’ve been hoping he wouldn’t suggest that. “Unfortunately, Captain, I’m unable to use our transporter at present. I’ll send my first officer in my place.”

 

~Unacceptable,~ he snaps back. ~I will only deal with the highest-ranked officer on your ship.~

 

“Then I’ll take a shuttle –”

 

~Be here in twenty dhi’mars,~ he interrupts. The universal translator hesitates, then interprets that as five minutes. There’s no way a shuttle will get me over there in time. Mhink continues, ~If you delay, I will open fire.~

 

“You aren’t leaving me much of a choice,” I clip out. “And Captain Kli’xek? May he join us?”

 

Mhink’s eyes cut sideways to where I assume Kli’xek’s image appears on his viewscreen, and he gives a short nod.

 

“Then I’ll see you soon.”

 

I cut the channel and head for the bridge, tilting my head to indicate Chakotay should follow me. I fill him in en route to the transporter room.

 

“You can’t use the transporter,” he says immediately. “From what you’ve told me, you have just as much chance of shifting to another universe as ending up on that Xen’tu ship.”

 

“I don’t seem to have much choice. If I don’t go, we risk putting Voyager in the middle of a civil conflict.” I dismiss the ensign at the controls and step up onto the transporter pad. “Set coordinates, Commander.”

 

“Kathryn,” he says urgently. “You can’t do this. Let me go in your place.”

 

“Mhink won’t deal with anyone but me.”

 

“There’s no need for you to put yourself in this kind of danger.” He steps up to take my hands, his eyes pleading. “We’ll find another way.”

 

“The clock’s ticking, Chakotay,” I tell him softly. “And this is my decision to make.”

 

Slowly the urgency dies out of his eyes. “It always is,” he answers, his voice low, and lets go of my hands, returning to the console. “Coordinates set, Captain.”

 

“Energise.”

 

“Good luck,” he says quietly.

 

The transporter locks onto me and I hold my breath as I watch Chakotay’s face through the familiar blue swirl of dematerialisation. Then there’s agony so harsh, so horrifying, that it steals my senses, and I sink gratefully into unconsciousness.

© 2021 by Mia Cooper