Relieved

Summary: A chance to get home compromises the crew's ethics. In the wake of events, Captain Chakotay re-examines a few of his own ethical choices.

 

Characters: Chakotay, Janeway, Paris, Tuvok, Kim, Torres, VOY crew, O. Paris, Sisko, Nechayev, Sloan, Original Characters

Codes: Janeway/Chakotay, Janeway/Paris, Kim/Torres

 

Disclaimer: Paramount offered me a box of assorted chocolates. I picked out the ones I like and left the rest. As always, Paramount is welcome to keep the calories.

 

Notes: Book 2 of the Parallels series. Related episode: Prime Factors. Some crossover with ST:DS9 and ST:TNG characters and situations.

Rated T

Part One

 

August, 2371

- today -


For seven days, Chakotay had held his breath as the delicate truce continued. On the eighth day, they made contact with the Sikarians.

 

It was a dream come true. Shore leave on a beautiful planet, all the exotic fruits and wines they could consume, myriad pleasures at their fingertips; and all the Sikarians wanted in return was the company of Voyager's crew. At least, for as long as Voyager's crew was suitably entertaining.

 

The crew lost its entertainment value at the same time, and for the same reason, as the truce between the captain and first officer collapsed. The unctuous Sikarian First Minister, Gathorel Labin, had ordered Voyager to leave orbit immediately, and Chakotay's wayward crew had scurried away from Sikaris like misbehaving children avoiding a parent's punishment.

 

Chakotay's teeth ground involuntarily. His crew's "misbehaviour" had broken the laws of an alien culture, restricted two of his senior officers to quarters and almost destroyed the ship. The dark cloud of the past days' events did have a silver lining, but shore leave had still turned sour in retrospect.

 

 

August, 2371

~ three days ago ~

"Deck one." Chakotay turned to the turbolift's other occupant. "Good morning, Commander."

Janeway glanced up from her PADD, favouring him with a small smile. "Captain."

"Did you enjoy the dinner last night?"

"It was ... an experience." Abandoning the PADD, she leaned against the turbolift wall and watched him with straight face and dancing eyes. "You certainly seemed to be enjoying all the attention."

Chakotay looked away and ran a finger inside his collar. "Uh, attention?"

"Oh, come on, Captain. You can't tell me you didn't love having the Sikarians eating from the palm of your hand. The storytelling captain of the starship Voyager." The lift swished to a halt and she stepped out onto the bridge. "Besides," she continued over her shoulder, dropping her voice so that only he could hear, "who would've thought all those ancient legends of your people could be turned to such diplomatic advantage?"

Chakotay smothered a laugh as he followed her onto the bridge. "Well, it's your turn to play the diplomat tonight, Commander. I've got a hot date with Boothby on Holodeck Two and I don't intend to stand him up, so you'll be the senior representative at tonight's ceremonial meal."

Tom Paris, overhearing, looked up from the helm and groaned. "You mean we have to sit through another of those interminable bullshitting sessions?"

"The proper term is 'storytelling', Mr Paris, and no," Chakotay raised an eyebrow at him, "you don't have to go. The waste extraction conduits could use a spring-clean."

"I love a good story," Paris said hastily, turning back to the helm.

Chakotay grinned as he headed for his ready room. "You have the bridge, Commander."

 

=/\=


Kathryn Janeway was bored.

Gathorel Labin had apparently been building to the climax of his tale for near on forty minutes now. The story hadn't been particularly interesting to begin with - something about a lengthy feud between two cousins, precipitated by a dispute over the ownership of a family legend. The intricacies of the Sikarian legal system and its application to the distribution rights of stories, of all things, were, frankly, beyond her; besides, her ingrained belief in the freedom of speech ensured she'd probably never understand it. And her irritation was exacerbated by Gathorel's habit of punctuating his speech by stroking her knee. One more oily little fingerprint, and she'd ...

"Commander!"

Gathorel's fingertips slid off her knee as Janeway turned in relief. "What is it, Ensign?"

Harry Kim was almost trembling with excitement. In contrast, the Sikarian girl with him hung back, her brow creased in distress. Kim dragged the girl forward. "Commander, the Sikarians have a technology which enables them to transport immense distances in the blink of an eye. I was just on a planet forty thousand light years away." He paused to watch Janeway's eyes widen as it sank in. She turned to Gathorel.

Before she could speak, the Sikarian girl cut in. "I'm sorry, First Minister. I told him ..."

"It's all right, Eudana." Gathorel waggled his fingers at her and she lowered her gaze. Completely ignoring Kim, the First Minister smiled at Janeway again. "Now, Commander, where were we? Ah yes, I was telling you what Norimo did when -"

"First Minister." Janeway laid a hand on his arm. "I'm sorry, but could we continue this story later? I'm very eager to hear about this transporter technology of yours."

"Of course." His smile didn't reach anywhere near his eyes. "We call it a spatial trajector. Your crewman was correct; it does allow us to transport vast distances. Its maximum range is fifty thousand light years."

"How does it work?"

"It works on a folding space principle. However, I'm afraid I'm not a scientist. I couldn't fully explain it to you."

"But I am a scientist," she replied. "Would it be possible to examine this technology? I'd like to have Ensign Kim and our chief engineer take a look at it as well."

Again, Gathorel smiled emptily. "I'm very sorry, Commander, but I couldn't allow you to examine it. Our laws prohibit us from sharing technology with other species. You have no idea of the dangers some technology could present in the wrong hands. We couldn't take the chance. You understand, of course."

"But we'd only be using it to get home."

Gathorel shook his head. "I'm afraid our laws are quite clear."

Slowly, the light died from Janeway's eyes as she sat back, pulling her hand from Gathorel's arm. "I see," she said quietly.

"But sir -" Ensign Kim tried to speak but she cut him off with a sharp glare. "Ensign, transport back to the ship. Now, please."

He nodded and tapped his commbadge. "Kim to Voyager. One to beam up."

Janeway looked at Gathorel. "I think it would be best if I returned to Voyager as well."

"Already?" He was pouting; to Janeway he looked more reptilian than ever.

"I'm afraid so. It's very late, and I'm on early shift tomorrow." She stood. "Janeway to Voyager. Energise."

 

=/\=


"Why the long face, Harry?"

Kim poked apathetically at his breakfast as Torres settled into the chair opposite. "The Sikarians."

She groaned. "Don't tell me we have to spend another night listening to their damn stories."

"It's not that." He sighed. "I spent last night with Eudana - you know, the pretty brunette?"

"Eudana?" Torres' fork stilled. "You spent the night with her? Fast work, Harry."

Her voice was tight; he looked up in surprise. Torres' mouth was compressed, her dark eyes shuttered. If he hadn't known her better, he'd have sworn she was ... jealous? His mood lifted a little; he was about to assure her that she'd jumped to the wrong conclusion, but some sixth sense warned him to play it cool. He leaned back in his chair, watching her expression. "I was telling her about the Caretaker," he said carefully, "and she wanted to hear the story in a ... private setting."

Torres stabbed at her plate.

"So," he continued, gratified, "we stepped onto a transporter pad and suddenly we were in this lush forest. It was dark, and the sun was just starting to rise, and -" He stopped. Telling B'Elanna about the stimulating erosene winds might be taking it a little too far. She didn't need to know how his skin had tingled, how he'd felt the rush of blood in his veins, how he'd reached for Eudana, wanting to touch her, wanting ...

Torres was watching him.

"Uh, anyway," he went on hastily, "it was sunrise. And it had been evening in the market square, so I asked where we were, and she said this place was called Alastria." He leaned forward. "B'Elanna, we were on another planet. A planet forty thousand light years away."

Torres' fork dropped to the table with a clatter.

"So I jumped straight back on the transporter pad and insisted Eudana take me to see the First Minister. But he refused to let us use the technology. Even Commander Janeway couldn't change his mind." Harry slumped back in his seat again. "Damn it all to hell."

"Janeway knows about this?" Torres said thoughtfully. "So what's her plan?"

Kim looked blank.

"Come on, Harry, you don't think she'll just leave it at that, do you? A polite 'no' from that Sikarian weasel and she just lets it go? Not a chance."

"But the Sikarians have a Prime Directive just like ours," Kim said. "We can't disrespect their laws."

B'Elanna snorted. "The vaunted Prime Directive. Never stopped her before."

"That was when she was a Maquis," Kim pointed out. "It's different now. She's Starfleet again."

Torres looked at him darkly. "She wears the uniform, Harry. But underneath it, she'll always be Maquis. You'll see."

 

=/\=


"And it was a definite, unequivocal no?"

Janeway nodded, watching with a twinge of sympathy as the captain pinched the bridge of his nose again. She and Harry Kim had just related their discovery of the night before to the senior staff, and all around the table she saw slumped shoulders and eyes downcast in defeat.

Chakotay rested the palms of his hands against the table. First that time-shifted wormhole, and now this. Slap bang up against a law like the Federation's own. For the first time, he really understood how the other side felt.

"I guess that's that, then," Kim said dejectedly, and Tom Paris sighed in agreement.

"Wait a minute," Janeway retorted. "Gathorel said no to our first request, but we weren't offering him anything in exchange. There must be something we have that he'd be willing to trade for."

Chakotay raised an eyebrow. "Got anything in mind, Commander?"

She bit her lip, thinking. "I don't know. Dilithium? Some kind of technology trade?"

Torres was shaking her head. "I scanned the planet when we arrived. There's a rich source of dilithium on the western continent, and all indications are that their technology is superior to ours. And they have holographic systems and bio-neural circuitry installed in their ships and some of the buildings. Off-hand, I can't think of anything we have that they might want."

Silence.

Kim sat bolt upright. "Stories," he blurted.

"Ensign?"

He turned to face the captain, eyes alive with new excitement. "You know how they've been so interested in hearing about our travels, our history, our experiences? It's not just idle curiosity. Eudana told me last night that their stock trade is stories, tales, legends ... whatever you want to call them. They even have laws governing the rights to, and dissemination of, stories." He paused. "What about if we offer them Voyager's historical and literary database in exchange for the use of the spatial trajector?"

"He's right," Janeway said slowly. "It could work."

Chakotay nodded. "I'll discuss it with the First Minister. Dismissed."

Janeway hung back as the others made their way out of the briefing room, the despondent mood of moments before replaced by eager chatter. She turned to Chakotay as the door slid closed. "Permission to make the offer to First Minister Gathorel, sir?"

Chakotay shook his head. "I'll do it, Commander. It should come from the captain of the ship."

"Perhaps," she answered, "but, with all due respect, I think it would come better from me."

He stopped collecting his PADDs and looked up. "Why?"

"Because he -" Damn, was she blushing? Janeway collected herself. "Gathorel seems to have taken a liking to me. He might be more easily persuaded if I -" She stopped.

"If you - what?"

He wasn't going to let her off the hook. Trying not to squirm, she replied, "If I charm him a little, Captain."

"I see." He picked up the last of his PADDs and turned to face her. His dark eyes were cool and his tone devoid of inflection. "I'm sure I don't need to remind you of Starfleet protocols and regulations when dealing with alien species, Commander. I trust you won't do anything ... untoward."

She barely restrained herself from glaring at him. "I'll be the model of Starfleet propriety. Sir."

He nodded. "Permission granted, then. Report back to me as soon as you have Gathorel's answer." He didn't even look at her as he strode from the briefing room.

Janeway's face burned.

 

=/\=


"Ener -"

"Wait!"

Ensign Martin's hand froze above the controls as Tom Paris flung himself through the doors and onto the tranporter pad. "I'm coming with you."

Janeway folded her arms. "Lieutenant, your presence is not required."

"I'm sure it isn't, Commander, but I'd feel better if you had backup." He stood at rigid attention, gaze fixed somewhere on the wall above Martin's head.

She couldn't help a twitch of amusement. "Mr Paris, I appreciate the gesture, but I don't need backup. I'm not walking into a firefight."

"Starfleet Regulation 9B, sub-section 8, paragraph C specifically states that all away teams must consist of two crewmembers. Minimum."

Ensign Martin appeared entranced, head moving back and forth as though at a tennis match.

"That same regulation also states that one of those crew members must be a security officer. Are you planning a new career path, Lieutenant? I'd be happy to discuss the matter with Lieutenant Tuvok when I return."

Paris finally turned to face her. "I like my job just fine, Commander. I don't like Gathorel."

Janeway's face darkened and she grabbed his arm above the elbow, hustling him into a corner. Voice low, she demanded, "What's your point, Lieutenant?"

"I don't trust him." He spoke forcefully, head lowered to hers. At the controls, Ensign Martin strained to listen, catching brief pieces of their conversation. "... don't think he's serious ... won't let us ... Harry said ..."

"... care what Ensign Kim said ... I can ..."

"... know you can be persuasive, but ... careful ... something about him I ..."

"Lieutenant, I don't need protection from ..."

"I know ... give you ... privacy while you're ... just let me ... nearby. Please."

Martin watched Janeway's hand fall as she stepped back, searching the lieutenant's face. "All right," she sighed. "Just - stay out of my way." She moved back onto the pad. "Ensign Martin, two to transport. Energise."

Martin watched, goggle-eyed, as the pair faded in blue patterns of light.

Moments later, Janeway readjusted to their new surroundings. The marketplace was almost exactly as she'd left it last. Sikarian citizens cooed over fabrics, tasted delicacies and licked their fingers, sprawled langorously on plush banquettes. What a bunch of hedonistic parasites. She brushed the thought away impatiently and addressed the nearest Sikarian, a plump woman in what looked like a sari spun from candy floss.

"I'm Commander Janeway from Voyager. May I see the First Minister?"

The woman dipped her head and led them to the open banquet hall they'd dined in the night before. Gathorel reclined at the head of the dish-laden table, eyes heavy-lidded with satisfaction, flanked by two simpering, barely-clad girls. "Commander Janeway," he declared as she entered the hall. "And - Ensign Paris, isn't it?"

"Lieutenant," corrected the man in question, no inflection in his tone.

"Of course. My apologies." Paris thought Gathorel could hardly sound less sincere if he'd tried. "This is an unexpected pleasure."

And you do so love your pleasures. Paris clamped down on his reaction as Janeway stepped forward.

"First Minister, I was hoping we could talk."

"Of course." Gathorel's hand slid along the thigh of one of the Sikarian girls. "My dears, could you excuse us?" He glanced over at Paris. "Perhaps you could entertain Lieutenant Paris while the commander and I" - he paused briefly - "talk."

Paris found himself urged gently to the far end of the sheltered hall, Sikarian arms about his waist. He lowered himself onto a fat velvet sofa. The two girls curled up either side of him. "I'm Nitara," the dark one told him, running a finger down the side of his face, and the redhead slid a hand along his arm, "and I'm Sarucha."

"Tom," he said absently, craning to get a view of Janeway and the First Minister. Gathorel seemed to be stroking her arm.

"Tom." They repeated his name in unison, caressing it vocally as they caressed him physically. Sarucha leaned in close, blocking his view, as Nitara plucked a piece of fruit from the low table beside the sofa. "Tom, you must try this angua. It's delightful."

"No thanks."

"Perhaps you'd prefer something savoury?"

"No, really, I'm fine."

"Then what can we do for you?"

For the first time he really looked at them: flushed, pretty faces, smooth brown skin, pale fluttering garments. "Uh... what exactly do you mean?"

"It would give us pleasure," Sarucha responded, "to give you pleasure."

"Oh." He recovered quickly. "Thanks, but I'm just here with Commander Janeway."

"But she's with Gathorel," Nitara purred.

"Yeah, but it's not what you think -" He couldn't see Janeway; he ducked out of Sarucha's reach. She twined back around him like a creeping vine. "Ladies, please," he joked.

At the other end of the hall Janeway was gritting her teeth as Gathorel clasped her hands in his. "Now, tell me. What brings you here to see me?"

"I'd like to make a suggestion," she extricated herself as politely as she could, "which would be of great benefit to both of us."

Gathorel stroked her arm. "Indeed?"

"Yes." She steeled herself. "It could bring you many, many hours of pleasure."

"Mmm." Now he was stroking her face. "I like the sound of it already, Kathryn - may I call you Kathryn?"

No, you may not. "First Minister -"

"Gathorel," he corrected.

"Right. It's about your spatial trajector."

For the first time in their acquaintance Gathorel stopped touching her of his own accord, sat back, and waited. His eyes were hard. In an instant, Janeway revised her assessment of him. He wasn't just some pleasure-seeking marshmallow. Tom Paris was right - this was a man with an agenda.

Perhaps she could disarm him with a taste of his own medicine. Swallowing her distaste, she placed her hand upon his knee and favoured him with a seductive smile. "I've noticed," she purred, "how you've enjoyed the stories of our travels through this quadrant, and how we came to be here in the first place. What I'm offering," and now she captured his hands in hers, leaning in toward him, "is a hundred thousand more. I'm offering the literary works of the finest storytellers the Federation has to offer, all from our ship's library. Thousands of stories of honour and adventure and romance and heroism, all for you and your people's pleasure. And all we ask in return is your help in shortening our journey home."

"You want to use the trajector in return for giving us these stories."

"That's right." Janeway kept the smile on her lips as she linked her fingers into his. A little closer, give him something to think about. She brushed her knee against his leg. "What do you think, Gathorel?"

"An intriguing offer," he replied, smiling back at her, curling his fingers around her wrist. "I'd like to discuss it further. Perhaps we should retire to my chambers."

Not on your life. "I'm sorry, I'm expected back on Voyager."

He leaned back fractionally.

The trajector. Focus on the trajector. She made herself edge even closer; she could feel his breath on her cheek. "But I'll see you at dinner tonight, I hope."

"It would be a pleasure."

"And in the meantime, perhaps you could consider my offer."

Again his hand reached up, and again she felt his palm against her face. "I will have to discuss it with the body of ministers. Nobody has ever made a request like this before."

"Do you think they'll agree?" Stupid, Kathryn, stupid! She held her breath.

Gathorel's smile didn't reach his eyes. "Perhaps."

His palm was moist against her cheek, but she made herself turn slightly into it. "I hope they do. We - I - would be very grateful."

God, she felt unclean.

Across the room, Tom Paris batted the brunette's hand away. "Sarucha, I think you've got the wrong idea -"

"I'm Nitara," she pouted, displeasure crossing her blandly pretty face.

"Sorry." He pulled away and caught a glimpse of the other end of the table. Janeway was practically sitting in Gathorel's lap, his hand cupping her cheek. He couldn't see for certain, but it looked like she was stroking his thigh. Paris leapt to his feet, dislodging Nitara from her perch on his knee and knocking Sarucha sideways. They mewed in protest. "Sorry," he said again. "Got to go."

He stomped toward the other pair, clearing his throat loudly to warn them. He expected Janeway to jump away from the Sikarian, but she simply turned annoyed blue eyes toward him. "Commander," he said coolly, "it's almost 1300 hours."

As though reluctant, she pulled slowly away from the First Minister. "I'm afraid we have to return to the ship." She stood and smiled down at him. "See you tonight, Gathorel." Her voice grew even huskier than usual as she spoke his name.

Paris turned and stalked toward the market square, not checking she was following. She caught up to him as they approached the transport coordinates. "Thanks," she said brusquely.

He turned a cold gaze toward her. "For what?"

She shrugged. "For providing backup."

"Didn't seem like you needed it after all."

"Hey." She snatched at his arm. "That wasn't what you think -"

Paris stopped. "Really, Commander? What do I think?"

The sun was in her eyes; she had to squint to see his face. "You think that I - that we -" She trailed off. Not like you to be tongue-tied, Kathryn, she chided herself.

His voice was still neutral. "It's not my place to think anything, Commander." You've made that abundantly clear.

Janeway was starting to get angry. "Lieutenant, there are times when you have to put up with certain ... things ... to achieve an important goal. Remember that, and - and refrain from passing judgment on my methods."

"Of course, Commander." He moved, blocking the sun, and she could see his face now; it was expressionless, the perfect Starfleet mask. "Shall I call for transport?"

She hissed, turning away, and tapped her own commbadge. "Janeway to Voyager. Beam us the hell out of here."

 

=/\=


"So he didn't agree to the trade."

"Not exactly." She felt like a child being called on the carpet. Chakotay hadn't even suggested she sit down; she stood before his desk, shoulders straight, hands clasped behind her back. "He said he'd discuss it with the other ministers, but I suspect the final answer will be no."

He couldn't resist. "It seems you may have overestimated your charms, Commander - or at least their effect on the good First Minister."

Janeway opened her mouth to snap at him and collected herself just in time. "It seems so," she said coldly.

"Was there any indication that he expected the offer to come from your superior officer?"

Screw you, Chakotay, she thought furiously. "Somehow I don't think you're his type, sir."

He looked at her sharply. "Perhaps you over-used your charms as well as overestimating them."

Her fists clenched. "Exactly what are you implying?"

Chakotay stood to face her. Those dark eyes weren't opaque anymore; they burned. "I'm not implying anything, Commander. But I would like to hear -" He stopped, suddenly, and with obvious effort; she saw the muscles in his jaw working. When he looked back at her he was calmer. "I apologise, Commander. That was out of line."

She nodded shortly, cheeks flaming. "Am I dismissed?"

"Of course." He watched her turn on her heel and stalk back to the bridge.

Chakotay sank back into his chair, exhaling. This was a delicate truce, indeed. And if he didn't get a handle on this ridiculous jealousy and start behaving as a starship captain should, he'd have nobody to blame but himself for wrecking his relationship with his first officer.

He sighed. It wasn't just his unfounded and intrusive suspicions regarding that slimy Sikarian, or even his suspicions - not so unfounded, perhaps - about Lieutenant Paris. Another way home lost, the crew's spirit dashed. His own hopes squashed.

He pulled the desktop monitor toward him and sent his senior staff yet another meeting request.

 

=/\=


Ensign Kim materialised in the deserted market square at siesta hour.

"Harry!"

He turned in the direction of the whisper; Eudana was half-concealed behind a pillar, beckoning to him. Looking around, he made his way over to her. "Why all the cloak and dagger?"

"The what?"

"Never mind," he grinned. "Why did you call me here?"

"Come on." She took his hand. "I want you to meet a friend of mine."

The man hovering nervously in a secluded corner of the market square was short and rabbity. "This is Jaret Otel," whispered Eudana. "He's the assistant to the First Minister."

Kim nodded a greeting, sending Eudana a questioning glance. Otel leaned closer. "Ensign Kim, thank you for coming. I have a proposition for you." He placed an object in Kim's hand. "This is the matrix of our spatial trajector."

Kim stared. "Are you giving this to me?"

"Not exactly." Jaret Otel spoke quickly. "I'm offering it to you in exchange for your ship's library."

"Does the First Minister approve of this?"

"He doesn't know," Eudana broke in. "If you make the exchange, you make it with Jaret."

"If this isn't official, I can't accept -"

"Gathorel never had any intention of giving you the technology," Otel interrupted. "He hasn't said no because it might create an unpleasant situation. Believe me, your only chance of keeping this matrix is if you'll make the trade with me."

Kim weighed the piece of equipment thoughtfully. "I'm guessing you'd stand to benefit from this arrangement?"

Otel dipped his head quickly. "Your library contains many stories. New stories, ones we haven't heard before. I want to be the one to bring them to our people."

"I see." Kim handed back the matrix. "I can't make this decision on behalf of my shipmates. I'll have to discuss it with my captain."

Jaret Otel nodded. "I understand. I hope he'll see that this trade will benefit both of us."

 

=/\=


"You mean this Jaret Otel person is willing to give us the spatial trajector behind the First Minister's back?"

"Shh," Kim hissed, making dampening motions with downturned palms. He glanced around the mess hall. Kyoto and Larson huddled in a far corner, heads together, she offering him bites from her plate. Portia Lang was engrossed in a story Megan Delaney was telling. O'Donnell and Tabor were sulking their way through mess hall duty. Nobody was interested in the trio at Kim's table.

"Okay, okay. Let me think." Torres chewed her lip, sinking back into her chair with a frown. Beside her, Paris' face was expressionless as he forked patterns in his quampi casserole.

"Have you told anyone else?" Torres asked finally.

Kim shook his head. "I'll have to take it to the captain."

"What if he says no? It wouldn't fit with Starfleet principles to make the exchange without the sanction of the official government." There was no denying the resentment in her voice.

"Maybe not," Kim said deliberately, "but it's not our decision to make, B'Elanna. I have to tell him."

"Starfleet principles." She growled. "If this was a Maquis ship ..."

"But it's not," he said pointedly.

"You don't need to remind me of that." She shot him a glare. "Do one thing for me, Harry. Make sure Janeway's there when you tell the captain, all right? This may be a Starfleet ship, but it might take a few Maquis suggestions to get us home. And if he's going to listen to any of the Maquis, he'll listen to her."

Kim sighed. "What do you think, Tom?"

Paris looked up, poker-faced. He shrugged. "Should I have an opinion?"

"Well, yeah," snorted Torres. "This could mean we get home tomorrow."

"Great."

"Such enthusiasm," said Torres sarcastically. "Anyone would think you wanted to be stuck in the Delta quadrant forever."

Paris placed his knife and fork either side of his barely-touched meal. "Seems like as good a place as any other."

"From a criminal's perspective, maybe," retorted Torres. "Come to think of it, you must be loving it on Voyager. You get to fly a state-of-the-art starship, your father's nowhere to be seen, and thanks to Janeway, you don't even get beat up anymore."

Tom Paris stood and stalked away without a word.

"B'Elanna, that was cruel," Kim said quietly.

"What?" she said defensively, ashamed of her words the moment they'd left her mouth, and masking it with aggression. "If he can't handle the truth ..."

"Excuse me." Kim gave her a look of displeasure as he pushed his chair away from the table. "I have to go talk to the captain."

 

=/\=


"We have an opportunity here," Janeway stated as soon as the ready room door had closed behind Harry Kim. "And you're going to turn it down. Aren't you?"

Chakotay looked tired, she noticed as he went to the replicator. "One Vulcan spice tea, one black coffee." He handed her the coffee cup. "Sit down, Kate."

Unwillingly, she sat opposite him on the sofa. He was gazing out the viewport at Sikaris. She waited while he sipped his tea.

"What this Jaret Otel is suggesting goes against the principles of Starfleet," he said finally, "as well as my personal ethics. I can't accept this offer."

"In other words, you're going to let your personal ethics dictate how long this crew spends meandering through the Delta quadrant."

He looked at her sharply. "Just like I let my personal ethics sentence this crew to a lifetime away from home in the first place? Is that what you were going to say?"

"No." She breathed deeply. "I agreed with your decision to destroy the Caretaker's array. But what's at stake here, Chakotay? There's no helpless alien race like the Ocampa to save this time. Who would be hurt by our accepting this offer?"

"We would be hurt by it, Kate. I said at the beginning of this journey that we'd follow Starfleet principles on this ship. I knew it wasn't going to be easy - hell, you know that better than anyone. And it's just now starting to fall into place. We haven't compromised that ideal in the past eight months. What kind of an example would I be setting if I agreed to this? What kind of a captain would I be?"

"You'd be a captain who gets his crew home," she said forcefully. "Isn't that worth a few sleepless nights worrying about ethics? Haven't you ever made an ethically questionable decision for the good of your crew, or the good of the Federation, and had to live with the consequences? Isn't it worth it?"

He looked like she'd stunned him with a phaser. "Actually, I have," he said slowly, thoughtfully. "And I'm still not sure if it was worth it."

Curiosity spiked, she wanted to ask him what he meant. But the issue at hand was more important. "Whether you think it was worth it or not," she insisted, "this crew would be happy to live with the consequences if it gets us back to the Alpha quadrant."

"Maybe," he answered. "But I can't go against the principles I've spent a lifetime defending for the convenience of this crew. And this is my decision to make."

"So you're going to turn it down." It wasn't a question.

"I have to turn it down," he said quietly. "You know that as well as I do."

She looked at him carefully. "Yes, I suppose I do." She stood, placing her cup on the coffee table. "Good night, Captain."


August, 2371
~ today ~

Haven't you ever made an ethically questionable decision for the good of your crew, or the good of the Federation, and had to live with the consequences?


Chakotay pressed the heels of his hands into his eye sockets and groaned. Janeway had hit the bull's-eye with that question; for a split second he'd even panicked that she knew exactly what decision he'd made, exactly what consequences he was now living with. She couldn't know, of course. Nobody could, and that was a consequence in itself.

It was her question, he told himself, which had prevented him from even suspecting what she was planning. When she'd left his ready room two days ago, when he'd told her he wasn't going to accept Jaret Otel's offer of the spatial trajector, he should have known she wouldn't simply accept it. But she had asked him a question, one he'd been asking himself for a long time - and suddenly that question was the only thing on his mind.

She had told him this morning that she'd done it because she knew he couldn't. That she'd taken it upon herself because she'd compromised her ethics before and knew she could live with the consequences. That she suspected he couldn't. And that one day, perhaps, he'd understand.

He understood all too well.