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 Two

August, 2368

~ three years ago ~

Eight months in, and Starfleet's best engineers were busy with construction on the two prototypes. Commander Chakotay strolled to the viewing port and couldn't help grinning. The sleek white lines of the NX-74206, stark against the terraformed backdrop of Mars, never failed to lift his spirits. And with the problems the NX-74205 had been having, he was bound to win that bet.

"Not dreaming of collecting your winnings, are you?"

Chakotay turned, his grin widening. "Absolutely," he declared. "I can taste that bottle of 2251 Saurian brandy already. Unless you're thinking of welching, that is."

"Shut your mouth," Sisko returned affably, "unless you want me to shut it for you."

"Oh, a challenge?" Chakotay put up his fists in a boxer's stance. "Think you can take me?"

Sisko mirrored him and took a mock jab at the other man's chin. "Anytime, anywhere, chief, you just say the word ..."

Chakotay laughed and dropped his hands. "So tell me, is there a reason you're visiting the dark side, or are you just here to spy?"

Commander Sisko shook his head. "We're due for a briefing in ten minutes, or were you so busy filling your imaginary glass that you lost track of time?"

"I'm coming, I'm coming." Chakotay slapped his colleague on the back as they headed toward the briefing room. Their easy camaraderie had been somewhat unexpected, given that each of them was in charge of the development of a new ship designed specifically to counter the Borg threat - the same threat which had caused the death of Sisko's wife at the battle of Wolf 359, eighteen months ago now. The NX-74205 had actually begun construction a few months prior to the 206, but with the recent discovery that the weight of its multitude of weaponry was severely overtaxing the 205's structural integrity field, particularly at high warp, the expected completion date of both prototypes was now neck-and-neck. Pressure from the 'fleet's upper echelons was intense and could easily have led to frayed nerves and flaring tempers between the two project heads, but from the day Commander Chakotay had been brought in to head up the design and construction of the 206, he and Benjamin Sisko, his counterpart on the 205, had struck up a friendly rivalry.

"So which admiral is it this time?"

"Owen Paris," replied Sisko. "So don't go shooting your mouth off. He doesn't suffer fools gladly."

Chakotay smirked. "Ben, there's nothing you can tell me about Paris that I don't already know. He was my commanding officer on the Al-Batani. You're right though," he grinned, "he doesn't impress easily. You've got your work cut out for you."

They were still laughing as they strode into the briefing room and stopped dead, smiles fading. The room was silent. Every single seat around the oversized conference table was taken. Every single seat was occupied by an officer of captain's rank or above. And every single face was turned toward the two lowly commanders. Chakotay shifted his feet. Ben Sisko cleared his throat uncomfortably.

"Glad to see you two getting along so well," came an amused voice. Chakotay turned. Admiral Owen Paris stood at the head of the room; his aide (another captain, Chakotay noticed dismally) was shuffling through a huge stack of PADDs balanced on a chair. Another man - neat, mousy, non-descript - sat quietly in the shadow of the corner. With a flicker of curiosity, Chakotay noticed that this man was the only one in the room not wearing a Starfleet uniform.

He made himself speak. "Admiral - uh, Admirals, Captains, sorry we're late."

"You're not," retorted Paris, stepping forward with outstretched hand and gripping Chakotay's hand firmly. "Good to see you again, son. And you must be Commander Sisko."

"Nice to meet you, sir." Sisko shook the greying admiral's hand.

"I doubt it," Paris barked, and then laughed. "Relax, both of you. Go on, sit down."

Sisko and Chakotay located a couple of spare chairs and pulled them up to the table.

"So," Admiral Paris said. "Now that we're all here, ladies and gentlemen, let me give you a quick overview. The NX-74205 and NX-74206 are experimental ships with extreme defensive capabilities, built for one purpose - to neutralise the Borg threat, should we be unlucky enough to encounter them again." He glanced briefly at Sisko's bowed head. "I'm sure nobody here relishes that possibility, but if it does happen, we want to be ready."

Paris nodded to his aide, who brought up a schematic of the 205 on the huge screen at the head of the table. "Behold Starfleet's great white hope. This prototype is equipped with four Class I rapid-fire phaser pulse cannons, a Type X phaser bank with a total output of 70,000 terawatts, three pulse- fire torpedo tubes with an armament of sixty quantum and forty photon torpedoes, and our pride and joy: ablative hull armour." He gestured to the image on screen. "Unfortunately, the ship is a little undersized for the heavy-duty weaponry she's carrying, and there's too much strain on the structural integrity field. Preliminary simulations indicate that at high warp with weapons firing, she could literally tear herself apart." Suddenly he grinned. "But what's life without taking a few chances, eh?"

A Bolian admiral was shifting uncomfortably. "I assume steps are being taken to correct the problem?"

"Commander Sisko has the issue in hand. Meanwhile," Paris looked to his aide again, who flipped the screen image to the 206's schematic, "we also have this little gem on her way to the production line. She has similar armaments to the NX-74205, though we've reduced the total weaponry by almost half. She's also slightly smaller with a more streamlined design which increases maneuverability. And the use of regenerative shielding, rather than ablative hull armour, means she's not overweight for her size. We're still aiming for a production date of early next year for both ships. And, gentlemen," he turned to Sisko and Chakotay, "you'll both be pleased to know that Starfleet has designated class names for each of your ships. The NX-74205 will henceforth be known as the USS Defiant, and the NX-74206, the USS Liberty."

 

=/\=


"Commander Chakotay."

The voice was cool, cultured. Chakotay turned and found himself standing before the only person in the room who was apparently not a Starfleet officer.

The man was already speaking. "I'm very impressed with your progress on the NX-74206 - pardon me. The USS Liberty." He favoured Chakotay with a small smile. "Her design is quite excellent. I'm particularly interested in this regenerative shield grid. Do you have any statistics on its capacity to absorb Borg weapons fire?"

"Nothing concrete as yet. We've run a few simulations to determine how long it might take the Borg to adapt to the shield modulations, but there's still a lot of work to be done."

"I see. And the quantum torpedoes - are they performing to spec? I understand there have been some concerns about their stability."

"I'm afraid that's classified," Chakotay said politely. "I couldn't release that information without Admiral Paris' permission."

"Of course," the man replied smoothly. He indicated that Chakotay should follow him to the refreshments table. "Commander, were you at Wolf 359?"

"I was first officer on the USS Saber."

"Ah. She was a good ship. Then you must have been one of the few who survived her destruction."

"Eighty-four of us made it to the escape pods. The Borg destroyed all but three of the pods. There were sixteen survivors from a crew of one hundred and two." The stark facts could hardly do justice to the bleakness he still felt. Grief and survivor's guilt. He was hardly alone in that.

The man sighed. "The Borg are a terrible enemy. I sometimes wonder if we - the Federation - have what it takes to defend ourselves against them."

Chakotay said nothing. Where was this leading?

"Commander," the man said as he twirled his glass of Betazoid miralla wine, "I wonder if you're aware of reports that the Romulans are developing a new class of torpedo." The man's eyes slanted up at him.

Chakotay raised an eyebrow. "I wasn't aware of that. But then I don't have top level security clearance."

"No, of course not," the man said smoothly. "Still, it would be of interest to you, wouldn't it? If the Romulans are working on a weapon to counteract your new quantum torpedoes ..."

"Pardon me, sir, but it was my understanding that we designed the Defiant and the Liberty to deal with the Borg threat. Not the Romulans."

"Of course," came the reply. "Nevertheless, the Romulans still present a significant threat to the Federation; wouldn't you agree?"

Chakotay inclined his head.

"And wouldn't you agree that it is imperative that the Federation identify potential threats, such as the Romulans developing a devastating new weapon?"

Again Chakotay nodded, a little more warily this time.

"And would you also agree that it is the duty of a Federation citizen, if he becomes aware of the existence of such a potential threat, to do all that he can to protect the security of the Federation?"

Something warned Chakotay to choose his next words very carefully.

"It's my understanding," he said slowly, "that threats to Federation security are identified and dealt with by Starfleet Intelligence."

"Certainly," the neat man replied, "and a fine job they do of it too. Most of the time."

Again, Chakotay waited.

"Of course, Starfleet Intelligence does have its limits."

"Oh?"

The man tilted his glass so that the iridescent golden liquid caught the light. When he spoke again, his voice was mild enough that Chakotay almost missed the significance of his words.

"It is, after all, bound by certain codes of conduct, which, while based on the noblest of ideals, do - shall we say - tie one's hands on occasion."

Carefully, Chakotay set his glass on the table and met the man's eye. "Are you suggesting that there are occasions when the Starfleet codes of conduct should be ... circumvented?"

The man was smiling at him as though he'd passed some kind of test. "Very delicately put, Commander."

Chakotay studied him more closely. His hair was short and tidy and an indeterminate colour somewhere between brown and blond. His features were regular, his height average, his weight average, his clothing plain black - his only distinguishing feature, in fact, was his rather pale blue eyes. Chakotay found himself wondering if he would even recognise the man if he saw him again; he was so ... average ... that he looked like anybody else.

"I'm sorry, I don't mean to be blunt, but - who are you?"

"That's quite all right, Commander." The man held out his hand. "I'm here in a consultative capacity to advise Admiral Paris on tactical strategies. My name is Sloan."


October, 2369
~ twenty-two months ago ~


"Good morning, Captain."

Chakotay smiled briefly at Lieutenant Ajuta as she scurried to catch up to him, spots glowing with the effort. "Has the new squadron arrived yet?" he asked her.

"Just came in on the Carolina, sir. I hear they're a rowdy lot. A trio of ensigns cleaned out the Carolina's engineering staff in a poker game while drinking their entire stock of Risan synthehol." She grinned.

Chakotay could always count on his Trill assistant to ferret out the more salacious snippets of information about any incoming group of trainees. "Shame it was synthehol," he teased. "I'd have enjoyed putting them through their paces with a hangover."

Ajuta's smile was a little dimmer than usual. "Something wrong?" he asked her.

Her spots flushed darkly. "There was a communique from Admiral Nechayev for you, sir." She hesitated. "I couldn't help but catch the first few lines. I'm afraid one of your former students has defected to the Maquis."

"Don't tell me," Chakotay sighed. "Ro Laren." At Ajuta's nod, his mouth twisted grimly. "Well, I can't say I'm overly surprised."

"No, sir." Ajuta still didn't seem her usual boisterous self.

"Something else?"

"There's a gentleman waiting to see you in your office. He wouldn't give his name, but he said the two of you were old acquaintances."

"Understood." Chakotay motioned to Ajuta to precede him into the building. "I'll be in my office with my mystery guest."

It took him a moment to place the man in black who occupied Chakotay's chair with an air of supreme comfort and self-certainty. He stopped short. Some sixth sense warned him to play it cool. "Mr Sloan," he said neutrally. "To what do I owe the pleasure?"

"Captain Chakotay." The man stood and held out his hand as though he was this office's occupant and Chakotay the uninvited visitor. "Congratulations on your promotion."

"Thank you." Chakotay gestured to the visitor's chair, determined to regain control of the situation, not to mention his own office. "Please sit down."

Sloan acknowledged it with a slight dip of his head and took the chair Chakotay indicated. "How are you enjoying your current assignment?"

Chakotay's voice was as non-committal as Sloan's. "How did you find out my current assignment, Mr Sloan?"

"Please - just Sloan." The man waggled his fingers in a manner Chakotay thought was supposed to be self-deprecating. "I do so dislike titles - they box one in. To answer your question, my position gives me access to a certain level of information. Finding out your current assignment would not have been a difficult task. However, I've been following the progression of your career with some interest for some time now."

"Why?" To hell with subtlety.

Sloan smiled enigmatically. "The answer to that question is long and involved, Captain, and I'd prefer not to expound on it at present. Suffice it to say that I'm of the opinion that your skills are being wasted. Oh, you make a fine teacher of advanced tactical training. But your real talents lie in the areas of starship design and deployment."

"I see."

"And with that in mind, I've come to reinstate you as head of the USS Liberty design team."

"You?" Chakotay couldn't help smiling.

"I know what you're thinking. I'm merely a civilian consultant. I'm not even Starfleet. What gives me the power to reassign you?" Sloan reached into his pocket and pulled out a PADD, holding it out to Chakotay. "In this case, Captain, I'm just the messenger boy. I think you'll find it's all in order."

By order of Admiral Owen Paris, Captain Chakotay is hereby requested and required to take command of Project Individuality, Vessel Design and Construction, assignment SJ746-32U, USS Liberty, NX-74206, Utopia Planetia, Mars, effective immediately. Signed, Adm. Owen Paris, stardate 46484.2.

Chakotay re-read the PADD twice to be sure there was no mistake. "What about the Defiant?" he asked finally.

"Still mothballed. She won't be battle-worthy til one of your crackerjack Starfleet engineers can come up with a way to strengthen the structural integrity field. Which means," Sloan leaned forward a little, "that it's all up to you, my friend. Currently, the Liberty and her future sisters stand our best chance of mounting an effective defense against our collectively-minded friends." He settled back in his chair. "Or any other threat to the security of the United Federation of Planets."

Chakotay looked up sharply. "Still worried about the Romulans?"

"One can never be too careful," Sloan demurred. "So, Captain, now that you've received your orders, perhaps you should start cleaning your desk." He rose, and automatically, Chakotay rose with him.

"Oh, and Captain?" Sloan paused at the doorway. "I was sorry to hear about Lieutenant Ro. The Maquis are a lost cause if ever I saw one." He tut-tutted. "Such a waste."

And then he was gone.

 

=/\=


Back to work on the Liberty! As soon as Sloan had made his exit, Chakotay leaned back in his chair and grinned in delight.

Sloan was right. Teaching advanced tactical skills to a bunch of eager young officers had been interesting, even challenging. But he'd been longing to get back to his ship since the project was halted.

Ten months ago, the Defiant's problems had been deemed irresolvable for the foreseeable future. And progress on the Liberty had stalled as well; the regenerative shield grid hadn't performed up to scratch in the numerous simulations they'd run. Chakotay had been sure that, given time and resources, they could beat the flaws in both the Liberty's shielding and the Defiant's weight-to-power ratio. But Starfleet had disagreed. Work had begun on the NX-74600, the new scout vessel already designated Intrepid-class, and the Liberty was yesterday's news. Now, someone at Starfleet Command had changed his or her mind, and Chakotay wasn't about to look a gift horse in the mouth.

It was a shame Ben Sisko wouldn't be back to resume their space race, but he'd assumed command of Deep Space Nine just after Project Individuality had been halted. His last communication to Chakotay had indicated that he wasn't planning on leaving DS9 any time soon. Sisko's discovery of the Bajoran wormhole had guaranteed that - Starfleet was itching to explore the Gamma quadrant, and Sisko himself had sounded just as excited at the prospect. Chakotay grinned, making a mental note to remind Ben to send him that Saurian brandy; it looked like he'd be winning that bet after all.

He wanted to reimmerse himself in the Liberty project at once, in comfortable surroundings and without distraction. Suddenly energised, he launched himself from his chair and strode into the vestibule. "Lieutenant, comm me immediately if you hear from Starfleet. I'll be at my apartment."

"Aye, sir," Lieutenant Ajuta called to his disappearing back.

Chakotay was halfway out of the grounds before it occurred to him to wonder just what 'level of information' Sloan had access to, that he'd known about Lieutenant Ro's defection to the Maquis before her former captain had known it himself.


November, 2369
~ twenty-one months ago ~


"Welcome, Captain." Owen Paris beamed at Chakotay, extending his hand.

Chakotay shook it. "Delighted to be back, sir," he grinned.

"I'm sure you are. I know how you hate to leave a job unfinished." Paris slapped him on the back, guiding him toward the briefing table. "Let me introduce you to your new section heads. This is your chief engineer, Commander Joanna Paget, and her superbly talented team: Lieutenant Commander Kochi Savot, Lieutenant Filka Henson and Lieutenant Tuvok." Chakotay's head felt like a yoyo as he made eye contact with a greying human woman in her fifties; a slender, dark-haired Betazoid man; a young blonde woman with freckles and an infectious grin who, judging by her feline features and pointed, fur-tipped ears, appeared to be part-human, part-Caitian; and a tall and unsurprisingly unsmiling Vulcan man.

"And you already know Sloan, of course."

Chakotay's smile dimmed as he nodded to the man in black.

"Unfortunately, we haven't assigned you an assistant yet."

"Actually, I was hoping I could select Lieutenant Dari Ajuta as my assistant. She and I worked well together in the tactical training unit."

Paris nodded. "Set it up and I'll sign the papers. Now, take a seat, Captain. We have a couple of surprises for you."

For the next two hours Chakotay said little, concentrating on slideshow after lecture after PADD as his new team brought him up to date on the Liberty's progress. The project had been reactivated in July after a six-month hiatus, during which the new engineering team had made significant changes to the ship's specs. Commander Paget claimed the regenerative shielding grid was now performing at 80 percent efficiency; a few more tweaks and it should be ready for field testing. Lieutenant Tuvok, the team's munitions specialist, estimated seventy-three days til modification of the quantum torpedoes would be complete; the weight-to-power problems encountered by the Defiant might not have affected the Liberty so severely, but the balance was still delicate, and in early simulations the quantum torpedoes had displayed a disturbing tendency toward instability. Tuvok assured him that a new calibration technique, coupled with reinforced torpedo casing, would successfully counteract that problem.

Savot, a quietly-spoken man with artist's hands and the typically mournful dark eyes of the Betazoid, was in charge of the prototype's structural design. There were no problems with the Liberty's structural integrity. The streamlined design of the ship and its lack of heavy weaponry - in comparison with the Defiant, anyway - prevented excessive stress on the integrity field.

Though she was directly under Joanna Paget's command, Filka Henson gave the report on engine status on behalf of her boss. Chakotay could see why. He'd never seen anybody get so excited about a .002 percent increase in warp engine efficiency; the engines were obviously Henson's baby and Paget seemed content to let her take the lead. When Henson rose and stood by the large display monitor to point out the modified folding warp nacelle design they'd adapted from the new Intrepid-class prototype, Chakotay caught sight of a long, twitching blonde tail - he'd been right about her part-Caitian heritage, then. He noted with hastily concealed amusement that Henson purred with pleasure as she talked about her engines.

Something in the schematic caught his attention, and he interrupted the flow of Lieutenant Henson's enthusiasm. "Lieutenant Tuvok, the last time I checked the Liberty's specs, she only had one pulse-fire torpedo tube and one standard launcher. I'm seeing two of each here. When did that happen?"

Sloan spoke for the first time. "Captain, as you can see, there has been a great deal of progress since you were last here. Thanks to some ingenious redesigning, we've managed to double the torpedo firing capacity as well as increasing the total armaments the ship is able to carry. Commander Savot can assure you that we've compensated for the additional weight and firepower capability. There will be no adverse effects on the ship's structural or hull integrity."

"I see," Chakotay said slowly. "Can this 'ingenious designing' be applied to the Defiant as well?"

"Captain," Admiral Paris broke in gruffly, "I know you're interested in the Defiant, but don't let it distract you. You only need concern yourself with the Liberty at this stage."

That doesn't answer my question, Chakotay thought, but kept it to himself. He turned back to the schematic. "Well, this all looks very promising. Any chance I can get a first-hand look?"

"Keen, aren't you?" Paris grinned. "Come on then."

Chakotay followed the admiral to the docking port, his team trailing behind. He noticed that Sloan kept easy pace with him, though Chakotay was a good several inches taller and moving quickly.

There were armed security staff at the docking port. Chakotay stopped in surprise. "Worried about security, Admiral?"

"Can't be too careful. She's an important ship, Chakotay."

One of the burly men in gold-shouldered uniform stepped forward. "Good morning, sir. If you'd step this way, please."

Confused, Chakotay followed, and was instructed to apply his eye to a retinal scanner and his fingertip to a DNA detector. They were on one of the most heavily-guarded Starfleet installations in the quadrant. Utopia Planetia was protected by multiple shielding, its computer systems were encoded by modulating algorithms, and they were a stone's-throw from Earth and several thousand easily-mobilised Starfleet officers. What the hell were these extra security precautions about?

Careful? This was downright paranoid.

Green-lighted, he and his team stepped into the anteroom. Expecting to walk straight onto the Liberty, Chakotay was surprised again when another large security officer stepped forward with a portable scanning device. "What are you looking for this time?" he demanded.

"Covert surveillance devices, sir." The guard spoke in a monotone. Chakotay raised an eyebrow as he got the all-clear and finally stepped through the docking port and into his ship.

His ship. He couldn't help beaming.

He'd almost forgotten about the excessive security by the time he'd listened to Lieutenant Henson's unabridged speech on why the Liberty's engines would outclass almost any other ship's when it came to stable cruising capacity. She might talk a lot, but he was charmed by her childlike enthusiasm. Lieutenant Tuvok, by contrast, spoke precisely and infrequently, every word measured, when Chakotay asked for detail on the additional torpedo launchers. And he asked for a lot of detail. Tuvok's answers were satisfactory, so Chakotay led them onward - and stopped.

"What's that?"

Affixed beneath the main engineering console, directly in front of the warp core, was an unusual cylindrical cabinet. It measured about one metre in height and the same in diameter. The casing appeared to be duranium, and there was a hinged door facing outward. He'd never seen anything like it in an engine room. He opened the door; the space inside was empty.

"It's a storage cabinet," said Commander Paget. "For engineering tools."

"Right there?" Chakotay raised an eyebrow. "Aren't toolkits normally stored in the adjoining Jeffries tubes?"

"Yes, but we thought this would be more convenient. We can also store hand phasers in there. Just in case of emergencies in Engineering. Not that we expect any," she smiled. "Now, Captain, perhaps you'd like to inspect the core efficiency logs?"

Chakotay nodded, as though content, and followed Paget to the auxiliary workstation behind the warp core. He hummed and nodded and smiled in all the right places as she showed him the core status reports. But inside he was a churning mass of questions. Why had they doubled the torpedo capacity? Who had designed that strange cylindrical storage cabinet? Why had Admiral Paris evaded his question about the Defiant? What was with the new security protocols? And most of all, what the hell was a 'civilian advisor' doing involved in such a high-security project?

Something just didn't sit right.

 

=/\=


Lieutenant Ajuta poked her head into Chakotay's office. "Er, Captain, are you planning on staying here all night? It's just that I've got a hot date, and -"

Chakotay glanced up in surprise. "What time is it?"

"1930 hours, sir." Ajuta hovered. "Are you working on something important? Do you need me to stick around?"

"No, no - go. Enjoy your date." Chakotay made flapping motions at her.

"If you don't mind me saying, sir, you look tired. Maybe you should call it a night."

He put down his PADD and slumped back in his chair, rubbing at his forehead. "Now that you mention it, I'm exhausted. There's been so much done on this project since July that I feel like I've got a year's worth of reports to catch up on."

"Well, you've only been back a couple of weeks." Ajuta grinned. "Though you've probably been here twenty-three hours a day, so I'd say you've just about caught up by now."

Chakotay's face relaxed into a rare smile. He'd spent the last two weeks re-familiarising himself with the Liberty's specs, going over the upgrades, getting to know his new staff, and dealing with Sloan's irregular and unheralded appearances. No wonder he was tired. Ajuta was about the only source of comfort in a situation that had thrown him surprisingly off-balance.

"And I couldn't have got this far without you, Dari. But now - go enjoy yourself. That's an order."

"Aye, sir. G'night." Ajuta's pretty, spotted face stretched into an even wider grin, and then was whisked away. He could hear her boots quick-stepping their way down the corridor.

Chakotay stood, stretched, winced at aching muscles and switched off his terminal. He'd go home, take a hot-water shower, fix himself some soup, collapse on the sofa with a good book and not think about Project Individuality for the rest of the night. Suddenly longing for some peace and quiet, he was out the door in a matter of moments.

Showered, refreshed, and glad to be back in his apartment, he'd just opened a chilled bottle of chardonnay and put the soup on to heat - no replicated junk when he could have the real thing, thank you - when the door buzzer sounded. "Damn it," he muttered, taking the soup off the stove. If that was Sloan, he'd flatten him. He punched the entry pad and the door slid open.

"Hello, Chakotay."

It wasn't Sloan.

"Jesus Christ."

"Not quite, but thanks for the comparison. Can I come in?" And without waiting for an answer, she stepped past him into his apartment.

"Interesting place," she commented, taking in the high ceilings and bare, whitewashed walls. "A little spartan for you, isn't it? Great view, though." She turned, noticing the wine glass in his nerveless fingers. "Don't suppose you want to pour me one of those?"

Chakotay finally recovered. "Kate, what the hell are you doing here?"

Kathryn Janeway put her hands on her hips and cocked her head to one side. "Well, that's some greeting. Would you like me to leave?"

"Hell, no."

The wine glass shattered on the polished-wood floor as he took her in his arms.

 

=/\=


"So what are you doing in San Francisco?"

"Oh, this is good. I haven't had soup this good in forever."

"That's because you replicate. I cook."

"I remember." She smiled and put down her spoon, resting her chin on one fist. "You look good, Chakotay. Tired, but good."

"You look ... out of uniform."

"I'm on compassionate leave. My mother's in hospital."

"God, I'm sorry." He sent her a sympathetic glance. "Is there anything I can do?"

"She's dying. There's nothing anyone can do." She rose abruptly, carrying her wine over to the window. From here she could see a wide expanse of the Bay, a segment of the Golden Gate and even a corner of the Academy grounds. "Her specialist's here, in San Francisco, and she's too sick to make the trip from Indiana anymore."

Chakotay followed, wrapping his arms around her from behind. "I'm so sorry, Kate."

"Actually, there is something you can do." She turned in his arms, looking up at him from under her lashes. "If it's not too much trouble - I mean, I don't want to impose ..."

"Of course you can stay with me."

She relaxed, smiling. "Thank you."

"Is Phoebe in town?"

Kathryn nodded. "She's staying with an old friend, but his place isn't big enough for three. I was going to find a hotel, but I'd much rather be with a friend." She rested her head on his chest. "I'd much rather be with you."

No matter how long they'd known one another, no matter how intimate they'd been in the past, Chakotay still couldn't help the lightening of his heart at her words. Kate wasn't given to declarations of affection. He tightened his arms around her, brushing his chin against her soft, scented hair.

She squeezed back slightly, then pulled away, moving over to the sofa and folding her legs beneath her. He followed. "So - Captain Chakotay, hmm? Congratulations."

"Thanks." He grinned. "You'll be next."

"Maybe." She smiled faintly. "Where are you posted now?"

"Utopia Planetia. Vessel design and construction. What about you? Will you go back to the Galileo after ..." he trailed off, embarrassed. After your mother dies.

"It's okay, Chakotay," but her smile had dimmed. "Truthfully, I don't know what I'll do. I've had just about enough of patrolling the DMZ - you know how much I love dealing with Cardassians. I'm thinking of asking for a transfer. Where to is another matter." She tilted her head back to catch the last of her wine. Chakotay found himself mesmerised by her long white throat and quickly looked away. "Don't suppose you could use an officer with scientific qualifications on your project?" she continued.

"You'll have to ask Admiral Paris. He's my boss." Chakotay waited for her reaction and wasn't disappointed; she burst out laughing. "Maybe I should. It'd be just like old times. All we'd need is Lieutenant O'Day around to go critical over our pranks."

"No can do," Chakotay smirked. "He's retired. I checked."

"Thank God for small mercies," she snorted. "So are you going to tell me more about this project of yours?"

"We're designing a new escort vessel, but I can't say much - it's classified." Chakotay thought about the triple security checks he had to run through every time he wanted access to the Liberty. He thought about Sloan and his enigmatic presence. He thought about his senior officers, all of them still strangers to him, none of them from the original Liberty team.

She watched the light in his eyes fade a little. He was troubled about something. "What is it, Chakotay?"

"Nothing, really." He tried to brush it off. "Just a few things I don't feel quite right about." He hesitated, as though about to say more, then shrugged. "It's not important."

"If you say so," she replied, not believing him for a second. She unfolded herself from the couch. "More wine?"

"Sure." He held out his glass and she took it over to the kitchen. "This place sure could use a woman's touch, Chakotay," she teased as she uncorked the bottle.

"Good thing you're moving in, then," he shot back, grinning.

"Oh, so I'm to pay my rent in household chores?" She navigated round the kitchen table and settled herself on the sofa next to him again, handing him his wine.

"Depends. Have your housekeeping skills improved over the years?"

"Not a bit."

"Then I guess you'll have to pay your rent in other ways." He waggled his eyebrows at her and she laughed.

"Same old Chakotay."

"Not that you'd know. You never call, baby, when you say you will." He faked a hangdog expression.

"I'm a regular heartbreaker," she agreed, straight-faced.

They grinned foolishly at each other.

"Kate?"

"Yes, Chakotay?"

"It's good to see you again." He brushed the back of his hand against her cheekbone and watched her shiver.

"Kate."

"Yes, Chakotay."

"Come to bed."

 

=/\=


Something was different.

Chakotay struggled to wakefulness and realised that the 'something different' was the smell of burning. House on fire! He stumbled out of bed and tripped on tangled sheets, smacking his elbow on the wall. "Ow," he howled.

He heard a clatter from the kitchen and Kathryn Janeway poked her head into his bedroom. "Are you all right?"

"Kate -" He shook his head to clear the cobwebs and the burning smell invaded his olfactory senses. "Oh no. Are you cooking?"

"Yup. Sorry," she said sheepishly. "I trashed it and opened the windows, but it still stinks in here."

"Oh, Kate." He grinned, rubbing a hand through his hair. "I was kidding about you taking over the housework."

"Probably for the best," she agreed. "I'll take you out for breakfast."

Chakotay lunged for her and snagged a corner of her shirt - his shirt, actually, and she looked a damn sight better in it than he did. Especially with those long bare legs ... "Get over here," he growled.

"Aren't you hungry?" she teased, backing away.

"Oh, yeah." In a flash he'd seized her around the waist and pulled her back into bed, burying his face in her tangled hair. She curved against him immediately, hands roaming. Chakotay slipped a hand inside her shirt and she arched with pleasure. He fumbled with her buttons and the shirt slid off her shoulders. "God, I've missed you," he murmured.

"You'll be late for work," she whispered, lips brushing his ear.

His hand slid between her legs and he felt her shiver. "To hell with work."

He was late - he'd missed the morning briefing. Joanna Paget's daily schedule had been interrupted by his absence; she was grumpy, and not shy in letting him know it. They held a hasty meeting in the engine room. Twice he had to urge Filka Henson to cut short her report and get to the point. He'd had no time for breakfast and felt foggy and a little light-headed. The last thing he needed was a visit from Admiral Paris and his shadow, Sloan.

Paris ribbed him about his uncustomary agitation while Chakotay gave them a quick status update - basically, everything was on track - and sighed in relief as they got up to leave. Sloan turned at the door. "By the way, Captain, I trust you had a pleasant evening with Commander Janeway."

Chakotay stilled.

Admiral Paris broke into a grin. "Don't tell me my little Katie's in town! Well, no wonder you look so ruffled. Tell her to make an old man's day and give me a call, will you?"

Chakotay ignored him, focused on the man in black. "How the hell do you know about that, Sloan?"

Sloan's knowing smile never faltered. "I told you before, Captain. I've made it my business to take an interest in your career."

"In my career, yes." Chakotay was so angry he could barely spit the words out. "My personal life is an entirely different matter."

"I beg to differ, Captain," Sloan said smoothly. "Your personal life affects your career in a number of ways, some of which you've compellingly displayed this morning."

For a moment Chakotay was tempted to smack that smirk off the dapper man's face. If it weren't for Admiral Paris' presence ... "Listen very carefully, Sloan," he stated evenly. "Snooping around my Starfleet records is one thing. I may not like it, but I can put up with it. But spying on me after hours is crossing the line. Do that again, and I promise you'll regret it. Are we clear?"

The smile never faltered on the smaller man's face. "Clear as a bell, Captain." He observed Chakotay for another moment, then turned away. "Have a pleasant day."

For once Admiral Paris was silent, merely arching an eyebrow in Chakotay's direction as he followed Sloan out of the office.

Chakotay realised he was gripping the edge of his desk so hard his knuckles had gone white. He sank back into his seat and tapped the intercom. "Dari, can you come in here for a moment?"

Lieutenant Ajuta bustled in.

"Close the door, please."

She did so, and came over to sit opposite him, green eyes wide with questions.

"Lieutenant, what do you know about Sloan?"

Ajuta's nose wrinkled. "Absolutely nothing." She sounded disgusted; she prided herself on her ability to uncover the things most people preferred left covered.

"You don't know where he's from? Who he works for? Anything about his background?"

"I'm sorry, sir. If there's anything to know, I don't know it." She brightened. "I can try to find out if you like."

A complementary talent of Dari Ajuta's was her almost supernatural ability to hack computer systems. She was never malicious, but she did like to find out people's secrets. And listening wasn't the only way she accomplished that.

Chakotay thought about it and nodded slowly. "Be careful, Dari. I know as little about him as you do. There could be a good reason for that. Don't let him know you're checking up on him."

"Understood, Captain."

He was still staring at the wall ten minutes after she'd left, trying to order what he knew about Sloan in his head.

Fact: Sloan wasn't in Starfleet, or if he was, there was no record of it.

Fact: neither Sloan nor Admiral Paris was being entirely forthcoming regarding the Liberty's recent enhancements.

Fact: Sloan had access to high-level classified information regarding Romulan weapon development, or at least had implied as much.

Fact: Sloan was watching him.

Anything else he thought he knew about Sloan was speculation, at best. Even the bit about the new Romulan torpedoes wasn't a certainty. Sloan had hinted and suggested and implied, but he'd never come right out and confirmed it. Chakotay half-suspected it was a blind, that Sloan had been testing him. But testing what? His allegiance to Starfleet and the Federation?

At their first meeting, Sloan had implied that there were times when Starfleet Intelligence, bound by Federation regulations, couldn't 'get the job done'.

Had he been testing Chakotay's reaction to that idea? Had he been trying to find out if Chakotay would play outside the rules?

Why? Who was he? Starfleet Intelligence? Internal Affairs? Chakotay gnawed his bottom lip, mind racing. Could he be a spy? But for whom - the Romulans?

He shook his head.

There was no way to know. All he could do was wait and hope that Dari's investigation turned up something. Anything.

© 2021 by Mia Cooper