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 Four

January, 2370

~ nineteen months ago ~

Fortunately, Kathryn was at dinner with her sister when Lieutenant Ajuta arrived unannounced at Chakotay's apartment one cold Saturday night. He let her in and she stood just inside the room, clutching a PADD to her chest. She was so pale that the intricate markings along the sides of her face seemed to glow.

"Captain," she began, and couldn't seem to find the words. She took several steps toward him and dropped the PADD onto his kitchen table as though it burned her fingers. "We have a problem," she stated finally.

He picked up the PADD. "This is Starfleet Command's response to the report I sent last week."

"It is, and it isn't." Ajuta wrung her hands. "I was working late last night and I noticed some discrepancies in the transmission, so I dug a little deeper, and I uncovered a hidden message."

Chakotay stared at her. "Come into my study," he suggested. She seemed shell-shocked; he had to put an arm around her shoulder and guide her into the cubbyhole he used as a home office.

"It took some doing to even find it," she admitted, when he'd ordered her a hot drink from the replicator and sat her on the sofa. "I wouldn't even have noticed under normal circumstances, but you did ask me to investigate Sloan, and I guess I've been particularly aware of anything unusual."

"What does this have to do with Sloan?"

Ajuta took the PADD from him and keyed in a rapid sequence. "I wasn't sure at first - I thought the hidden message could have just been a computer error - but then I realised that there is a message, and it's been encoded." She showed him. A dazzling array of symbols danced across the small screen. "There are multiple layers of encryption here," Ajuta continued. "I broke the first three layers fairly quickly, but the final two are more sophisticated than almost anything I've seen before. I was up all night decoding them, but -" she tapped at the PADD again - "look what I found."

Chakotay skimmed the message, then, dread clutching his heart, went back to the top and re-read it carefully. The sender and addressee were unidentified, but the message appeared to be a report on the feasibility of integrating certain equipment into a Federation starship. The equipment was referred to only as Items S19-JH742 and R32-LK003. The Federation starship was identified as the USS Liberty, registry number NX-74206.

He looked up at his assistant, but before he could ask, she confessed, "I don't know what that equipment is either, sir. But I suspect that Sloan and his colleagues - whomever they might be - are piggybacking their correspondence onto your reports on a regular basis. We should monitor this, check for encrypted messages whenever you get a transmission from Command. We might find out exactly what that equipment is."

"We don't even have proof that this message was meant for Sloan," Chakotay pointed out.

"No, sir, but who else could have been the recipient? If Starfleet had decided the Liberty was going to be decked out with new equipment, the orders would've come through official channels to you and Admiral Paris. Somebody shady is involved in this, and Sloan's the shadiest character I've come across in a long time."

"I don't doubt it." Chakotay felt weary. "But we do still need proof if we're going to expose him."

"Expose him?" Lieutenant Ajuta looked horrified. "Captain, with all due respect, if Sloan has half the connections I suspect he has, trying to expose him could get you killed."

"What else can I do, Dari?" He got to his feet in frustration. "Sloan may be a Romulan spy, or he may be part of an unauthorised intelligence operation which, according to Starfleet Intel, doesn't even exist. And he's equipping my ship with devices I know nothing about, and keeping it secret from me and everybody else on this project."

"That I doubt." Dari looked at her hands. "I think somebody on the project knows what he's up to, and is in on it with him. I don't know who."

"I did think it was strange that all of the senior officers I worked with on the first leg of the project were reassigned," Chakotay said slowly.

Dari nodded. "If I were taking over a project for purposes unknown, and I wanted to bring in someone I could trust, the first thing I'd do would be replace as many of the incumbent staff as I could. That way, my inside man wouldn't be so noticeable."

Chakotay pulled his desk monitor to face him and called up the Project Individuality crew manifest. "There have been twelve staff reassignments since my first tenure as project head. All four of the senior staff are new - Paget, Savot, Henson and Tuvok. You replaced Lieutenant Markov as my assistant, of course. The Security division seems to have had the largest staff influx, with two new lieutenants, Smith and B'Tenga, and three ensigns, only one of whom was replacing a previous officer. The other two incomers are crewmen assisting in Engineering, both of whom replaced crewmen who were assigned elsewhere." He turned the screen to show Ajuta. "Four of those security posts weren't filled when I was here previously, but considering the increased security protocols around here, I guess those can be explained."

"True, but that doesn't mean they're above suspicion."

"No." He sighed. "Thanks to that encrypted message, the only one of these twelve people I'd feel comfortable turning my back on is you."

Her mouth quirked to the side. "I appreciate the vote of confidence, Captain. Although, of course, I could be Sloan's accomplice, feeding you misinformation to throw you off-track."

He looked at her sharply and her smile faded. "Bad joke," she admitted.

"No -" Chakotay sighed, rubbing a hand over his forehead. "I'm starting to see shadows everywhere." He handed back the PADD she'd arrived with. "Is there somewhere safe you can keep a copy of this message?"

"I'm a hacker, sir. I've got a stand-alone data storage system even I can't break into."

Chakotay nodded. "Download this into it and guard it with your life. And keep an eye out for more of those encrypted correspondences." He patted her shoulder. "I know I don't have to tell you to be careful."

"No, sir, you don't," Dari smiled. "But I appreciate it all the same."

 

=/\=


"I got another summons from Nechayev today."

Chakotay glanced over. Kathryn was leaning against the table, watching him cook, sipping occasionally from a glass of wine.

"Did she give you any hints?"

"No." She swirled the wine around inside the glass. "Probably wants to tell me off for not seeing my counselor."

Chakotay wiped tomato-stained hands on a towel and turned. "Why haven't you been seeing your counselor?"

She spoke quietly. "To be honest, Chakotay, I couldn't face it. I spend every day by my mother's bed, watching her die a piece at a time, and when I'm not with her I'm ..." she stopped abruptly. "It doesn't matter. But I've never been comfortable with counselors, and the loss of the Galileo is just ... it's too big, Chakotay. I can't talk about it. Not yet." She sighed. "I feel like I'm in limbo, waiting for something terrible to happen."

He watched her, trying to work out if she wanted to be comforted. She'd set the wineglass on the table and was hugging herself, arms wrapped around her body. He took two steps forward and she flinched back. He stopped.

"I need to do something," she said suddenly. "I can't stand this waiting. Waiting for my mother to die, waiting for the Cardassians to start a war."

"What did you have in mind?"

She turned away, letting her hair swing down to hide her face, and didn't answer.

"Nechayev may have an assignment for you," he remarked, turning back to chopping vegetables. "But I'm not sure going back to active duty is the solution."

"Why not?"

"Well, for one thing, your mother ..." He let the sentence trail off.

"She's not expected to live beyond the week." To a stranger, Kathryn's blunt statement might have sounded callous. Chakotay knew better. Kathryn was hoping that putting it into words would lessen its power.

"And for another," he went on, deliberately keeping his tone neutral, "I don't think active Starfleet duty would be the best job for someone whose loyalties are so clearly divided."

Kathryn looked at him sharply. "What's that supposed to mean?"

"You know what it means. Ever since you arrived here two months ago, you've been displaying a lot of sympathy for the Maquis. As a Starfleet officer, your duty is to apprehend them. They're terrorists, Kate, and like it or not, the Cardassians are not our enemies."

"Well, I don't like it," she snapped. "If you'd seen what I've seen ..."

"I know what the Cardassians are capable of."

"But you've never experienced it first-hand," she almost whispered. Chakotay's eyes widened. In all the years he'd known her, Kathryn had never initiated discussion on her capture by the Cardassians. It had happened almost eight years ago, not long after he'd left the Al-Batani. She was so reticent about it that he'd had to find out from Owen Paris.

He put down the paring knife and faced her again. "Is that why you're so sympathetic to the colonists in the DMZ?" he asked gently.

"I'd be sympathetic anyway," she said slowly. "These people's homes - their very lives - are in danger, and the Federation is partly to blame. But yes, I suppose my own experiences bring it even closer to home. I can't stand to think about those innocent people being slaughtered, the torture and the rape ... I can't bear to sit back and do nothing about it." She was visibly shaking, though her eyes were dry.

He moved toward her, and this time she let him take her hands. "Kate," he said, "you need to talk to that counselor. Please."

She bowed her head. "You're probably right."

"Of course I am." He smiled, trying to lighten the mood. "When are you seeing Nechayev?"

"Tomorrow." Responding to the change in tone, she pulled her hands from his grasp and moved away to set the table.

They ate in virtual silence. He could see Kathryn was still occupied with foreshadowings of war and treachery and death. His own thoughts were similarly ominous. He found himself wishing he could tell her about them: Sloan, the secret message, his suspicions, but it was bad enough that he'd got Dari Ajuta involved. Better to keep his own counsel. A situation this potentially dangerous had to be handled with kid gloves.

He began to realise just how dangerous the situation was the next morning, when Dari Ajuta presented him with another decoded transmission.

"Don't read it here," she whispered as she flung herself into his office. "Come with me now."

"Where are we going?"

"Off the grounds." And she wouldn't say any more, and held a finger to her lips when he tried to speak.

They transported from Utopia Planetia down to the terraformed surface of Mars. She made him walk the streets with her, occasionally doubling back on their tracks, for twenty minutes before she finally gave him the PADD. They'd turned onto a quiet street and were walking leisurely, ignored by the occasional passers-by. Ajuta kept glancing over her shoulder. Chakotay began reading. He hadn't even finished the first paragraph before he stopped in his tracks and stared at his assistant.

She met his gaze and he thought she looked as though she'd lost the last traces of her innocence. He could understand why. The PADD identified the equipment the previous transmission had mentioned. Equipment Item R32-LK003 turned out to be a complement of Romulan phased plasma torpedoes, developed only recently and appropriated, presumably by Sloan or one of his fellows, to be studied and duplicated with the aim of installing them into the Liberty's armament. The other item was even more shocking. Item S19-JH742 was identified as a Starfleet-developed phased cloaking device. The transmission alluded to problems with the device, which had been solved since its initial test on the USS Pegasus in 2358.

"The rest of the message is all about the Romulan torpedoes," Ajuta said in a low voice. "There have apparently been major flaws in their design. A phased plasma torpedo could penetrate any conventional shield - if they could get them to work right. They're very unstable at present and can self-detonate without warning in proximity to tachyon emissions."

Chakotay swallowed against the sudden dryness of his throat, and his voice cracked when he spoke. "A phased cloak? Developed by Starfleet, in violation of the Treaty of Algeron?" He was shaking his head. "Stolen Romulan torpedoes are bad enough. But to think that Starfleet sanctioned this ..." In the space of a heartbeat his world had been turned on its head. "And now they want to put it on my ship."

He remembered the Liberty's extra torpedo tubes, the strange cabinet in Engineering, and checked the PADD again, running some mental measurements. Yes, the cloaking device would fit perfectly into that duranium cabinet under the main engineering console. Yes, the plasma torpedoes were roughly the same size as their standard photon and quantum torpedoes, and could be fired from Starfleet torpedo launchers. He felt sick.

"Captain?" Ajuta sounded alarmed. "Are you all right?"

He stopped and hung his head, gasping for breath, waiting till the world came back into focus. Dari's hand was on his arm and he looked into her worried face. "I'm all right now," he assured her, and that was when a disjointed medley of questions began to clamour for his attention. The Pegasus had been lost; only a few crew members escaped. What had happened on that ship and how had it remained secret for the past dozen years? Was Sloan's intelligence outfit involved in the development of the cloaking device? What other horrific secrets had they covered up in the past? How many Starfleet officers were involved? How many of Sloan's people were supposedly working for Chakotay on Project Individuality? Was the Liberty really intended to fight the Borg? There hadn't been any recent reports of a Borg presence in the Alpha quadrant. Or - he remembered Janeway's predictions - was the Federation about to go to war with Cardassia? Was that the real purpose of the Liberty? Why had Dari dragged him down here to read the PADD? Was his office bugged?

He stopped short. That was a disturbingly real possibility. And Sloan could be aware of any conversations Chakotay'd had with Ajuta in his office. Dari's life could be in danger, as could his own.

He didn't know what to do. They couldn't hide from people with Sloan's connections. If he and Ajuta tried to run, he suspected they'd be quietly dealt with. An accident wouldn't be hard to arrange for two people working on an experimental ship. And as yet, they had no evidence linking Sloan to the hidden transmissions, let alone the illegal equipment. They couldn't go public.

Perhaps the best course of action would be to continue as if nothing was wrong.

Sloan would know that they were suspicious of him. They'd been in Chakotay's office when Ajuta had briefed him on her computer search for Sloan's records. But these hidden messages had never been mentioned inside the Utopia Planetia complex, so Sloan should still think they were in the dark. Chakotay took a last deep breath and motioned to Ajuta to start walking again.

"Dari, I think you know what's at stake here. We're in a vulnerable position. Considering the circumstances, we can't take this to Starfleet Command yet - particularly as we don't know who might be working with Sloan." The very thought of the upper ranks being riddled with corruption made his skin crawl, but he forced it away and continued. "Let's go on as if we never found this message. If you find any more, decode them and bring them to me in person, but only in San Francisco. Sloan's watching my apartment and he's probably watching yours too, so be discreet. Other than that, it's business as usual, okay? Don't tip his hand."

"Understood, Captain."

"Good. Let's get back to the shipyard. If anyone asks where we've been, we decided on an informal setting for your regular crew evaluation."

"How did I do?" she asked with a shadow of her trademark grin.

He put a hand on her arm, turning her to face him. "Your performance has been exemplary," he said with gentle emphasis. "I'm recommending you for promotion to the rank of lieutenant commander."

Her answering smile was the first good thing to happen to him that day.

 

=/\=


"Well, you were right."

Chakotay looked up from his plate. "About what?"

"My meeting with Nechayev."

He dropped his fork with a clatter. "Kate, I'm so sorry, I forgot all about it. It's been a bad day. So what did she say?"

There was no expression either in her face or her voice. "She informed me of my impending promotion to captain of the USS Whitehorse. Effective immediately upon my return from compassionate leave."

"That's great! Congratulations ..." He trailed off as she continued calmly eating her risotto. "You don't seem too enthusiastic about it."

She placed her knife and fork precisely in the centre of her plate, picked up her water glass and sipped decorously before answering. "My first mission will be as diplomatic envoy to Cardassia Prime, where Admiral Nechayev hopes I will be able to encourage peace between our peoples. I will be expected to inform the Cardassian Military that the Federation is taking steps to curb the actions of the Maquis against their citizens, and to assure the Detapa Council of our continued hopes for diplomatic and trade negotiations between the Federation and the Cardassian Union." She met his gaze. "Now ask me why I'm not too enthusiastic."

"I guess I don't need to." Chakotay steepled his fingers and watched her. "What did you tell her?"

"I told her I'd think about it."

"Practicing your diplomatic skills?"

He detected the hidden depths of her anger as she answered. "If I'd said what I really wanted to, I'd have been kicked off the premises by a pair of her security thugs."

"So what are you going to do?"

She rose, taking their plates into the kitchen. "I haven't decided yet."

"You're thinking about taking the mission?" He couldn't hide his surprise.

"I'm thinking about resigning from Starfleet."

"What?"

She turned back to him and all the buried fury surged to the surface. "They've almost signed a peace treaty, Chakotay. The ceasefire is a joke, so they're proposing an alliance. And do you know what concessions they're willing to make? They're going to cede some of the Federation colonies in the DMZ to Cardassian control. They want to take people from their homes so the Cardassians can take control of their worlds. You want to know what else?" There was a disturbingly twisted smile on her face. "One of those worlds is the fifth planet in the Dorvan system."

He could feel his blood cooling in his veins.

She stalked closer and knelt before him, and her voice was softer now. "You once told me that your people spent close to two hundred years searching for the right planet to colonise. Now they're going to be told to up stakes and look for another one, because we won't stand up to a pack of bullies. How do you think they'll take that news, Chakotay? Do you think they'll quietly pack up and leave? I doubt it." She picked up his hands and held them between her own. "What do you suppose the Cardassians will do when your people won't get off that planet?"

He wrenched away from her, scraping his chair back, feeling his heart constricting. He knew what his people would do. They would fight. And they would die.

"Who told you about this treaty?" His voice was thick. He dared to hope it was just rumour-mongering or idle speculation.

She dashed his hopes. "Admiral Nechayev told me."

"Oh God." He sat down heavily, rubbing at his forehead. "And you're to be present at the signing?"

"I'll slit my own throat before I stand by and watch the signing of that contemptible treaty," she said violently. She crossed the room swiftly and crouched beside him. "Chakotay, while I was at HQ today I ran into Commander Hudson. He told me there are a lot of officers protesting against the Cardassian incursions into the DMZ. A few have even resigned in protest at Starfleet's inaction. And some of those have joined the Maquis." She took his face in her hands and drew close, making sure he was listening to her. "This treaty is wrong, Chakotay. There are Starfleet officers willing to give up their careers because they know it's wrong. Many of them don't have family in the DMZ, as you do. All of them believe that standing by while Cardassians terrorise Federation citizens is unacceptable. And they won't accept it. Will you?"

For a long time he could only stare at her. He tried to find words, but they wouldn't be found. And then, as he was searching her blue-grey eyes, they changed. Chakotay realised he was looking at her through a film of tears.

"Oh, Chakotay," she said softly, leaning forward into him. "I'm sorry. And you'd already had a bad day."

He managed to chuckle, but it was a lukewarm effort. "I'd say this ranks close to being the worst day of my life."

 

=/\=


For both Chakotay and Kathryn Janeway, worse days were to come.

Gretchen Janeway died, as she, her daughter and her doctors had predicted, before the week was out. At her funeral her two daughters behaved according to type, with Phoebe sobbing heart-rendingly while her elder sister's stoic composure never faltered. Afterwards, at their parents' Indiana farmhouse, Phoebe held the centre of attention, playing the gracious hostess, filling glasses and ferrying canapes. Chakotay made polite conversation with a Janeway cousin until Phoebe swooped down on him, handing him a tumbler of scotch.

"Thanks," he said, surprised, "but I don't actually want a drink."

"Oh, good," she answered, grabbing the glass back from him, "because I sure as hell do." She drained it in one gulp. He grinned.

"I've been practising," she said dryly, and he remembered a night at Phoebe's New York apartment several years ago, when he and Kathryn matched drinks with Phoebe's boyfriend. Phoebe had tried valiantly to keep up, but he suspected, and hoped for her sake, that memories of the night remained a mystery to her. For his part, he'd never look at her again without picturing her in a Trikakan ceremonial headdress and not a stitch else.

"Have you seen Kathryn?" he asked hastily before he could start blushing.

"Uh-uh." Phoebe was swiping her forefinger along the insides of the scotch glass and licking the drops from it. "Think she was in the kitchen a minute ago."

"Let me get you another drink," Chakotay said, amused. He led her into the kitchen and found Owen Paris talking to a tall young man with tousled blond hair and blue, belligerent eyes. Arguing with him, actually, Chakotay realised as he caught the tension in both men's lowered voices. They broke off as Phoebe stomped over to them.

"Are you two still at it?" She put her hands on her hips and glared, and Chakotay was overcome by the familiarity of the gesture. Phoebe cocked her head, just like Kathryn did, and challenged, "My mother would be turning in her grave to hear the two of you. She'd tell you to grow up, and so will I." She paused, then added, with great relish, "Grow up."

To Chakotay's surprise, Owen's scowl melted into a chagrined smile, and the sun came out behind the younger man's stormy eyes. "That's better," said Phoebe with satisfaction.

Chakotay muffled a snort behind his hand and looked over at Owen Paris, eyes dancing. "If the admiralty could see you now, sir," he said cheekily.

"Tell them and I'll bust you down to ensign," retorted Paris.

Phoebe had hoisted herself onto the kitchen counter and was swinging her legs. "Chakotay, you said you'd make me a drink," she reminded him.

"What would you like?" he asked politely.

"Whatever. The stuff in that bottle up there with all the dust on it." She gestured to the cupboard above the young blond man's head. "Get that down for me, would you, Tom?"

He reached up obligingly and turned the bottle in his hand, blowing away thick white dust to read the label, looking up at Phoebe in surprise. "Phoebe, this is a 2289 single-malt scotch. You can't drink it just because it's there. You have to savour the experience."

There was a disgusted hah from the admiral. "You should know," he muttered.

The blond man handed the bottle to Chakotay and walked out of the room without another word. Chakotay cleared his throat uncomfortably.

"And there you have it," Phoebe murmured, "another happy family."

Chakotay felt slow-witted for not having realised the tall young man was Admiral Paris's son, and reportedly very much the black sheep. He felt a stirring of kinship; after all, he'd been the contrary in his own family.

Phoebe stuck out her glass and looked at him pointedly. He wrestled the lid from the bottle and poured a finger into the bottom of the glass. She kept looking at him, so he tipped the bottle again. When she was satisfied she nodded and turned to Owen Paris. "Want one?" she invited.

The admiral briefly wrestled with the hypocrisy of condemning his son for what he himself was longing to do, but his desire for the ancient scotch won out. He accepted the glass from Chakotay and held it to the light. Phoebe drained her glass in one hit and the admiral looked over reprovingly. "Phoebe, this scotch should be treated with respect, not gulped down like water."

"Like father, like son," she retorted, and jumped off the bench. "We're looking for Katie. Have you seen her?"

The admiral closed his eyes to enjoy the taste of the scotch on his tongue. "Ah," he said with great satisfaction. "Katie - yes, she was in here a few minutes ago. No idea where she went."

"Thanks." Phoebe flipped him a wave and headed into the hallway, Chakotay trailing behind.

"How long have you known Admiral Paris?" he asked, catching up to her.

"Oh, forever, I suppose. My parents were always throwing parties for stuffy Starfleet types. Oops, sorry." She grinned up at him. "I hadn't seen Tom for eons until today, though. He was a bratty kid, and now he's a bratty adult. Mind you, with a father like that, who could blame him?" She paused. "I don't know why he came to the funeral today. They've been sniping at each other since they got here. The admiral's still pissed about his golden boy being kicked out of the fleet."

Of course. Paris junior, Chakotay now recalled, had been a lieutenant, dishonourably discharged from the fleet after some kind of disaster. Chakotay had been on a deep space mission when the scandal unfolded, and hadn't returned until after the dust had settled. Admiral Paris, unsurprisingly, had never spoken about it.

They found Kathryn alone and curled into a window seat in her dead father's long-unused study. "I've brought your boyfriend," Phoebe told her. "If you need me, I'll be the one making a drunken spectacle of myself." She flipped them a wave and disappeared.

Kathryn uncurled herself from the window seat. "You okay?" she asked.

"Sure. I was just checking on you. Hadn't seen you for awhile." Chakotay reached for her.

She raised an eyebrow. "What, all of twenty minutes?"

He stopped in the act of pulling her into his arms and backed away. "If I'm smothering you ..." Damn it, he thought suddenly, why am I always so off-balance around you, Kate? Chakotay never knew from one day to the next if, when he reached for her, she'd dance away or melt into his arms. But the times she didn't pull away were heaven.

"What is it, Chakotay?"

He realised he'd been staring at her and blinked. "Nothing. I ... never mind." She looked unconvinced, but he sent her a quick smile and stepped back. "I think most people are leaving, if you want to say goodbye."

She studied him for a moment longer, then nodded, so he turned and led her from the room.

They spent that night in Kathryn's teenage bedroom, though neither slept much. There were sooty circles beneath her eyes when she woke, and when Chakotay caught his own reflection he discovered he didn't look much better. Kathryn was on her third cup of coffee by the time Chakotay was dressed. He found her in the kitchen, viewing messages on her comm terminal. "Pause playback," she told the computer as he entered.

"Anything interesting?" he asked.

She turned the monitor to face him. "Computer, play message from time index 3.04."

Admiral Nechayev's coolly pretty face blinked to life in the middle of a sentence. ~ ... condolences on your loss.~ She paused. ~Commander, I apologise for the short notice, but the Whitehorse will soon be ready to leave for Cardassia, and as yet she doesn't have a captain. I will need to know your answer soon. Please contact me as soon as you can. Nechayev out.~

"At least she had the grace to mention my mother's death first," Janeway said sarcastically.

"So I guess you'll have to make a decision pretty quickly."

"I guess so," she said.

Chakotay had to take the transport back to Utopia Planetia, leaving the Janeway sisters to begin sorting out their mother's things. Phoebe was going to give up her apartment and live at the farmhouse, claiming she could paint and sculpt in Indiana just as well as she could in New York. "Besides," she pointed out as Chakotay kissed her goodbye, "this farm has been in my family for generations, and Katie isn't going to be the one to take it over. I'll be lucky if I ever see her again."

"What do you mean?" The question came out more harshly than he'd intended.

Phoebe gave him a strange look. "I mean she'll probably be off on some deep space mission, and even when she's on Earth she's got much better things to do than visit little old me." She faked a pout and Chakotay relaxed. "Don't worry, Chakotay," Phoebe continued mischievously. "She always seems to make the time to see you."

"Ignore her," Kathryn advised, walking him to the door. She stretched on tiptoes and surprised him with the tenderness of her kiss. "I'll see you in a few days," she promised.

 

=/\=


Those few days were relatively uneventful for Chakotay. Lieutenant Ajuta found no more concealed messages in the transmissions from Starfleet Command, and Sloan's appearances were unobtrusive. Chakotay was in limbo. Work on the Liberty - at least, the official work - was proceeding apace, and the launch date was looming. Chakotay found himself working most closely with Lieutenant Tuvok. Back in November at Chakotay's initial briefing, Tuvok had estimated seventy-three days til the upgraded torpedo launchers were at peak efficiency. That this prediction was turning out to be quite correct came as no surprise either to the Vulcan or his commanding officer. Tuvok might be a spy, Chakotay mused, but as a weapons specialist his performance couldn't be faulted.

As Tuvok demonstrated the latest weapons simulations, Chakotay found his mind wandering. This business with Sloan had made him so paranoid that he was second-guessing not only his crew, but himself. Not one of his four senior officers had ever given him any indication that they might be doing more than their jobs. He'd checked each of their service records and found nothing unusual. Tuvok hadn't even been in Starfleet for several decades of his life; after serving for a brief time eighty years ago, he had returned to Vulcan to study the kolinahr, and had only returned to Starfleet quite recently. Besides, weren't Vulcans supposed to be rigorously truthful? He couldn't imagine that a species with a distaste for dishonesty would make very good spies.

Kathryn Janeway returned to San Francisco on the same day that Starfleet Command formally announced that the proposed peace treaty between the Federation and Cardassia had been drafted. To Chakotay's surprise, after she'd stashed her luggage at his apartment, she caught a transport to Utopia Planetia and showed up at his office. "Came to take you to lunch," she explained.

They ate at a cafe in the old French district of Europa, the first colonised city on Mars. "How's Phoebe?" Chakotay asked when they'd ordered.

"Irrepressible. She wants to build a pagoda at the back of the house. I forbade it, so she'll probably have it finished by the end of the week." Her mouth twisted wryly.

Chakotay looked at her closely. "You seem in good spirits."

"I suppose I am," she said with some surprise, feeling her way slowly through the words. "It's as though I've been in limbo these past months. I've been waiting for something to happen, and until it did I couldn't make any decisions or get on with my life." She raised her soup spoon to her mouth and sipped from it absently. "I don't mean my mother's dying was a good thing, but she was suffering, and it feels like closure. I can start moving forward now, without that dark cloud hanging over my head."

"Sounds to me like you've made some decisions," Chakotay remarked, keeping his voice unemotional.

"I think I have, yes," she answered. "But I want to talk to Nechayev before I do anything else."

He changed the subject and they spent the rest of his lunch hour conversing on lighter topics, then transported back to the shipyard. "Care for a tour?" he asked her. She agreed enthusiastically and he led her to the docking port.

The security measures were so familiar to him now that he'd almost forgotten about them, until he caught the look on Janeway's face as he guided her through them. Lieutenant B'Tenga, the security chief on duty, objected at first to Janeway's presence, claiming that as Admiral Paris hadn't authorised it he couldn't allow her onto the Liberty. But Chakotay talked his way through while Janeway wisely kept silent.

"What was that all about?" she whispered as he led her into the anteroom. He kept silent as they were scanned for listening devices and waved through the access port to the ship. "New security precautions," he explained. "They were implemented just before I came back to the project. There's a lot of classified equipment on the Liberty, so I won't be able to show you Engineering. But I recommend we start with the bridge." He grinned as he gestured her into a turbolift. "Deck one."

"I'm impressed," Janeway murmured as they entered the bridge, which was empty of staff. She strode down to the command level and indicated the captain's chair. "Sat in it yet?"

"Every time I'm on the bridge," Chakotay grinned. "Want to try it out?"

"Don't mind if I do," she smiled, and lowered herself into the chair with a satisfied sigh. "Nice fit," she remarked. "I could get used to this."

He showed her the ready room, which was almost identical to any ready room on any Starfleet ship, then gave her a quick tour of the captain's quarters, the small cargo bay, the mess hall, and sickbay. "What, no holodecks? No captain's dining room?" she queried facetiously.

"It was a choice between a holodeck and a warp core," he teased. "She's only a small ship."

"But she looks like a fighter." Kathryn smiled at him. "You must be very proud."

He was.

When Chakotay returned to his apartment that night, Kathryn's bags were still in a neat pile by the door. Kathryn herself he found sprawled on his bed in blue jeans and a thick sweater, eyes closed dreamily, listening to Billie Holiday. He pulled off his jacket and turtleneck and sat on the edge of the bed. She curled round him, raising herself on one elbow, her oversized sweater slipping off one shoulder.

"Hey, you," she smiled. He traced a finger over her exposed shoulder and didn't reply.

"Why so gloomy?"

"You haven't unpacked," he said sadly. "Does that mean you're leaving?"

The smile faded and she covered his hand with her own.

"When?" he sighed.

"Soon."

Before he could turn away, she rose to her knees in front of him and slipped off her sweater. He watched as her untethered hair floated gently down her back and she reached for him, holding his face in her hands. "I'm not leaving tonight," she whispered.

She wasn't wearing anything under the sweater. For several sweet moments Chakotay just let himself look at her, reveling in the unfamiliar indulgence. Kathryn wasn't a prude, but neither was she in the habit of shedding her clothes and walking around naked. And he saw her so rarely that he wanted this moment to imprint her on his memory's landscape forever.

"Chakotay," she said huskily, and he came out of the spell. He hooked one finger into the waistband of her jeans and pulled her toward him, rising to his knees so that their torsos were flush together, and through his Starfleet-issue undershirt he felt the warmth of her skin. She lifted her face to him and he kissed her, tracing her mouth with his tongue as she slid her arms round his neck and pressed herself into him.

The first fingers of dawn had already slipped through the shutters when they finally lay still. Chakotay lay back and gathered her close. She buried her face in his throat, breathing him in.

They had been quiet for some time when Chakotay spoke. "Kate."

She raised her head, eyes drowsy with pleasure.

"Don't disappear on me again, all right? Last time I saw you was three years ago. I don't want to go that long without seeing you again."

The haze of delicious contentment left her eyes and they filled slowly with tears. Chakotay knew then that she couldn't make the promise he asked of her.

"I'm sorry," she said softly.

"I know."

Two days later, Chakotay's world fell apart.