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 Five

August, 2371

~ yesterday ~

After Janeway had briefed him on her abortive meeting with the First Minister, Chakotay was unsurprised when Gathorel contacted him the next morning. The obsequious smile never left Gathorel's face as he informed Chakotay that the council of ministers had voted not to accept Voyager's library in exchange for the Sikarian spatial trajector technology.

~It does not give us pleasure to deny your request, Captain,~ Gathorel insisted. ~In fact, we have enjoyed your company to such a degree that we would like to invite you and your crew to remain on Sikaris, for as long as you wish it.~

"That's very generous of you, First Minister," Chakotay replied. "But we're committed to getting home. However long it takes."

~Surely it's not necessary for you to leave immediately?~

"I'm afraid so. We're very grateful for your hospitality, but we have a long journey ahead of us. I'll be recalling my people from the surface over the next six hours and we'll leave orbit shortly afterward. Again, thank you, First Minister, and please extend our gratitude to the people of Sikaris." Chakotay closed the channel with relief. For all Sikaris' charms, he just couldn't take to its leader.

He hadn't expected to speak to Gathorel again, so it was with some irritation that he received a comm from Harry Kim some hours later. ~I have a transmission from Sikaris for you, sir.~

"Put it through to my ready room," he sighed.

The unctuous smile was definitely gone this time. The First Minister's face was almost purple with fury. ~You will leave orbit immediately,~ he said without preamble.

"First Minister," Chakotay said blankly. "Is there a problem?"

~I have received reports that your crew attempted to illegally obtain a spatial trajector matrix,~ he barked. ~This is a most unpleasant situation. I do not wish to be a part of it. You will make whatever preparations you need to leave orbit within the next fifteen minutes. And Captain, you would be wise not to make contact with any Sikarian vessel you might encounter in future.~ The screen went as black as a slap in the face.

Chakotay was on his feet and striding onto the bridge before he'd consciously realised it. "Report," he barked.

At the Ops station, Harry Kim jumped. Tuvok rose serenely from the command chair. "All systems are nominal, Captain," he stated.

"Are we ready to go? And where's Commander Janeway?"

"We are awaiting Engineering's report," Tuvok replied, "and I am unaware of Commander Janeway's present location. However I believe she was one of the last crew members to return from the planet."

Chakotay nodded. "Get her up here." He slapped his commbadge. "Chakotay to Engineering."

There was a brief pause, then: ~Torres here, sir.~

"B'Elanna, what's the status of the engines?"

~I'm just bringing them online now, sir.~

"We've been ordered to leave orbit. Get them ready as soon as you can and report to me when it's done."

~Aye sir.~ Was he imagining it, or did she sound a little panicked?

He paced the bridge, making Kim even more nervous, and finally grew too impatient to wait any longer. Tapping his commbadge again, he snapped, "Torres, what's taking so long?"

~I discovered a, uh, slight phase variance in the warp field. We can't go to warp until I've corrected it.~

She definitely sounded anxious. "How soon will that be?" Chakotay demanded.

~Just a couple of minutes, sir. It's a simple procedure. I'll contact you the moment it's done. Torres out.~

Chakotay turned back to his chair and realised something was missing. "Computer, location of Commander Janeway."

~Commander Janeway is in Engineering.~

He turned to Tuvok in irritation, but the Vulcan forestalled him. "I contacted the Commander, and she did inform me she was on her way. Perhaps she learned of the problems in Engineering and went to assist Lieutenant Torres."

Before Chakotay could respond the comm system beeped. ~Torres to bridge. All systems are ready for departure.~

"Acknowledged. Lieutenant Paris, get us out of here."

The ship's hum gave that slight change in pitch as the warp engines engaged, and then all hell broke loose. The hum became a whine, and then a screech. Crewmen were thrown from their stations as the ship bucked wildly. On the viewscreen, when Chakotay could drag himself upright to see it, the stars became streaks, and then splashes, and then one giant flower of light, and the air seemed to press on his lungs, and as shockingly as it had started, the tornado stopped.

Consoles blew sparks all over the darkened bridge as crew members picked themselves up from the floor. Chakotay could tell several systems were down without even checking reports. But at least the ship was in one piece. He hoped.

"Engineering, report."

Miraculously, the comm system was online. He expected B'Elanna to answer. But the voice returning his hail was Kathryn Janeway's.

~The warp core is offline but stable, Captain.~ Her voice was a little hoarser than usual, but relatively composed. ~We took damage to the warp and impulse engines, the plasma manifolds are badly damaged and the structural integrity field is at eighty-nine percent. Permission to remain here to assist B'Elanna with repairs?~

"Granted."

~And, sir?~ Now there was a quiver in her voice. Had she been hurt?

~Lieutenant Torres and I request to speak with you as soon as possible. We have an explanation for - for what just happened.~

Chakotay's heart dropped. Oh Kate ... what have you done?

"Understood, Commander," he said tiredly. "Chakotay out."

Reports were called out to him as he closed the channel. Shields were offline. Helm controls were unreliable. Transporters were down. Secondary systems were badly damaged. Several crewmen were injured, one now in critical condition. But communications were functioning and the hull was intact. And then Harry Kim squawked.

"Ensign?"

"Captain, if these readings are right, we've just travelled thirteen thousand light years in a matter of minutes!"

Chakotay leapt to the Ops station. The figures danced before his eyes for a moment and he felt a sharp pain in his head, and made a mental note to get to sickbay. Some time. The Ops display cleared and he realised Kim's calculations were right. They had just been flung thirteen thousand light years from Sikaris.

"And in the right direction, too," he breathed. He strode across the bridge and into his ready room, tapping his commbadge as the doors closed behind him. "Chakotay to Janeway. Commander, I want to see you and Lieutenant Torres in the briefing room immediately. I'm calling all the senior staff in. There'll be no time for anything but the facts, so you'll have to save the explanations for later. And you will give me an explanation later. All right?"

~Yes, Captain. We're on our way.~

He headed back onto the bridge. "Tuvok, get your second in charge to assign crews for clean-up, damage assessment and repair duty. Paris, check if the Doctor needs any help and send Ensign Seska to assist him if he does, then let him know we'll brief him in thirty minutes. Kim, I want every report you can get on what just happened to us. Then, all three of you join me in the conference room. Commander Janeway and Lieutenant Torres claim to have an interesting story to tell."

They did. Torres had barged into Janeway's quarters at 0600 that morning, troubled over the rollercoaster fortunes of the past two days, at having the promise of home dangled so tantalisingly and then so cruelly whisked away. Whatever conversation had passed between them went unrepeated at the meeting, but the outcome was that Janeway transported down to Sikaris to exchange Voyager's literary database for the spatial trajector matrix, and upon her return to the ship, she and Torres had installed it in Engineering. Quickly studying it, they had discovered that it drew on a power source beneath the crust of Sikaris, and that Voyager didn't have the resources to generate the power required to activate the matrix. They would have to do it before they left orbit. So when the captain gave the order to depart, they activated the spatial trajector.

And discovered that the trajector was incompatible with Federation technology when the ship nearly tore itself apart.

Unable to disengage the device, they resorted to phasering it. When it was destroyed the ship came to rest.

"I will be discussing this matter with the commander and the lieutenant later," Chakotay said shortly, into the silence after Janeway's speech. "The important thing right now is to repair the ship. We're particularly vulnerable right now," he paused, and allowed a smile to touch his lips, "because we're in completely unfamiliar space. This little experiment had an unexpected benefit. We've confirmed that our present location is approximately 12,900 light years closer to the Alpha quadrant."

Paris and Kim, who already knew, had burst into whoops before he'd finished speaking. He watched the faces of the two women. Janeway's mouth curved in a bittersweet smile, and tears stood in Torres' eyes. He spoke up before Paris could burst into song. "As I said, repairs come first. We can celebrate later. You all know what to do. Dismissed."

He could feel Kathryn's gaze on him as he turned from the room without another glance.


August, 2371
~ today ~


Two Maquis women in Starfleet uniform stood at attention in the captain's ready room.

Chakotay placed the PADD carefully on his desk and rose to face them. He gestured to the PADD. "Lieutenant Carey's engineering report." He looked straight at B'Elanna Torres. "Your little escapade damaged almost every major system on this ship. Carey estimates eight days of double shifts until we're back in acceptable condition."

Torres could barely look at him. "I'm sorry, sir. I didn't mean for any of this -"

"Lieutenant, I haven't finished speaking."

Torres shut up.

"You are relieved of duty and confined to quarters for the next two days. It might be prudent for you to spend at least some of that time familiarising yourself with the Starfleet charter."

"Yes, sir," Torres whispered.

"Dismissed."

She turned, head bowed, and made blindly for the door.

"B'Elanna."

"Sir?"

Chakotay's eyes had softened. "I know this - joining Voyager - hasn't been an easy ride for you. And despite recent events, I've never regretted making you chief engineer. But if you ever pull anything like this again, I'll replace you so fast your head will spin." He paused. "I have a lot of faith in you, B'Elanna. Don't let me down."

"Thank you, sir," she whispered, and quick-stepped out of the ready room.

Janeway spoke through stiff lips. "Torres should be working on repairs, not sitting around in quarters."

"And she knows that as well as you and I do," Chakotay said coldly. "She'll go stir-crazy doing nothing while Carey takes over her job. I want to give her ample time to reflect on her actions."

"And slow down our repairs?"

Chakotay stepped into her personal space. "You should have thought of that before you integrated untested alien technology into our systems, Commander."

She looked away. "Yes, sir."

He was still right in her face. "And to give you time to reflect on that, you're relieved of duty and confined to quarters as well. For three days."

"What?"

"When your time has been served, you'll join an engineering repair crew and start cleaning up some of the mess you made." He moved back to his desk, picking up the PADD and scrolling through it. "Purging the plasma port injectors and repairing the gravity plating on Deck 10 should keep you busy for a while."

"You're suspending your executive officer?"

Chakotay slapped the PADD down on his desk. "I can hardly relieve Torres of duty and let you get off scot-free, Commander."

"I don't believe this," she hissed. "I got us thirteen years closer to Federation space and you're putting me in the brig?"

"No, I'm confining you to quarters. But if I hear one more protest out of you, Kathryn, you will be in the brig."

Shaking with fury, she turned sharply toward the door.

"I haven't dismissed you yet."

She halted, then turned slowly to face him. Chakotay almost quailed from the look in her eyes.

"Just tell me one thing," he said, more calmly now. "I'd made my decision not to make the trade with Jaret Otel. Yet you took it upon yourself to disobey orders and acquire the spatial trajector yourself. Why did you do it?"

She was silent for a long time, so long he almost repeated the question. Then, with an obvious struggle for composure, she answered, "I did it to get us closer to home. I did it for this crew. And I did it for you. Because I knew you couldn't do it."

"Explain."

She shifted her feet. "You won't like it."

"Try me."

"All right." Janeway turned to gaze out the viewport at the unfamiliar stars.

"When I joined the Maquis," she began, in an apparent non-sequitur, "it wasn't an easy decision to make. I was violating my oath as a Starfleet officer, turning my back on the Federation and everything it stood for, cutting my ties to family and friends, and increasing the chance that the Federation and Cardassia would go to war again. And yet people were dying in the DMZ, and I couldn't, in all conscience, stand by and watch it happen. I wrestled with the moral and ethical issues for some time before I came to the conclusion that the needs of the many don't always outweigh the needs of the few." She sighed. "Once I'd made my decision, it seemed ... easier ... to follow it up with actions I'd previously never have considered. Like stealing the Liberty."

Chakotay smiled without humour. "Go on."

"Making that trade with Jaret Otel isn't something a Starfleet officer would consider ethical," she said, choosing her words carefully. "But I've done worse things, and though I'm not proud of them, I considered them justified. A few sleepless nights and a little less self-respect were a small price to pay for saving innocent lives. And considering how dangerous this quadrant has already proven to be, who knows how many lives have been saved by cutting a dozen or so years off our journey home?"

"I see."

"But you've made it clear from the first day of this journey that you refuse to compromise on the rules," she continued. "I know you, Chakotay. If you couldn't leave Starfleet and join the Maquis after what the Cardassians did to your people, it must have been because your principles wouldn't allow it. So it seemed better all around that I go ahead with that trade. I'd procure the spatial trajector, we'd get closer to home, and your conscience would be clear." She shrugged. "Perhaps one day you'll understand."

Chakotay sat down hard on the edge of his desk.

"Christ, Kate," he said finally, and she couldn't quite read his tone. She waited.

Finally he looked up and stared her straight in the eye. "You're my first officer, and I need to be able to trust you implicitly," he said evenly. "If I can't trust you, this won't work. I'll have to replace you, probably with Tuvok. The former Maquis on this ship will rebel, and before we know it, we'll have a power struggle on our hands. And we might just end up with a ship full of corpses."

She'd shown him her soul, and he'd thrown it back in her face. She hid her shaking hands behind her back.

"I don't ever want you to do anything like this again. It's not fair, and it's not right." Chakotay rubbed at his forehead. "I want you to think about this, Kathryn. Think about it very, very carefully." He stood, and she saw that despite the evenness of his tone, his fists were clenched.

"Now please," he said, "get out of my sight."


February, 2370
~ eighteen months ago ~


In the space of forty-eight hours, Captain Chakotay's life was changed tragically and irrevocably.

When the news broke of the attack on Dorvan V, the initial reports seemed wildly exaggerated, the fevered embellishments of some excitable colonist. But each transmission from the DMZ brought more information, the toll of death and destruction rising each time.

Chakotay's people lay slaughtered on the wreck of their planet, victims of a vicious Cardassian attack. A Cardassian Gul, incensed by the Dorvan colonists' continued refusal to vacate the planet, had ordered its entire surface bombarded by thermalite weapons. Every living thing was incinerated, every building devastated in a firestorm so superheated that the first sensor images showed strange twisted sculptures of glass where stone dwellings had been, and the planet's surface still smoked where trees, grass and topsoil had been scorched away.

There were no survivors of the holocaust, bar a few dozen lucky ones who'd been offworld at the time. Everyone else had been killed, including Chakotay's entire family: mother, father, sisters, cousins. All of them dead.

It was so big that his mind refused to cope. He knew it was there - all the anger and grief and regret and, yes, hatred - but when he tried to face it, to accept it so he could start to work through it, his mind shied away. He went about his duties in a daze, absently approving status reports and arranging meetings and viewing simulations. His emotions were frozen; nothing could touch him. Not even the loss of the Liberty.

The news of Dorvan's destruction had reached Earth in the early afternoon. That evening, Chakotay was called to HQ for a briefing on the incident and sequestered with a gaggle of admirals for the rest of the evening. After the abject horror of those reports he was almost relieved when, close to midnight, Lieutenant Ajuta commed him, interrupting the briefing, to inform him that the Liberty was gone.

Ajuta was wringing her hands, apologetic to the point of tears, by the time Chakotay materialised on Utopia Planetia. Instinctively he glanced out the viewport, and the absence of the Liberty's sleek white contours was rawly shocking. "What happened?"

He could tell she was struggling with conflicting priorities: she had obviously heard about Dorvan, despite Starfleet's hasty attempt to curb the reports until the facts were ascertained, and the empathy in her green eyes caused a hollow surge in his gut. "The Liberty," he prompted, more harshly than he'd intended.

"We're not sure, sir," she said quickly. "The alarm went out twenty minutes ago. Lieutenant B'Tenga was on station patrol and discovered the ship was missing at 2337 hours. We've been running reports, and it looks like somebody blocked external sensors and communications throughout the shipyard. We can't yet explain how the ship was removed, or why the planetary sensors didn't record anything, and as yet we haven't been able to track where the Liberty might have been taken." She looked heartsick.

By next morning the rest of Chakotay's senior staff had arrived, with the exception of Kochi Savot, whose whereabouts were unknown. Admiral Paris huffed and roared his way through the briefing while Sloan silently occupied a corner of the room. His was the only composed face in a roomful of anxiety.

The briefing over, they filed from the conference room and Chakotay led Paris and Sloan into his office. Dizzy from lack of sleep and still shell-shocked from the events of the past twenty-four hours, Chakotay was on the verge of fading out when Sloan's voice cut through the haze in his mind. "Captain, it appears we do have a lead on the Liberty's disappearance. May I ask when you last had contact with Commander Kathryn Janeway?"

"What's she got to do with this?" Chakotay blurted, but before he'd finished speaking he saw Owen Paris' blue eyes widen and his face turn grey with shock. His own expression must mirror Paris', he thought.

"Please answer the question, Captain."

"I saw her this morning - I mean, yesterday morning. About 0730 in my apartment, before I left for work." Chakotay shook his head, disoriented: it could have been an hour or a week since he'd heard about Dorvan V.

"And you haven't communicated with her in any way since that time?"

He shook his head and waited for the blow to fall.

Sloan crossed one leg neatly over the other and steepled his hands before him. "I have reason to believe that Commander Janeway is responsible for the theft of the Liberty. And that she may have had help from Lieutenant Commander Savot. Captain, I expect you remember meeting this gentleman?" Sloan held out a PADD which displayed a portrait of a Betazoid man.

"That's Jokim Brill," Chakotay said slowly, studying the PADD. "I met him at the Galileo memorial reception about two months ago. He was representing one of the Federation colony worlds in the demilitarised zone."

"Indeed," Sloan said dryly. "He's also the cousin of Commander Savot, and reportedly a Maquis. Your little redheaded friend has been seen several times in the company of both men over the past few weeks. I don't think it takes a great leap of the imagination to postulate that the three of them conspired to hijack the Liberty and defect with it to the Maquis, do you?" He tutted. "Still, Captain, rather cold on her part, isn't it? Sleeping in your bed, and then stealing your ship from right under your nose -"

Chakotay was never sure what happened next. One moment Sloan was sitting there taunting him, and the next, the smaller man was gingerly picking himself up from a crumpled heap on the opposite side of the room. Sloan stood, dabbing one finger to the corner of his mouth; it came away bloody. "I must be getting slow," he murmured. "You have a mean left jab, Captain."

Owen Paris swiftly interposed himself between the two men, but the fight had already drained out of Chakotay. Knocking Sloan off his feet was something he'd been longing to do since the day they'd met, yet it brought him no satisfaction. He dropped carelessly into a chair.

One week earlier he'd discovered plans to install illegal equipment into his starship, and learned that the Federation was on the verge of signing a damaging peace treaty with the Cardassian Union. At the time, he'd thought that was the worst day of his life. It had been sunshine and roses compared to today.

 

=/\=


"Kate, I'm home -" Chakotay began, and abruptly stopped speaking. How could he have forgotten? Kate wasn't here. Kate had stolen his ship and stomped on his heart. The exhaustion he'd held at bay for the past forty hours seemed to drag on his shoulders. He shrugged off his jacket, throwing it in the direction of the kitchen table, grabbed a bottle of gin on his way to the sofa and dropped onto it heavily. Before he could so much as pour himself a glass, he was asleep.

The nightmare continued when he woke after a restless four hours. He showered, dressed in his uniform, and dragged himself into his study. His monitor was flashing, telling him there were three messages waiting. "Play," he ordered.

All three were from Dari Ajuta. In the first, she was pale but composed, asking to see him urgently. In the second, an hour later, she looked ruffled and distressed, begging him to contact her. The third was the most disturbing of all.

~Captain, I need your help,~ she almost whispered. ~I've discovered something you really need to see. I'm sending it to you, but it's highly encrypted. You know the encryption algorithms. Please call me as soon as you get this.~ She paused, and her next words struck dread into Chakotay's heart. She seemed to lean in closer, her Trill markings violently dark against the pallor of her skin. ~ I'm scared,~ she whispered. ~Please help me.~ Then the transmission ended.

He tried to comm her but received no answer. Fear enveloped him. Bolting from his apartment, he was at her Market Street home in twenty minutes.

Two Starfleet security officers, one male, one female, flanked the front door. Chakotay slowed to a walk as he approached, heart hammering more from a sense of foreboding than from running to get there. "Ensign," he addressed the woman. "What's happening here?"

"There's been a death in the building, sir. A young woman. By the time the med team got here it was too late to revive her."

"Her name," Chakotay croaked. "Tell me her name."

The ensign consulted a PADD. "A Lieutenant Dari Ajuta, sir."

He could hear her calling to him as he stumbled away, but he didn't turn around. Dari was dead. A scant hour after she'd told him she was afraid for her life, she was dead. And the one thing he was certain of was that it was all his fault.

Chakotay could hardly bear to replay her final message. But she'd said she had something he needed to see, and then she'd been killed because of what she knew. The very least he owed her was justice, and to get that he'd have to know what she knew. He got to work decrypting the message attachment.

Thirty minutes later he was hanging over the bowl of the toilet retching painfully. The decoded message was another of the secret transmissions meant, he now fully believed, for Sloan. And this one, if it was possible, was worse than the previous two.

This time, there wasn't a mention of the Romulan phased plasma torpedoes, or the Starfleet-developed phased cloaking device, or even the Liberty. This transmission appeared to be a rundown of covert communications between Sloan's cohorts and the Obsidian Order, Cardassia's independent intelligence outfit. An arrangement had been made. In exchange for intelligence on Cardassian weapon development, military strategies and covert operations, Sloan's group would refrain from stopping Cardassia from attacking the Federation colonies in the DMZ. In fact, it was worse than that. Certain solar systems in the zone were identified as 'low-risk' to Federation interests and therefore expendable. The Cardassian military had all but carte-blanche to do as they wished with them. One of these was the Dorvan system.

That was when Chakotay had bolted to the bathroom to empty the contents of his stomach. Now, leaning his head against the cold porcelain, for the first time in his life he wondered if it was worth going on. Dari was dead, and he'd shoulder that blame forever. His people were dead, their lives callously wiped out, thanks to an underhanded deal between the Obsidian Order and this secret Federation intelligence agency. And now that he knew, Sloan would no doubt kill him anyway. Why not get the job done himself?

Because he'd vowed to seek justice.

Not just for Dari Ajuta, he realised slowly. Not just for himself, or his slaughtered, innocent people. For the Federation. He was going to gather every scrap, every hint of information he could find about this covert organisation and he was going to expose every lie, every murder, every sly, filthy deal they'd ever made. They had desecrated everything he held dear, and he'd be damned if he let them get away with it.

There was a chime at the door.

He knew who it was before he opened it, and he wasn't wrong. "Good evening, Captain," said Sloan as he stepped into the room. "You don't look well at all."

Chakotay sprang, but before he'd moved a metre he found himself flat on his back with Sloan's boot against his throat. "Nice try, but that time I was expecting it." Sloan reached down and pulled him up. "Now that that's over with, shall we begin our discussion in a civilised manner?"

Studying him, Chakotay forced down the ugly boiling rage and nodded.

"Good. I presume you've already read the transmission Lieutenant Ajuta so kindly sent you this evening?" He went on without waiting for a response, sitting calmly on the sofa with one arm outstretched along its back. "Quite interesting reading, I'm sure. As were the previous two."

"You knew we'd found them?"

"Captain, do you really think me so unprofessional? I had surveillance devices installed in your apartment, of course. I've known all along about your little investigation."

Chakotay looked around the room wildly, as though he'd be able to see the devices. "You killed Dari Ajuta," he said angrily. "You set her up, and then you killed her."

Sloan made a moue of distaste. "Well, I didn't kill her personally, of course. Shame, really. The young lieutenant - oh, I'm sorry, you were going to promote her to lieutenant commander, weren't you? That would have been such a proud day for Dari -"

"How did you know that?" Chakotay managed faintly. He and Ajuta had had that discussion on Mars, far from prying eyes and listening ears.

"I had her bugged as well. As I was saying, Captain, she had a great deal of potential. Quite an extraordinary hacker, but inconveniently incorruptible." He looked back into Chakotay's eyes, and all the mockery was suddenly gone. It was as though a chill had permeated the airconditioned room, and the frost in the air came from Sloan's pale blue gaze.

"Yes," Sloan continued, his tone still deceptively light, "unfortunately, Lieutenant Ajuta was as incorruptible as a raw cadet. But you, Captain ..."

Chakotay was a deer in headlights.

"You, Captain, aren't quite so naive, are you?"

A long look passed between them and finally Chakotay found he could speak.

"Are you going to kill me, Sloan?" he asked, his voice rasping.

"No, Captain, not at all." Sloan smiled wolfishly. "I'm not going to kill you. I'd much rather recruit you."

Chakotay lowered himself into an armchair. "You must be joking," he said feebly.

"I never joke," Sloan replied. "We need people like you, Captain. You're a highly trained officer with skills we would find very useful. Let me explain."

And then Sloan embarked on a tale so mind-blowing that Chakotay found himself listening raptly to every word.

"We call ourselves Section 31," Sloan began, noting Chakotay's look of comprehension. "I see you've heard of us, or at least the section of the Starfleet Charter from which we take our name. Our origins date back to the Federation's very beginnings. It was suggested, at that time, that there may come occasions when the ideals that Federation citizens choose to live by could threaten the security, the very existence, of the Federation itself. In anticipation of such times, Section 31 was created as an autonomous body with nonspecific discretionary powers over nonspecific Starfleet matters. To do the jobs that Starfleet can't, in other words."

He got up and walked over to the replicator, ordering himself a glass of water without so much as asking Chakotay first. "Naturally, we like to keep abreast of current events. It's important to know what's going on in the galaxy these days, so that we can take steps to ensure the security of the Federation isn't compromised. I'm sure you'll agree that our intelligence-gathering abilities are quite impressive." Sloan returned to the sofa, crossing his legs. Chakotay watched his every move as a small animal watches a predator.

"That transmission you received today tells only part of the story, Captain. You're familiar with the Bajoran-Idran wormhole, of course? Well, knowing what you now know about Section 31, you won't be surprised to hear that since its discovery we've had operatives scouting the Gamma quadrant. Oh, we're not concerned with stellar phenomena or discovering new worlds; we leave that to you Starfleet types. What we are concerned with, as I've already stated, is potential security risks. And I'm sad to say that we've found one." Sloan paused for a sip of water. "In your correspondence with Commander Sisko on Deep Space Nine, has he ever mentioned the Dominion?"

Chakotay shook his head.

"Hardly surprising, really; as far as he's concerned, the Dominion is just a nasty rumour. The good people on DS9 have had contact with one or two species bearing tales of a powerful empire which controls a good part of the Gamma quadrant, but the stories they've heard are rife with speculation. We know better. We've travelled farther through that quadrant than any Starfleet exploratory ship, and what we've found is very disturbing. The Dominion does exist, and the threat it poses is considerable. We haven't fully mapped its borders, nor has any Section operative made personal contact with the race which controls the empire. But we have encountered a species known as the Jem'Hadar, a warrior race bred solely to serve the Dominion. They're killing machines, Captain. Even a Klingon might turn and flee from a Jem'Hadar patrol ship."

Again Sloan paused. "Are you comfortable, Captain? Do you need anything?"

"Just get on with it, Sloan," Chakotay growled.

"As you wish. Section 31 has studied the Dominion very carefully, and we believe their interest in the Bajoran wormhole will increase as trade and traffic flow increases. Sooner or later they'll want to find out what's on our side of that wormhole, and when they do, they're going to want to take it from us. However, the combined forces of the major Alpha quadrant powers would be more than a match for the Dominion, and so we've speculated that they'll attempt to form an alliance with one or more of us. The Romulans are a possibility, but they prefer to tug our strings from a distance, and in any case, their empire isn't close enough to the wormhole. The Federation and the Klingon Empire are highly unlikely to become involved in such an alliance, particularly once they learn what Section 31 already knows. That leaves the Cardassians. They have the motive - an increase of their power base - and location-wise, they're in the perfect position. Don't be surprised, Captain, if we go to war against Cardassia in the near future. It's in the cards in spite of this proposed peace treaty. But the Cardassian Union, arrogant as its people may be, is unlikely to initiate a war without the backing of an empire as powerful as the Dominion."

Chakotay realised his hands were shaking.

"Section 31 has established relations with the Obsidian Order for a number of reasons, Captain. One is to obtain intelligence, of course. Another is to attempt to smooth interaction between our two peoples in the hopes of preventing a devastating war, or if that attempt fails, to sabotage Cardassia's chances of joining with the Dominion, if at all possible. In the interests of saving billions of lives, some must, unfortunately, be sacrificed."

"That's where the Maquis come into it," Chakotay realised.

Sloan was nodding, smiling. "I'm looking at the big picture here, Captain. The Maquis are a nuisance, but we can turn that nuisance into a bargaining chip. We let the Cardassians take potshots at a few little settlements in the DMZ and in return, they pass us valuable information, and refrain from taking their attacks into Federation space. Oh, don't look so horrified, Captain. As the Vulcans say, the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few." He sighed. "The incident at Dorvan V was regrettable. A Gul got trigger-happy. He's already been dealt with."

"How many does it take, Sloan?" Chakotay began quietly. "How many does it take before a regrettable incident becomes an act of war? How many people have to die before you stop looking the other way?"

"We could philosophise all night on that one, Captain, but I'd rather get to the point."

"You do that." He was barely restraining himself from leaping from his chair and choking the life out of the man in black.

"I'm sure you're wondering what all this has to do with you. Well, really, it was only the Liberty we were interested in to start with. Yes, she was originally designed to fight the Borg, but Section 31 realised she could be very useful in other ways. With a few modifications, she'd be the perfect ship for scouting missions into the Gamma quadrant."

"That's why you were installing the cloaking device. To enter Dominion space without being detected."

Sloan inclined his head. "The Romulan torpedoes were a bonus we discovered on a recent surveillance mission and decided to adopt. They'll be useful should we be detected by a Jem'Hadar patrol. Of course, they'll have to be installed in the Liberty's successor, unless we get her back."

"Which is why you want me," Chakotay realised.

"You know Commander Janeway better than anyone, Captain. That makes you the perfect choice to track her down."

"I had no idea she was planning to steal the ship," Chakotay said tersely. "It appears I don't know her as well as you seem to think."

"You've served with her; you're familiar with her preferred tactics. And your, er, personal association does also give you a certain edge."

He hated having to ask, but ... "How did she do it?"

"How did she make off with your pride and joy? Oh, it was quite clever, really. Commander Savot was her inside man. He arranged to block external sensors and communications from Utopia Planetia, and set up a controlled overload of the planetary detection grid just long enough to conceal their actions from the Mars control centre. Commander Janeway obtained the security access codes from your very own computer, as you'll no doubt discover for yourself. Mr Brill was responsible for providing an escape route. He used a Bolian transport ship to ferry the Liberty from the area, setting up a dampening field within the transport ship's cargo hold to hide the Liberty's signature. They changed transport freighters twice en route to the Badlands to avoid detection. The trace goes cold there, thanks to the plasma storms in that region. We expect they're hiding in the Terikof Belt, a group of planetoids in the centre of the Badlands, but we haven't pinpointed their exact location."

"Why not? Don't tell me Section 31 can't penetrate the Maquis." Chakotay felt a savage twist of pleasure as the first sign of irritation crossed Sloan's face.

"That's not your concern, Captain. What you should be concerned about is your excessive trust in Commander Janeway, which resulted in such a serious security breach. I expect you'll be hearing from Starfleet Command about it in the morning. Don't worry, Captain, you won't be implicated in the theft. We've seen to that."

"Thank you," he said with heavy sarcasm.

"Don't mention it. Now, Captain, I expect you'll be wanting to take some time off once the fuss dies down. You'll probably want to visit Dorvan V, say a prayer over the graves of your people, or whatever it is you do when loved ones pass on. While you're in the DMZ, your task will be to gather any information possible on Maquis movements, and Janeway's in particular. Take no action until you hear from me. Do you understand?"

A thousand retorts raced through Chakotay's mind. This man wanted him to become part of a covert agency whose very existence made his skin crawl. He wanted Chakotay to put aside his grief and anger over the Dorvan massacre and embark on a spying mission. He wanted Chakotay to hunt down the woman he loved beyond reason and bring her back to ... what? To be imprisoned? Chakotay doubted it. To be killed. If he caught her, Kathryn would die.

No.

But what if he refused? Then he'd be killed and someone else sent after Kathryn in his place. Someone who'd have no such compunctions. And Section 31 would continue to exist. He couldn't allow that to happen. He turned to Sloan.

"I understand."

Sloan smiled.

 

=/\=


As predicted, Chakotay was cleared of any wrongdoing in the official investigation into the theft of the Liberty. Admiral Paris had vouched for him. Chakotay's gratitude was quickly superseded by suspicion. Was Admiral Paris part of Section 31?

He was granted use of a Starfleet shuttlecraft and arrived in orbit of Dorvan two weeks after the investigation concluded. Transporting to the surface, the first thing that struck him was the silence. Where before there had been a bustling village square, there was now a blind and twisted wreck of ash and mottled glass. A breeze curled round the ruins of the village, stirring dust and ash at Chakotay's feet. He could almost hear the screams he knew they'd never have had time to utter.

He flew to Trakis II, a colony world just inside Federation space, and made enquiries about the Dorvan attack, hoping to track down the survivors. To his surprise, most people he asked replied quite openly that most of the Dorvan survivors had likely joined the Maquis. But when he casually asked how he might go about finding them, he got shrugs and smiles in response.

What if he pretended he wanted to join the Maquis himself? In an honest moment, Chakotay understood that it would only be half pretense. The hollow wreck of his homeworld had stabbed him to his core, and now he was functioning on autopilot, torn and conflicted. He burned to avenge his people, to take revenge on the Cardassian soldiers who'd murdered them, and if he couldn't find the men who'd done this, then others of their race would do. And it was that very driving urge, the urge to kill and not stop killing till Cardassian blood was spilt for every woman, man and child who'd died on Dorvan, which brought him up short each time he contemplated joining the Maquis for real.

If he did that, he'd be no better than Sloan, for whom life had no value.

Eventually he gave up and headed to Deep Space Nine. He mooched around the Promenade for a few days, annoying Quark and perplexing Odo, before Benjamin Sisko took matters into his own hands one night, plying Chakotay with Bajoran spring wine and carefully inducing him to talk until his voice was raw. About death, and betrayal, and duty and love. But not about secrets. As drunk as he got, Chakotay still had the sense to keep silent about Sloan and Section 31.

To his mild surprise, Sloan wasn't disappointed in his skimpy report when he finally returned to Earth. "No matter, Captain," Sloan said easily. "The situation is under control."

Chakotay requested command of a ship, but the Starfleet counselor assigned to him recommended lighter duties for a short period, as well as continued counseling sessions, at least once a week. So Chakotay asked to be assigned to the new Maquis task force run by Starfleet Intelligence, and as luck would have it, no starship command came available for almost a year.

And then he was assigned to the USS Voyager.

© 2021 by Mia Cooper