Disclaimer: Voyager and crew belong to Paramount, not me, and that just annoys me to no end, but it's no less true for that fact.
Rating: M for violence and mature subject matter – kids, go elsewhere. There's really nothing I'd call graphic in here per se, but plenty of adult themes (just about all of them) are discussed, referred and alluded to (it's just what I do, sorry). If you're squeamish at all about violence of any kind, you may just want to skip over this.
Notes: This is a blend of two specific requests made almost a year ago, finally finished. For both Cheshire and Lita, and I do hope the two of you like it, especially after all this waiting!
I can't see Whitmore. Damn it, but after that last explosion, I haven't seen or heard from her. I should check on her, as soon as…
"Tom, hard to starboard! I've got a fix on the–"
The catch of the alien tractor beam is too much for the Flyer's already fried circuitry, and a shrill whine is our only warning. The control panel practically explodes in her face, and the captain flies back a few meters, hitting the science console behind her with a sickening crack even as I'm thrown bodily from the helm.
The Flyer is trapped in the pull of the stronger ship. With the engines shot to hell, there's no way I'm going to be able to pull us free now. Instead of wasting precious time trying, I crawl through thick smoke toward the woman I can spot lying in the corner. It takes longer than I want to reach her. The engines are still sputtering and straining against the tractor beam, and a few rough tugs and harsh jerks send everything not permanently attached hurtling across the shuttle...including me. The engines die a shrill, whining death, and when I finally stop rolling around the cabin like a pinball in a machine, I've managed to reach her, somehow.
Her blood is everywhere. Staining my hands, her uniform, the floor. Her blue-grey eyes are staring, frozen, and I know even before I manage to crawl back to her side and press shaking fingers to her neck: we've lost her.
Ashley Whitmore is dead.
Damn it, I really liked her. The captain did, too. Whitmore was chosen for this mission in part because the captain wanted to get to know her better…shit. I blink back tears. Another good person down. Another one lost.
She will be mourned, I tell myself. We'll have a proper funeral service, and we'll all honor the remarkable, loving woman that Ashley was…but not now. Now, I need to find the captain.
At first, I panic; I don't see her. She isn't anywhere in sight. I'm terrified she must be trapped somewhere in the smoky cabin, maybe impaled by flying shrapnel just as Whitmore was. The captain could be bleeding out somewhere close, waiting for me to come and help her, and God damn it, but I can't see more than a few centimeters in front of me…
The Flyer jolts once, hard, then is still. We've been docked.
"Tom," I hear croaked from just behind me as a familiar grip closes over my shoulder.
I breathe a sigh of relief. Or rather, I try to: a tickling sensation at the back of my throat has me hacking and coughing, instead. The captain's smoke-singed face is leaning over me, her hand closing around my arm now, helping pull me to my feet. A good portion of her uniform jacket is blackened over her forearms, and some of her hair is burnt around the edges, but otherwise, she looks uninjured. She must have been able to throw her arms up just in time to shield her face from the worst of the exploding console.
"Are you all right?" I hear her shout over the blaring alarms the computer refused to silence before it went offline.
Better than Ashley is, yeah. I nod curtly and start to make a move for the phaser locker, but the captain puts a hand on my arm again, squeezing hard. "No," she barks out shortly, shaking her head through a deep cough. "There's nothing…to be gained by that now. The size of that ship, we'll be outnumbered…at least…a hundred to one."
She's most likely right, now that I think on it. We're both coughing for a minute, unable to speak. Plasma fumes are harsh on the human lung. The alarms are silenced as blackness descends over us. The power has been cut, whether due to mechanical failure or outside interference, I don't know. I probably don't really want to know.
"Whitmore?" the captain manages gravely, once her coughing has subsided for the moment.
Now there's only the hiss of leaking plasma to soften my response.
"Gone," I inform quietly. Her eyes close briefly, and she reaches out a hand to rest on my shoulder just as the emergency lighting finally flickers on overhead. Better late than never, I suppose. My right hand closes hesitantly over hers on my shoulder.
That's when I realize something strange. The captain is surveying the damage all around us, and I can see her mind already working as her eyes dart from one area to the next, but she isn't moving to do anything at all. And she doesn't seem inclined to anytime soon.
"So we just…sit here and wait for them to come in after us?" I assumed she would have a plan by now, and I can't help the incredulous note in my voice, but the captain doesn't seem fazed by it. Surprise of surprises.
She shakes her head, coughing dryly before managing, "They could have taken us out with one more decent shot. They had plenty of time to make it, but they didn't. They want us alive…at least for the moment. Until we know what we're dealing with, it's best not to give them reason to rethink that notion. Understood?"
I manage a nod as a heavy thump is heard against the outside of the rear of the hull. Both of our gazes are drawn to the back of the shuttle before the captain reaches up to her collar and feels along the pips there. To my surprise, she yanks off two of them and swiftly tosses them under the helm console, where they roll out of sight. The movement sends her into another coughing fit, and I automatically reach out a hand to brace against her arm. She turns to me, and I feel her reach up to my collar, removing one of my pips before it, too, soars out of sight to join its fellows under the helm.
Obviously, she's worked out plenty that I haven't yet.
I know what she's trying to do by discarding the pips, though. The people in this sector are real sticklers for rank equaling respect. Not one of the dozen or so species we've encountered lately has failed to ask after our system of ranking. By now it should be fairly common knowledge around here how to discern our relative ranks just by looking at the number of pips on our collars…she doesn't want them to know how high ranking either of us are.
The people who've just captured us don't have particularly benign intentions: the hull of our best shuttle bears the obvious evidence of that. The repairs we're looking at having to make…well, let's just say I'm not particularly looking forward to facing B'Elanna later. Every piece of hardware is basically fried. This is weeks of reconstructive work here, especially since she's on limited duty, now that we know we're expecting…
My heart seizes up in a sharp pang. I can't think about the family I have waiting for me back on Voyager right now. It might just kill me, maybe even literally, and I have to be concerned with the family I have standing right next to me.
Through the haze of venting plasma exhaust that will kill us within another minute or so, I can see the captain's face. And, for just a second, I think I see a flicker of apprehension there, but it's gone immediately, so I could never really be sure it was there at all. She meets my eyes as the doors to the shuttle suddenly blast out, leaving a hole venting plasma exhaust in the rear. I turn to watch, to move in front of her, but she pulls back on my arm again and shakes her head. She looks grim.
"This may get…unpleasant for us, Tom. Do your best, but don't be unnecessarily heroic, understand?"
I have no real idea how much she is saying to me in this moment. It's only a long while later that I understand the origin, the true weight of these words, but when Kathryn Janeway gives you that narrow-eyed look of steel, you just nod and shut up.
"Yes, ma'am," I acknowledge tightly, watching her step forward with her hands raised. Somehow the picture of authority, even in this submissive posture. But she's worried: the grip she'd had on my arm told me that, but I'm not immediately sure why. Voyager's days away, sure, but I also know better than to think she's worried for her own safety. This is the woman who manually launches torpedoes and walks straight onto Borg cubes so she can allow herself to be partially assimilated. So I can't understand what her concern could be…
And then it hits me, of course: the captain is specifically worried for me. She's stepped out directly in front of me.
Not a good sign.
I don't have time to think about it. About six dark, helmeted figures storm the cockpit. These aliens aren't huge by human standards, but they make up for their lack of brawn in other ways. Now that they've decided upon entry, they come in with weapons flashing, all speed and menace and purpose. The smoke is thinning rapidly, and they have no trouble either locating or reaching us.
The captain opens her mouth to speak, to give her standard address (minus the "captain" part, I assume), but they aren't interested. Our raised hands are grabbed, twisted behind us and held there. In the confusion, something small and slightly painful is fitted over our noses. It pinches.
We're being yanked out of the Flyer with considerable speed now. Out of the corner of my eye, I see one of the soldiers bending over Whitmore's fallen body, inspecting her closely, and I instinctively bristle. I'm not sure if the captain sees this, but if she does, she doesn't mention it.
We're led out into a huge, gleaming hangar. She doesn't make any effort to hinder the movements of the unnamed aliens herding us into a huge hangar, and I take my cue from her; I don't resist, either.
I take this to be the aliens' shuttlebay, but their shuttles must be considerably larger than ours, because it's about twice the size of Voyager's shuttle bay. Black and silver are the color schemes here: black for the soldiers' uniforms and helmets, and silver for their weapons and bulkheads. The combination screams power. Danger.
I try to avoid breathing through my nose. I'm not sure this device doesn't contain poison or something else harmful, and with the small round cap completely covering both nostrils, there'd be no way to avoid inhaling any substances it might contain.
But the atmosphere is far too thin in the hangar. Breathing through my mouth quickly has me lightheaded enough to stumble, and in the process of being jerked sharply to my feet, I'm forced to inhale through my nose anyway. Immediately, the lightheadedness disappears, and I inhale the additional oxygen gratefully. Apparently, the atmosphere in this hangar is too thin to breathe comfortably, and these devices are designed to compensate for our lack of ability to withstand it.
Apparently, the aliens knew this about us. Probably not such a good sign, but I can't help being grateful for it, anyway.
"Who are you, and what do you want with us?" the captain demands as we're led down the ramp to stand at the bottom. Her voice is more nasally than usual, but that's because of the device fitted over her nose.
The soldiers escorting us ignore her.
There are about twenty more of them standing in a semi circle around the Flyer. All are standing at the ready, and all have weapons drawn and pointing in our direction…
No, that's not true. There's one at the very center of the circle who doesn't have a weapon drawn. He's standing with his arms behind his back, surveying the whole scene with what I take to be interest. He isn't wearing a helmet, and I can see that this is a race we haven't encountered yet. It surprises me. Since the first disastrous trade attempt with Kaelo, we've been scrambling to negotiate with every space-faring civilization within thirty light years. I thought we'd met them all by now.
Obviously, I was wrong.
I try to meet the captain's eyes, but her gaze is focused dead ahead of her on the alien in front of us. There's movement behind me, and I feel the cold weight of metal encircling my wrists now. The finality of the smart clicks locking the restraints in place is daunting. I can feel myself being pushed to my knees, and beside me, I see the captain positioned likewise. The soldiers aren't gentle, but they're not really hurting us, either. They're only using about as much force as they have to in order to subdue us.
"Why did you attack our shuttle?" she demands, her hard voice crackling out again into the relative silence of the hangar.
The leader steps forward, his hands still behind his back. I gather the atmosphere in the hangar must be suited to their comfort then, because he wears no breathing gear. He strides right up to us – or rather, to her. He ignores me completely. One of his minions follows him, staying about an arm's length behind until they stop only a foot or so in front of the captain.
A guard behind her keeps her kneeling with a heavy, gloved hand on her shoulder. She can only look up at our abductor from the floor, but it doesn't seem to faze her. I know her better than to think it ever would have.
"We're on a peaceful trade mission. We mean you no harm," she asserts, not at all intimidated by their weapons, their posturing, or their silence.
His pasty, almost transparent flesh is stretched tightly across his ridged cheek bones as he surveys her with intense scrutiny. He doesn't speak. Through four narrowed red eyes, he takes in her rumpled appearance, from the smoke-tinged features and mussed red hair to her two-pipped collar and uniform. As his eyes pass over her collar, I think I can see a hint of a smirk on his face, but it's impossible to tell from this angle.
No one seems to be breathing. We're all waiting expectantly: me, her, and the soldiers surrounding us.
Suddenly, one of his black-gloved hands shoots out, catching her at the throat, and I instinctively tense. The guard behind me notices. The grip on my shoulder tightens to the point of pain, and his weapon digs into the tender skin just below my ear in an unmistakable warning. I choke back on the gasp of pain. I would already bet six months worth of rations that this won't be the worst of the pain coming my way. At any rate, I won't be moving to defend the captain anytime soon, so I can only hope this doesn't get too rough too quickly.
The leader's light yellow eyebrow quirks upward, I assume in concentration. He looks like a pale Romulan really, I think, taking in his sharp features. With two sets of eyes, of course, but the bone structure and hair style are similar. So is the superior attitude as he finally speaks.
"You're Janeway?" he demands gruffly. "Captain of Voyager? Or is it the one in the shuttle? The dead human?"
She doesn't move a muscle. Doesn't even tense, nor does she hesitate.
"Who wants to know?"
A little surprised, I suppress a proud snort of laughter.
But how the hell does he know who the captain of Voyager is? Of course. It hits me: the scout ships. The "shy" ships that have been popping up on the fringes of our sensors for weeks now but never once responded the captain's friendly hails. This ship had the same signature, I remember the captain noting when we'd first come under attack. Her actions just before we were boarded make a little more sense now; she'd already put together what I hadn't, until just now. They've been stalking us.
Again, not a good sign.
The leader frowns, his pale, pasty flesh marred by the ugly lines. He stares at her. Doesn't answer. I doubt she really expected him to, anyway. He steps back a pace, nodding to the henchman who's stood waiting behind him this whole time.
The guard moves toward her. The captain is pushed forward by her arms, courtesy of the man behind her. She falls forward, almost hitting her face on the shiny grated floor until he pulls back abruptly. They're moving her hair aside and ripping open her collar.
"Hey!" I growl, not that anyone's listening. "Take it easy!"
It's the last thing I say for some time. Something dark is swiftly crammed into my open mouth and shoved so far back into my throat I gag, choking. It tastes like sawdust…scratchy fabric. Now, I can only make grunting sounds. I do. Loud grunting sounds, because the guy in front of her has something in his hand.
A cloth is shoved into the captain's mouth, too, as she starts to protest. The instrument the guard holds looks like a weapon. It's dark. Mottled silver with a handle and a short barrel. The end of the barrel is pressed into the side of her neck. At least I think it is, but she's obstructing my view of the strange device, now that it's so close to her. I watch in horror, held still, as the captain tries to move her head to the side to avoid what's coming. The guard in front of her isn't having that, though. He takes her jaw firmly in his free hand, keeping her still, and then her features twist briefly into a grimace of pain.
I can't move, damn it, and it's too late, now. I hear a hiss and then a stifled groan from her. I watch on in helpless terror, wondering what the hell they're giving her until the guard lets go of her. He backs away slowly, taking the device with him, cradling it in front of him like it's a precious artifact. The one in charge, the only non-helmeted alien, waits with something long and flat in his hand. He takes another object from his pocket. It's difficult to see from several meters away…wait a minute. It's hair. It's a small twist of red hair, hardly more than a few strands…
What the hell is going on here?
Our "host" puts the tiny swatch of hair into a small, circular impression along the thin device he's holding. The lights flash a siren red, and he places the swatch of hair back into the small pocket at the side of his black uniform. I can't help it. I'm staring in fascination now. The leader takes the instrument from his subordinate and carefully presses the tip to the same circular impression in the padd. I see lights blink green and then flash siren red.
He smiles. Lifts his strange eyes, and I'm sure I see pleasure in his expression this time. He meets the captain's eyes, now that she's been pushed back into her original, kneeling position. She looks furious, but he isn't affected by her glare. He says one word:
A cheer erupts through the hangar.
And we're just piling on the bad signs now.
So much for protecting my identity and, by default, for protecting Tom or Voyager. It's not the ship they're after. It's me.
As soon as our captor took that hair out of his pocket, I knew everything I needed to know. There was only one place he could have gotten it: Kaelo. The prefect of Jifan. The bastard had ripped that hair right out of my skull. Of course, that was after I nearly broke his arm – admittedly not the wisest or most captainly course of action, but even I have my limits.
We've been in desperate need of several refined supplies, as usual, and this was the first populated sector we've come across in some one hundred light years. Kaelo greeted us first, and as his planet was the center of most trade in the system, it was with him that negotiations were most likely to have to be conducted.
In the beginning, I held out hope that I'd convince him to trade with us, despite his blustering and overbearing nature. And he pretended to consider it, at first, but he soon revealed himself to be rather less interested in friendly trade than he'd initially appeared. It took a little time to realize it, but the ruler of Jifan was somewhat of a sociopath – a megalomaniac, at the very least. Unwarrantedly paranoid that we were a threat to his power in the quadrant. Convinced we had ulterior motives for approaching him and desperate to subjugate us before that imaginary threat could be realized.
Kaelo didn't seem to believe our assurances that we were just passing through the sector. He feared we would ally with his enemies and, most particularly, with a radical group on his own home world. He was desperate to bring us under his control before that happened, and he seemed convinced that the way to do that was through me.
It quickly became apparent that his…demands…weren't going to be anything I could stomach – not for any amount of supplies. After only a few hours planet-side with him, I even half tried to pawn off negotiations on Chakotay. He would have taken over with a little more relief than was strictly first officer-like, but Kaelo clearly couldn't stand him, and the feeling was too obviously mutual for the idea to have any real merit.
Not that I liked the man any better, but we needed those supplies, and Kaelo was as interested in negotiating with Tuvok as he was with Chakotay. And so, I tried to stick it out. After all, we've had our fair share of difficult negotiations before and still managed to pull them off. I told myself this was yet another test of my supposedly refined diplomatic skills.
It baffled me that the prefect could be so suspicious of our motives and yet so seemingly intent upon seducing me, but I think he genuinely thought that once he got his hands on me, I'd be so infatuated that I wouldn't consider undermining his position of authority in the sector. Or maybe he only hoped that if he did it publicly enough, he could discredit me in the eyes of his followers…and perhaps, even in the eyes of my own followers.
I did my best to disavow him of the notion, but he wasn't particularly receptive to the word "no" – something Chakotay and Tuvok really loved, as I recall now with a dry, inward smile. I hadn't let it intimidate me, especially as Kaelo had the ability to fulfill all of our requirements in one stop.
He'd humored me, but as time went on, I found his true motives painfully obvious. He was more interested in interrogating us and strangely, in neutralizing the image of power he seemed to see and fear in Voyager…in me. Eventually, I'd had enough of his poorly veiled threats and not-so-innocuous innuendo, and we'd walked away from the bargaining table after three grueling days of trying my best to negotiate with him.
The less-than-amicable terms under which we departed must be the reason for this unprovoked attack on our shuttle now. Kaelo sent these men after me. I should have realized he hadn't gotten over what I did to him so easily, though even now, I can't quite bring myself to regret having done it.
It wasn't so much the shockingly indecent proposal he arrogantly whispered into my ear as he leaned over me at the banquet table; I've heard those before. Maybe never in such an assuming, cruel sneer, but I've certainly heard them. All right, and so the fact that it wasn't even a proposal so much as an announcement of his intentions might've helped me decide, but that really wasn't it, either…
No, I'd have to say it was his wandering hand under the table, edging up along my inner thigh, that finally pushed me over the edge.
He spoke up at my terse refusal, repeating his proposal – loudly – as though the reason for my demurral was that I hadn't heard him properly. At that point, several of the closest heads turned in our direction, and I could tell from the amused, unconcerned expressions on his subordinates' faces that this was typical behavior for the arrogant bastard. Those trade ministers were all eagerly watching for my reaction, even had broad smiles on their faces. Apparently, everyone at the table expected me to capitulate – then.
It was more than enough to make it clear that we weren't going to be reaching an agreeable resolution with the authorities of Jifan, after all. Particularly as his insistent hand continued to try and progress further upward between my then clenched thighs while we argued.
He ignored my perfectly polite request to remove his hand, and as there appeared to be something wrong with his hearing, I did what came naturally; I removed his hand for him. In the process, however, I'm afraid I couldn't seem to help nearly snapping his wrist or making him scream out in pain.
The look in his eyes in that moment in which I released him was telling: it was raw, naked hatred. He saw the shock on his face mirrored on that of his trade ministers, and those strange, glittering eyes promised to make me regret humiliating him.
He tried to do it then. Incidentally, I'd no idea Ayala could move that fast, and I hadn't even thought him observing the exchange very closely, but one minute, I felt the searing pain in my scalp as Kaelo's hand tightened in my hair, and the next, I was practically ripped away from him. Some of my hair pulled loose by the roots, making me blink back sharp tears of pain, but even before I could react, Mike had shoved me behind him so fast I nearly lost my balance.
The rest is somewhat of a blur. The remainder of the security team was surrounding me, shielding me with their bodies and calling for a beam out, shouting out over the din as Kaelo's guards stood in shock, hands hovering near their belts. The transporter took hold of us all shortly thereafter, but through the entire wait, Ayala stood unapologetically with a phaser pressed to the prefect's throat.
We left immediately. I gave the order from the transporter platform, hailing Chakotay almost instantly. As there had been no shore leave negotiated for the general crew, breaking orbit took only a few minutes. From there, it took about three minutes more for B'Elanna to fire up the warp core, and we left without a backward glance.
Of course Kaelo didn't take our abrupt departure well, as we'd soon found out. He'd made trading for the supplies we so desperately needed all but impossible. Most of the people in this sector are terrified of him, and he'd put the fear of holy gods into them, warning them not to trade with us. As a result, we've been turned away, practically shunned by every species we met afterward.
We were lucky, to Chakotay's way of thinking. He'd felt sure the prefect would send his small fleet of warships after us. At first, I'd been inclined to agree with him, and we proceeded cautiously for several days thereafter, but we weren't pursued. That the prefect hadn't sent his ships after us was a relief, of course…
It was only after stopping at the planet Ramor and unsuccessfully trying to forge an alliance with the Ramorans that we learned of the devastating terrorist attack that had taken place on Jifan barely a week after our departure. Apparently, the underground resistance had finally made its move against Kaelo, and with devastating consequences. The attack killed thousands of Jifans living within the capital city limits. Though we were a good week away, on Ramor, I sent my condolences and an offer to help in any way we could. I may fundamentally agree that Jifan would be better off ruled by a democracy, but I can't condone violence as a means of achieving that end, and according to the reports, the attack had been truly devastating. Thousands of innocent lives were lost. Despite our disagreement, I felt an obligation to at least extend a sympathetic hand.
As I expected, our offer was ignored, but afterward, trading did seem to go a bit easier. I assumed Kaelo had forgotten us entirely amidst the chaos of the attack…that, or he'd forgiven me my "insolence".
As I kneel on the harsh grated floor of these aliens' hangar, I can see how grossly inaccurate my assumption was. Kaelo had neither forgiven nor forgotten anything. He'd gone far enough to put a bounty on my head…a big enough bounty to have this group of alien headhunters stalking us for weeks. These are the same strange, unknown people whose small vessels have been appearing on the fringes of Voyager's sensors for the past few weeks. I hadn't regarded them as potential hostiles – merely as a curiosity – but they'd shown no interest in establishing communications, so I assumed the ships belonged to a more isolated race of people. They'd shown no signs of aggression, and our scans hadn't revealed them to be a threat to Voyager in any way.
Of course they wouldn't have, as I realize now. They were scout ships. Reconnaissance vessels. Expressly designed to cause little or no notice as we went about our primary mission to procure the supplies we needed. They'd been stalking us the entire time, right in plain sight.
I could cheerfully kick myself for having been so naïve. Our captor planned this well, and I played right into his hands by taking the Flyer to negotiate for deuterium while Chakotay took Voyager to the slightly more dangerous Bahni home world to try for some of the more critical food supplies.
Whatever price Kaelo has put on my capture, it's clear from the amount of trouble these aliens have gone to in order to capture me that it's a big enough sum to make all that trouble worthwhile.
But the bounty is on my head and mine, specifically. Kaelo never met Tom and could have no interest in him. Ayala, I could see him despising, Tuvok or Chakotay even, but…
My suspicions are confirmed when the instrument is brought over to Tom, and he's pushed forward as the tool is pressed into his skin with a hiss. I don't move yet; there's no need. As far as I can tell, the device isn't harmful. They extract some of his DNA, and the same procedure is followed by our captor. This time, there is no hair produced, of course, but a small vial is quickly tapped against the impression. Again, we can see a flash of red, and the instrument is pressed into the same circular interface. Flashing green…then blue. I assume then that Ayala's skin cells were collected, or maybe Chakotay's, probably from the surface of something they'd touched while planet-side. And of course Tom's sequence isn't a match.
"Unknown," our captor frowns, further confirming my assumption as the dry cloth in my throat continues to suck every drop of moisture from my already smoke-raw throat.
My heart skips beats. Unknown. Or, to a bounty hunter, expendable.
"What do we do with him?" his attentive guard inquires.
Our captor meets my gaze again. I try to speak through the gag, willing him with my eyes to take the cloth out of my mouth so I can address the point. A small smile lights on his pale face while he appears to consider.
I could kill him. This is the life of one of my crewmen at stake; nothing could be less humorous. He toys with me for a seeming eternity. Finally, he nods to the guard behind me. The cloth is pulled out, and I choke, spluttering as the scratchy material chafes against the roof of my mouth.
"Let him go," I try immediately, as soon as I'm able to meet his red eyes again. I cough violently against the dry tickling at the back of my throat, but even the tears that form in my eyes because of it aren't enough to make me silent. "He has no part in this." I hope my voice is infused with the proper amount of steel, but it's so hoarse by this point I'm not sure I succeed.
In fact, I'm rather sure I haven't as he laughs harshly.
"Out of the question," he assures me. "You will be with us for a short while, and I cannot have Voyager tracking our movements by the account he gives of your capture."
I can't look at Tom. I hear the words, the sense they make, and my heart is sinking into my stomach like a hunk of iced titanium. I hope it doesn't show on my face: desperation is never a good standpoint from which to begin negotiations.
There's no sense in arguing his point. Our captor is a professional, or so I gather from his actions thus far. He'll never take the chance, and we both know that Tom would do just that.
I try again. "Whatever price you're being offered, I can–"
His laughter rings out again, cutting me off. "Oh, I doubt that. I highly doubt it. Even if you could offer me something comparable, you cannot guarantee our safety when the client is made aware of my double crossing."
"He doesn't have to know," I urge, grateful that I'm being given so much information to work with. I've completed successful negotiations with far less of a starting point before. And I refuse to admit defeat with so much at stake.
Our captor shakes his head curtly, stopping me in the middle of another logical argument. "But I'm afraid he does." He, I note, not that I needed him to confirm my suspicions; I know who's behind this. "We've already sent word."
Damn it. My mind is spinning, working through logical solutions. "Then keep him," I urge, willing our captor to see things my way. "Keep him until your…exchange." I do fight the distaste from showing on my face, if not in my tone. No sense in insulting him, however tempting it might be. "You can release him afterward. He'll be no threat to you then."
Our captor kneels down in front of me until his strange double row of eyes is centimeters from mine. For a long minute, he's peering intently at me. I don't back away – not that I have the choice, really, with a guard standing so closely behind me. The point is that I don't try, and I believe he respects this.
"Alive and relatively undamaged," he informs me carefully, "you are worth fifteen million lycca."
My eyes want to widen, but I don't let them. In this sector, that's the equivalent of a Voyager-sized ship. It's also final confirmation of who has set this bounty. No one else could afford to pay such an exorbitant amount of money.
"Kaelo," I spit, confirming his identity aloud.
The prefect certainly knows how to hold a grudge. It's beyond belief that he has maintained this level of venom toward me over the simple spurning of his self-serving advances. Tom tenses beside me at the mention of Kaelo's name, but our head bounty hunter only smiles knowingly.
Right now, it's Tom's life I'm concerned with. I focus on what our captor is saying to me as he speaks again.
"Dead, you are worth five million," he furthers. He gives a cold little smile, skirting around the issue of the client's identity entirely. "It seems you've angered…someone…enough to want the pleasure of killing you personally."
I could have put this together for myself. He didn't have to lay it out for me. And he knows this, of course; he's toying with me. My eyes harden. "Your point?" I demand curtly.
My reaction seems to please him, as I anticipated from his response at my refusal to break eye contact before.
"Good," he grunts approvingly. "No begging. That is preferable. I may not have to keep you gagged for the entire trip if you can keep it up."
The word "bastard" comes to mind, but I only say it with my glare. I'm well aware of Tom's trusting presence beside me. So aware, in fact, that I can detect every slight shift in his movement, every change in his breathing pattern, which is audible through the atmosphere converter clipped over his nose.
His breathing, I think. He's still breathing. I will do whatever is necessary to make sure he continues doing so. I can't think about how I've already failed Ashley Whitmore in that regard. She's gone. I can't afford to dwell on that failure now; it could so easily cost me another.
Our captor still smiles coldly. "I am not a man who likes trouble, Captain," he informs me, oddly, I think at first, but then he continues, "In fact, the less fuss, the better. It would be easier for me to take the five million and kill you now. I can pay off my debts with fifty thousand and my men with an additional one million."
Charming. He's letting me know in no uncertain terms that he loses little by killing me. Flaunting the fact that he has the upper hand. "But obviously, fifteen million is preferable to five million. I would rather keep you alive for now and collect the maximum fee." He pauses for a dramatic few seconds. "Your cooperation would go a long way in ensuring that sum. I won't have to use…harsher methods of restraint."
If he's trying to frighten me, he should try a little harder. He's giving me the answer I need, I realize numbly. There isn't room for the surge of joy that wants to shoot through me or for the absurd gratitude I feel toward him right now. My voice is sure, and I don't for a moment look away from those strange eyes.
"Let him live, and you'll have my full cooperation," I promise evenly.
He darts a glance over to Tom. I don't. Not yet.
Our captor's steady gaze returns to me. He nods once, and I do my damnedest not to sag with relief. "Acceptable. I will see if our client is interested in negotiating for this one in addition to you. In the meantime, this agreement will be on a limited basis. Any trouble from you – or from him – will result in his termination," the alien warns.
It could be their translators that chose the specific word "termination", but somehow, I don't think so. The hard glint in his eyes tells me he has no qualms about killing Tom, and the terminology he uses to refer to the act confirms this hypothesis.
"And I make no guarantees for the end of the journey. If the client will not have him and I haven't found a suitable method of disposing of him efficiently by then, he will have to be terminated."
I open my mouth again to argue the point, but he cuts me off with a stern shake of his head. "Don't press your luck, Janeway. It's the best offer you will receive," he assures me.
I believe him.
Tom's breathing is steadier now. So is mine. It's something: a reprieve, albeit a brief one. I'll take it – for now. I nod my agreement.
I already know this ship is capable of warping almost as fast as Voyager. Jifan is almost two weeks of steady travel away from these coordinates, but the Bahni home world is still two days away from here, and our next scheduled check in is tomorrow. Our communications were taken out before the distress call could be transmitted, so it will take at least that long for Chakotay to know something's wrong. From there, they'll travel to our last known location…here…and that will be two days added to the one. And then they'll have to work out which warp trail to follow. Chakotay is an excellent tracker, a throwback from his days in the Maquis if not earlier, but this is a relatively highly trafficked passage. There will be dozens of signatures to choose from…
The point is that in the best of scenarios, there's no way Voyager will beat us to Jifan. They won't even know to begin the journey for several days yet. At least when they find the trail ends abruptly, they'll know we've been taken by someone.
I find it hard to pity this man when Chakotay eventually does find him, but I certainly don't envy him, either. And my first officer will find us, of that I have no doubt. Less pleasant is the sure knowledge that if he doesn't, he will die trying.
It's as though our alien captor hears my thoughts. He stands, turning away from me, and addresses his attendant. "See to things here. Complete the arrangements, then put them in holding. I'm anxious to depart immediately."
His officer nods, and I'm left to wonder what "see to things" means, but only for a moment. The leader strides out of the hangar without another glance at me. Tom and I are pulled to our feet, and I exchange a brief glance with him. I smile slightly, trying to reassure him, and I'm shocked to find that he does the same. For a heady instant, I'm transported backward through time and the man I see standing next to me is my superior, not my subordinate. My head aches, and I can almost hear faint screaming coming from far away…
The vision is wrenched from me as another soldier strides up to us, and then he and the guard who'd been restraining Tom each move to take one of my helmsman's arms. I don't have time to dwell on the tricks my mind has just played on me as they hold him still. Another guard moves forward, and I feel my arms grabbed from the sides as well. Something cold is pressed to my exposed neck, and then my uniform jacket is being sliced open. So is my turtleneck, and the air against my skin gives me chills even though it's still warm in the hangar. I can hear tearing fabric next to me, too, and a quick glance at Tom reveals the same treatment being applied to him.
I cringe only inwardly. We're being stripped. Wonderful. But they stop at our undergarments, leaving them mercifully intact. Our torn clothing is gathered by a single guard as we stand shivering, watching him take the discarded uniforms into the shuttle. My protests that we need our commbadges in order to be able to communicate with them are ignored. In fact, instead of answering me, they shove the damned cloth back into my mouth, and I could scream – except, of course, for the fact that I can't.
Things are moving quickly now.
The soldier returns from the shuttle empty-handed, and then we're ushered behind a vast black line that separates one half of the large hangar from the other. A forcefield snaps into place behind us, and the heavy bay doors are parting on the other side of the field. Pulses alight beneath the damaged, fire-singed Delta Flyer, and she slowly rises to hover in the air several meters above the grated deck. I watch, mesmerized in spite of myself as the ship is ejected back out into space. They aren't keeping the shuttle, I realize. Why aren't they keeping the …
And then I look on in horror as two bright yellow pulses leave this ship from a location we can't see at this angle. The pulses strike the shuttle simultaneously. There's a brief fire of exploding plasma snuffed instantly by the vacuum of space, and a huge burst of shattering metals and alloys.
And then the Flyer is gone. Ashley Whitmore's body is gone; not even that can I take back to Voyager if we escape.
In the shuttle's place floats a sparkling nebula of tiny, glittering fragments. Like a winter sun over a war-ravaged battlefield, the cold and final realization dawns over me. Voyager won't be coming for us, after all.
They're going to think we're dead.
We're marched down endless corridors, the route twisting and turning. Long titanium lines of crisscrossing grates intersecting with gleaming black paneling. I somehow doubt these people could be bribed with even Voyager's technology. This is a smooth ship. Sleek, but powerful. I couldn't outmaneuver it in the Flyer, after all.
As we walk, I stare at the captain's back, trying not to focus on the fact that she's barely dressed. Hoping she's pretty much doing the same whenever she turns to make sure I'm still behind her, but for all she seems affected by it, we could be on the bridge right now, doing business as usual. She keeps her head held high and her shoulders back. The entire time, our captor's words ring in my ears. Alive, you are worth fifteen million lycca. Dead, you are worth five.
We're being led to an execution, plain and simple. Probably not a swift one, either, if the price set for our live capture means anything – well – her live capture, anyway. The captain's singular acknowledgement echoes in my ears, too. Kaelo.
Arguably the worst sign yet. I can only go by what I heard, for the most part, but the captain and Chakotay fought over whether or not to even attempt trading with him. Of course the captain won, but the security teams' detailed accounts of the prefect's behavior coupled with the few transmissions the captain hadn't taken in private were enough to tell most of the story: Kaelo was a real bastard. I was grateful B'Elanna's condition precluded her as a candidate for planet-side activities. There was no way I wanted my wife within reaching distance of someone with Kaelo's volatile, almost predatory temperament.
Not that any of us wanted the captain down there with him any more than we wanted her with a pack of rabid Toskitars, but she was accompanied by either Chakotay or Tuvok most times, not to mention a full security team.
The prefect's interest in us…well, her, primarily…was a little strange from the beginning. If Jifan was the center of commerce in this system, and it seemed to be from all the interstellar traffic around the planet, then how could the ruler of the planet afford to spend his time meeting with every single hopeful trade prospect that came calling?
Tuvok thought it was odd; he said so right on the bridge, and she'd agreed with him. The best we could all gather was that most of the other ships were local while we, clearly, were not. It was conceivable that he'd taken our hail himself when their sensor net revealed how foreign we were to the area.
I somehow resisted adding my observation that, whatever the reason for his initial greeting, I thought it blatantly obvious why he wanted her to put in our request for supplies in person. Kaelo hadn't taken his dark eyes off of her for a single second once the channel opened…it was as if none of the rest of us existed at all.
I trusted Chakotay to have noticed it, since the captain hadn't seemed to, and he didn't disappoint. On the bridge, he kept his usual, calm persona, but after that first transmission, the commander didn't wait more than the standard minute before asking to see her in her ready room, which of course meant he didn't like her decision to beam down and meet with the Jifan prefect. And later, when Tuvok insisted she take a double security team to the surface for the second and third days of negotiation, it was clear how he felt about the prefect. And Ayala hated his guts on sight. Mike still swears that if he hadn't stepped in when he did that last day...
Needless to say, when the away team returned early from the third day of negotiations and the captain ordered us to break orbit immediately, I think the whole crew breathed a sigh of relief.
And Kaelo's the one who wants her now. Badly enough to spend an extra ten million lycca to get her alive. I can only imagine what he has planned...it makes my stomach churn.
Eventually, we're stopped in front of a large set of gleaming silver doors, and my darker imaginings are disrupted for the time being. A code is tapped into a keypad set beside the entryway, but it's way too intricate to memorize at one glance. I think I have a good idea of the first two keys, but there are at least a dozen more input in rapid succession right after those. I'd need to see it input several more times to have a chance at getting it right. But the fact that the guard entering the code only smirks when he notices us both watching him like hawks (while pretending not to) is probably not such a good sign. If they're worth even half their salt, they'll be changing that code on a frequent basis. And they're definitely professionals. The whole time we've walked, either one of our arms has been held in a fierce grip, or a weapon has pressed firmly into our backs – usually, both. They're not taking any chances, despite the captain's promise of cooperation.
We're herded inside. The room is huge, about half the size of the hangar, with a few tables and comfortable looking chairs and recliners lining the walls. But what catch my attention immediately are the four circular units dominating the center of the room. As the walls are transparent, it's pretty clear that they're holding cells. They line up in a neat little row, with hardly any space left between them, and inside each one is a small bunk that juts out from the far edge of the cell, crossing about halfway through it. Some kind of thin white cloth covers the beds, and there's a small pillow on each, but from what I can tell, there're no blankets. I hope it's warmer in there than it is in the main section of the room – it's freezing in here, the goosebumps prickling along my exposed skin almost painful.
Aside from the beds, each cell is equipped with what I assume are toilet facilities – even including a simple sink, too. But there's no opening to the cells and no locking mechanisms that I can see: escaping from holding units like these is going to be nearly impossible. Which is probably the point, I guess, but I wonder how they're planning on getting us into them.
And so much for privacy: everything we do inside those cells is going to be clearly visible from the outside. With all the comfortable furniture around, it looks like we're going to be monitored constantly.
That doesn't concern me so much for myself; I'm familiar with the ins and outs of prison life, but the captain isn't. Come to think of it, I don't think she's ever even been in a holding cell before – well, apart from that little stay in the brig recently, courtesy of a mind-altered first officer, that is. Looking at the setup in front of us, I can't help cringing a little, remembering the first few weeks in New Zealand before "good behavior" got me transferred to minimum security wing. There was no privacy whatsoever in those initial intake centers, and it took a long while to get used to the complete lack of seclusion. I highly doubt the captain's going to be comfortable with this situation at all. I'll at least keep my back discreetly turned as much as possible, but that's not speaking to what the guards will do.
I know the cells are transparent for a reason, but I still can't help hating them for it on her behalf. Dignity is an especially precious thing to a commanding officer...almost sacred. They strive to maintain it, particularly in front of their subordinates, and our captors are making it all but impossible for the captain to maintain hers here.
I look them over again, now that they've removed the helmets. Pale Romulans, with two sets of eyes. Most of them look supremely bored, as if they do this sort of thing all the time – which they probably do. A few are smiling at the blank expressions on our faces as we look over our cells for the first time, but more are looking at her than at me. Damn. If they're anything like most prison guards, getting off on the power trip of having our lives in their hands, they're probably going to enjoy embarrassing her. It'll only be worse because I'll be here to bear witness to it…
I hate that I'm here right now. I mean, I'd take her place in a second, but I'm bright enough to realize that my presence isn't going to be any great comfort to the captain. If anything, I'm the biggest liability she has; she's going to have to make crucial concessions on my behalf...is making them. Already, she could be offering more resistance, almost certainly would be, and I'd rather she did. Setting herself up as an easy target won't bode well for her chances here (not to mention wherever we're headed), and "relatively undamaged" isn't exactly a confidence-boosting concept.
I meet the captain's eyes again and, sure enough, she's giving me that reassuring half smile of hers. Typical, but it doesn't fool me. She can see the conditions we'll be kept in as well as I can, and she may not know all the finer points of the situation we're in, but she'll already know how vulnerable we are in cells like these. Unarmed, undressed…basically defenseless and on constant display.
I hold her gaze. Yeah, she knows. And she's using her smile to cover for the way her eyes are coolly accessing my mental condition, practically searing over my face for signs of apprehension. Not that there's a damned thing she can do about it, but she's checking to make sure I'm not panicking, probably worried that I'm afraid. Hell, she's right; at the moment, I'm just this side of terrified that I'm never going to see or hold my wife again. That my kid is going to grow up without a father. Not to mention the claustrophobia those tiny cells are already bringing on. Of course I'm not looking forward to being dumped into those cells and gaped and poked at like some kind of overgrown land-dwelling goldfish in a bowl…
But at least I don't have to show it. My mental condition is the last damn thing the captain needs to be worrying about, on top of everything else. So while I may not be feeling it on the inside, I'm careful to give her a confident nod, anyway.
Seeing her relax by a tiny fraction is all the reward I need for my efforts.
We're guided into position in front of the two closest cells. The sharp prod to the middle of my back starts me reluctantly moving forward, and I'm marched up to stand in front of the first cell, and the captain is led to the next one, more towards the middle. As we watch impassively, a small dark pad rises up from the floor in front of me, and I'm nudged by a weapon in the back to step on top of it. Beside me, I can see the captain maneuvered onto an identical pad, the guard next to her actually taking her arm and steadying her almost chivalrously.
She frowns up at him, as do I, but when he lets go immediately and steps back, her expression clears. She gives him a small smile then, to my surprise, but I guess I shouldn't be. Our conditions in captivity will depend upon the goodwill of the guards. Not only do they have complete access to us, but if we have any hope of escape – not that I'm holding my breath – it'll probably be with their help.
She's already trying to charm them. The soldier is young, has to be inexperienced. He even seems to flush a little under her gaze and shyly looks away from her. I'd laugh if the situation wasn't so serious.
My restraints are removed, drawing my attention back to the guards nearest to me, and I slowly reach up to remove the damned dry cloth from my mouth. They let me, and the captain does the same beside me. Our eyes meet again as something chirps behind us. It sounds like the muted indicator noises from the buttons of a console.
There's the sensation of insects crawling over, through my skin: a transporter beam beginning to take hold. The captain's figure is enveloped in a column of light, fading in front of my eyes, along with the rest of the room. Voyager, I think, for one wild second. Voyager found us already, after all... If my features weren't caught up in a blur of frozen energy, a huge grin would split my face, but then the pain takes hold.
Damn, that burns! It's no Starfleet transporter, and it's certainly not Voyager's: neither B'Elanna nor Harry would be caught dead operating a transporter with such obvious ineptitude. Shit, shit, shit! I can feel my molecules being forcibly ripped away from each other and then the standard nothingness for a heartbeat before the pain returns full force again. God, it feels like I'm being zapped with body sized painsticks or something…it burns…and then I'm standing next to the bed in the middle of my cell, gasping for air as my lungs protest the rough rematerialization they've just undergone. So does the rest of me. My muscles are spasming violently. I fall, the top half of me hitting the mattress only by sheer luck. The pain of impact against my seizing muscles is too much, and my vision goes black: not enough oxygen to the brain.
I welcome the oblivion when it overtakes me.
The first thing I'm aware of is that the surface beneath me isn't soft like a bed...and then strong hands are turning me over onto my back. Who…? It must be him, of course. I must have fallen asleep reading again while waiting up for him to finish in the holodeck. Damn. That means I've probably ruined dinner again, too.
That's another bet lost. It's a good thing he doesn't actually make me pay my debts. If he did, I'd have to give up replicated meals entirely. Not to mention coffee...
But something isn't quite right here. Wasn't I on the bridge? We were testing the artificial grav. units today, weren't we? The hands are stroking my arms now, closing around them. Firm. Shaking me. Trying to rouse me.
I can't open my eyelids. They're too heavy. I don't want to open them; I'm too tired. Exhausted. I can't remember the last time I was so drained. There's a sharp ache in my side. My skin is bare. The hands are moving firmly over my arms. Now gripping my shoulders. Shaking me again. It must be him, of course. And it's practically freezing in my quarters. Goosebumps are rising on my exposed flesh.
I don't want to, I try to say. I'm exhausted. But no sound seems to want to leave my mouth, which feels drier than usual; I can only groan incoherently. And I ache everywhere, though the worst of it seems to be located at the side of my chest. Why am I so drowsy?
"Captain, get up now!"
Captain, huh? I guess he's in a playful mood this evening. The last time he called me "captain" in private was years ago. And he's never this insistent. If I wasn't so tired and annoyed, I might be a little…improperly excited by it, in fact…
Irritation sparks. Damn it, Chakotay, I quit. You can deal with it. Everything hurts. Must have been a tougher day on the bridge than I thought… But, no, this isn't right. We're on the bridge, aren't we? I frown. His hands are digging into me. Hard. Too hard…ouch!
Something's very wrong. It never takes this long to focus my thoughts; my body is trained to wake up at the slightest urging from me.
"It won't work, Captain. We know you're faking. Now get up before you really make me angry."
It's not his voice. I don't know how the hell I thought it was, but it's definitely not him. Something hisses against my neck. I'm shaken again, and just as I feel on the verge of being able to open my eyes, something heavy and solid slams into the throbbing side of my ribcage. The sudden pain exploding through me is incredible, making my eyes squeeze further shut against the onslaught. I suck air through my gritted teeth. It burns my lungs, but that's nothing compared to the sharp, seizing sensation in my side as I do so. I gasp and try to move, to wriggle and alleviate the pain, but it sparks up again at my movement. Agony.
I freeze abruptly. All right. Breathing deeply is out. So is moving. Pain in my side, hurts to breathe... Fractured rib. I should be still. But I cough, unable to help it, and agony spreads through my entire chest again, worse than before. Horrible. Fluid is filling my lungs, making me cough. I have to spit it out… A slap to the side of my face finally startles me into consciousness that last little bit and allows me to summon the energy to open my eyes.
This isn't Voyager. The figure leaning over me isn't my first officer, which I had, at least, already gathered. The memories rush back over me just as the excruciating pain does, and I know where I am. The holding cell. The transporter wasn't calibrated properly to compensate for human physiology...our patterns must significantly differ from theirs. That, or they just have substandard equipment. I rematerialized dizzy, my muscles too weakened to support my shaking body. In shame, I remember that the weakening of my muscles had unfortunately extended to those in my bladder. I'd been looking forward to the opportunity to use the toilet facilities, but…no need for that now. God, that's humiliating. Almost worse than the pain.
Way to retain your dignity, Captain.
The soldier bending over me lifts me, and more agony sweeps over me. The tightness in my chest, the spasm of sharp, ripping pain has me crying out without a care for whether or not it makes me appear weak; it hurts that much. He arranges me on something softer than the surface of the floor…the cot, I realize, struggling to think through the pain. I fight to put together the last pieces of information, to remember how I was injured until I manage to come up with the answer…
Oh, yes. In the immediate aftermath of the botched transport I'd fallen, striking my side hard on the edge of the sink on my way down. From the feel of it, from the insistent coughing racking my body and the slick, fluid feel continually accumulating in my lungs, I've definitely broken a rib, as I'd guessed. Done that before. Some of the pain is recognizable. But I've done the deed properly this time, cracking it so far inward that the damned thing has pierced my lung. The warm fluid I keep coughing up and spilling out now is blood.
Damn. This injury is fatal if left untreated – that much, even I know.
"Tom," I manage to gasp, remembering belatedly that he's here, too. Has he even survived the alien transporter? I can't see him. My head is facing the opposite direction.
The soldier leaning over me is trying to keep me quiet. He's running something over the air above me, concentrating on my left side. That's where most of the pain is situ…I cough again, spewing up rivulets of warm liquid. The taste is nauseating because there's simply no way to tell myself this isn't as bad as it seems. I can't breathe, and it's increasingly difficult to stay calm. But I have to see Tom. I manage to loll my head to the other side, careful not to move my body any but then cough again, and I can see the pattern of fresh blood stains on this side of the pillow as I exhale.
Tom is there, thankfully. And he seems all right. In fact, he seems more than all right. Has quite a bit of energy as he's pressed against the edge of his cell, shouting at the guard in here with me. I can't hear what he's saying. Either the cells are sound proofed and won't allow noise to enter them, or the opposite, and no noise can leave them… It doesn't matter. Tom is all right. I relax by a fraction, at least mentally, fighting the pain from showing on my face, not wanting him to worry more than necessary.
"Tell him…I'm okay," I wheeze, before another coughing fit overtakes me. Just those four words have taken all the air I was able to take into my lungs. My voice is breathy and too shallow. Too soft. Can they even hear what I'm saying? Not enough air. The soldier doesn't seem to understand me. But I can understand him. Their translators are either malfunctioning, or he just isn't listening.
He's frowning down at me and pressing into my side…a hoarse attempt at a scream escapes me. And if Kaelo was looking forward to the pleasure of torturing me all by himself, he's going to be sorely disappointed. I think he could take a few lessons from these sadistic sons of…
Another soldier is with us now, distracting me. Holding me down, hands pressing down on my shoulders, distorting my posture into an agonizingly pressured pose. They're shouting. Raised voices arguing back and forth over me. I'll be damned if I know what they're saying, but they're panicked, and then I'll be damned if their panic isn't panicking me, too.
Fatal. Can't get enough air. Dear God, this isn't happening, this can't be how I die. I'm going to die in battle. I'm going down with my ship, not drowning in my own blood in some glass alien holding cell as the result of a botched transporter accident…
I have to inhale deeply. I have to breathe, and I have to do it calmly. I try again, but instead of precious oxygen, there's only the sensation of liquid pouring into my lungs. Lung? Surely I haven't punctured both?
It's alien, the sensation. Foreign. Wrong. I cough again, and the agony is overwhelming. It's like drowning. Drowning on dry land. My entire being is pain now. It's all I know, all I'm aware of. Enduring becomes my primary objective.
But Tom's face blurs in and out of focus from across the room, demanding some of my attention. He's upset. Damn it, Kathryn, you're upsetting him…
Tom. Tom can fix this, if they let him. He can help me…I hope he can. I try to communicate this to the aliens, to say his name but…
I'm far too dizzy. Breathing is becoming so difficult. Not enough air. I'm getting some, I think, but not enough, not nearly enough. I need more air… My vision has blurred. Tom isn't in my line of sight anymore. I only see blood. Blood staining white cloth. The inside of my eyelids red, the color of blood. The pain is indescribable. Seconds become eternity. Eternity becomes unbearable. I'm cold. I realize now that I may well be dying, and there isn't a damned thing I can do about it.
Ironically, it's the loss of control that hurts the most.
The man who may well be able to fix me lies scant meters across the room, and I can't even tell them how to treat me. If it weren't so frustrating and so unbelievably painful, it would be almost comical. I try to stay conscious, needing to stay alert, but it's a losing battle. But Tom… Oh God. If I die now, before we even get there…
The thought is lost, drowned in another spasm of pain. Drowned under another invading trickle of blood. I was hanging on, wasn't I? It was vital that I do so. Why? I can't recall now. Nothing seems quite worth the pain. Not enough air…
She didn't start coughing until he kicked her. The idiot thought we were faking unconsciousness, so he tried to call her bluff. And then she started coughing up the blood. Never a good sign.
I watch the soldier pull her up onto the cot and set her down. He starts scanning her, seeming frantic. His pale features are flushing a sort of greenish hue. I don't know if that's anger or fear. I don't particularly care. He starts digging his fingers into her side, and as she turns her head, I can see her features contort in anguish. I need to get to her. For God's sake, he's hurting her further while trying to figure out what's wrong with her. These soldiers don't know what the hell they're doing, and how can they? They aren't medics.
She needs one. Now. I've rarely known the kind of helplessness as I do in these few moments, stuck in here, trapped behind the sheer alloy. I'm yelling at the top of my lungs, pounding on the smooth walls of my cell, trying to catch someone's attention. Watching in frustration as another soldier steps up to the transporter pad and then appears inside her cell. The captain's eyes lock onto mine. They're hardly focused. She coughs again, trying to say something. I think I can see my name forming on her lips.
God. She's asking for me. She knows she's in serious trouble. She must be trying to tell them…
But they're paying no attention! She's telling them how to help her, and they're not even listening. It's absurd. Defying belief. Desperately, I look over the parts of her the first soldier isn't obscuring from my view. From this moderate distance, I think I can see heavy bruising forming along the outside edges of her ribcage. Blood. She's coughing up blood… If something has punctured her lung, she has maybe fifteen minutes from the time of injury until she passes out. In the meantime, she's going to be in agony, barely able to breathe. And if they don't let me treat her soon – or find someone who can – this is going to kill her shortly thereafter.
I resume my pounding on the walls, frantic now. Every second that passes with them doing nothing is less of a chance that she can be saved… And they're completely ignoring me. Hell. I don't think they can even hear me, let alone understand me. They haven't spoken a word to us since taking our communicators.
The captain is having difficulty keeping her eyes open. Her face is one pale, continual contortion of pain. In desperation, I look wildly around me, searching for something, anything I might be able to use to either break through the solid, transparent wall keeping me in here or something I can bang against it to grab their attention…
And there's nothing. The bed is sturdy. A few desperate, solid tugs yield no results. The sink is too well attached. Not even the faucet gives an inch. I turn back around, dragging my fingernails into my scalp through my hair as I try to force myself to think about this clearly. This isn't happening. There must be a way to make them let me help her. I'm not going to sit here and watch Captain Janeway die in front of me when I might be able to save her if they'd only let me get to her.
Something catches my eye. The soldier the captain smiled at earlier has turned to watch me. I freeze, and my pulse pounds in my eardrums. His pale face looks pinched. Worried. His eyes keep darting back and forth between us, as though he can't decide who to watch, but finally I have someone's attention. I force myself to calm. I have to do this with a clear head. I have to figure out a way to communicate that I can help her. That I know how. Otherwise, he's probably going to assume I'm just upset that she's hurt.
And damn it, I really wish Chakotay was here right now. This is his bullshit hobby, not mine. The fundamentals of language and communication never held any interest for me, either in school or at the academy. I'm a pilot, damn it. Give me a flight control panel and I'll get you anywhere you need to go, but this…
I don't have any other options. They need to know that I can help her. At a complete loss for finesse, I thump a hand to my chest. What's good enough for Tarzan, I figure. Willing him to understand me, trying to make my eyes speak for me. "Me," I say aloud, not even sure he can hear me. Fairly sure that he can't.
I think it's safe to assume he gets the first part – if he doesn't, we're in serious trouble. I gesture to the captain, who's lying on her back, still coughing, and then I see something else that makes my heart pound harder. Her chest is inflating. That really only means one thing, and if the fractured rib has penetrated the chest wall as well as her lung… I'm forcing panic away with everything I have. Willing myself to stay calm and to think clearly.
"Her," I vocalize, pointing to her cell again. Obviously he's got to understand that I mean her and not the soldiers, right? Right?
I point to myself again, thumping my chest and gesturing over to the captain with the other arm. "Get me…to her."
He shakes his head, looking almost remorseful. No, he's saying.
"Come on!" I hit the wall with both fists, frustrated, before I can catch myself. My eyes close. He thinks I just want to get to her because I'm upset. Damn it, I can't think clearly like this. I have to.
Ok, I expected that. So I have to make him understand that I'm not just asking because I don't trust them with her…not that I do, but that's another worry I can't afford to think about right now. He thinks I just want to be with her because she's hurt. Obviously, they're not about to permit that. So how to make him understand? What's the universal sign for medic? Is there even a universal sign for that?
The soldier is looking away. At her. Then his eyes shift back to me. For a minute, I'm at a loss as to how to communicate that I may know what's wrong with her. My eyes, at this point, are burning with frustration. Damn it, if only Chakotay was here. How would he handle this? What's the simplest, quickest way to convey that I know what's wrong?
Simple. It strikes a chord somewhere within me. Simple concepts. Start with what I can communicate clearly. Find two simple concepts that can be connected to form a broader whole. I don't have time for this!
I can do this – I have to. I start to motion along my ribcage, running two fingers very precisely over my ribs where the captain's injury appears to be. I trace the lines of the bones, running laterally along the first, second and third, until I've pointed out each of the seven true ribs along my left side. "Ribs. Bones." I repeat the gesture along all seven once again. "Bones."
I have his attention, if not his full comprehension. At least I think he may finally understand that I have something relevant to say. I pull shaking hands up in front of me, holding his strange red eyes the entire time. Willing him to understand me as I curl my fingers under into loose fists, until they're side by side, thumbs down in front of me. Then I make a motion as if I'm snapping something in half. I repeat it a few times, wondering all the while how it is that I'm stuck in here, playing a game of fucking charades with one of our captors when the captain is bleeding out just a few meters away from me…
"Broken." I return my fingers to my side, again tracing the lines there. Some of my ribs are visible, since I'm only half dressed. He should at least be able to determine that they're bones, right? Right? God, I hope so. I do the snapping thing again. "Broken," I repeat. "Broken."
His eyes light up. He nods. And then, to my utter relief, he repeats my actions, pointing to her and running his right hand along his side. He makes a short chopping gesture through the air. Then he stops, looking at me questioningly. I hope it's his way of indicating he understands. He mouths a word I don't recognize, probably in his native tongue, repeats the slashing motion through the air. I'm praying that it means "broken" – betting the captain's life that's what it means.
"Yes," I confirm, nodding vehemently. "Yes. Broken."
Now for the important part: explaining that I can fix it. I pat at my chest again, my palm flat and my fingers spread wide. "I. Me." I point to her. "Her."
Wait…can it be this simple? I place my hands together, curling them into loose fists in front of me. He's still watching. He seems transfixed by my hands. Good. I set them at the "broken" angle again, and then in the exact reverse of the motion I used for "broken", I bring them slowly together. "Fix," I growl, willing him to understand me, and then repeating the motion. "Fix." I point to myself again, then gesture over to her cell. "I…can…fix…her."
That's all I have. It's the best I can do. He's either going to have to get it, or… The young guard's four eyes widen and dart back up to my face. He's excited. I hope to hell it's a good sign. My breath catches in my throat as he points to me, then to her. He mouths something I don't understand and then turns away from me.
My heart sinks. Did he understand me or not? Why is he turning away? He removes something from his belt and begins speaking into it, and my eyes dart all around the room, looking for any indication of something changing. But nothing seems to. The soldiers are still standing over the captain, arguing. She's lost consciousness. My stomach lurches. Shit. That's even worse. If she isn't able to get out the fluid seeping into her lungs at all, she's going to suffocate quickly. There's hardly any time left for any sort of treatment to be started.
The young soldier turns back to me, gives me an encouraging nod. I can only pray that he got my meaning, that he knows what the hell he's encouraging. Maybe I should try a different communication, I think frantically. Maybe he doesn't understand that I need to get to her now…
A screen I hadn't noticed alights behind the guard. It's huge, practically filling the entire wall behind him. It's a comm. channel. Our captor appears on screen, looking severely disgruntled. He's sitting at a desk, and his hard red eyes fix on the young soldier first. They're speaking. I can't hear what they're saying, but my heart soars when the guard gestures frantically to me and then to the captain. Our captor's eyes flicker over to her. Then they find me as the guard is manipulating something on the control pad in front of him. When the leader speaks again, I could cry when his words are audible…and mostly because they're in Standard.
"What's wrong with her?" he demands, cutting straight to the point. "According to my guards, she shouldn't have suffered grievous injury. The transporters were misaligned, which will be addressed, I assure you, but that doesn't–"
"She's dying," I snap, cutting him off without a single care for his position…or mine. "If she fell against something when we rematerialized, she may have cracked a rib. But it wasn't until your soldier kicked her that it punctured her lung."
He pauses, saying nothing for a minute before drawling, "And?"
He can't know how fortunate he is that he isn't standing in this cell with me right now. "And, it's punctured her lung – she can't breathe. The blood is seeping in through the puncture, filling the space and preventing her from getting oxygen. Without oxygen, she'll die."
He's quiet for a moment, considering. Maybe trying to determine if this is a ploy or a trick. Maybe debating whether or not it's important enough to him to bother. Either way, it's time the captain doesn't have.
I explode, the rage at his apathy flooding through me playing against my urgent need to help her, "Look, do you want your money or not? Ten million lycca is a lot to waste just because it might be too much trouble to treat her… I can help her, damn it! At least let me try!"
His expression hardens at my tone, but I don't back down, and my glare doesn't soften in the slightest while I wait for him to get around to giving me his answer. "You can fix her?" he demands.
"Yes!" I practically shout it. Didn't I just say that? "I'm a medic. If you can get us to a medical bay and find me someone who can supply me with the appropriate equipment, I think I can save her. But we're running out of time. If you want that money, I have to treat her now."
More seconds tick by in which the captain lies drowning in her own blood.
"If this is a trick," our captor warns, "you will both suffer for it, I assure you. On the other hand," he continues before I can explode at him again for his stalling, "if you do manage to save her, it will, as you point out, gain me ten million lycca. This would not be something I would forget when it comes time to decide your fate."
Oh yeah, he's lucky he's not in this cell with me. The idea that I give a damn about trying to save my own skin right now, when her life is imminent danger… I force myself to bite back on a reply, gritting my teeth together. "Just get me to a sickbay and have someone there with a translator, preferably someone who's familiar with medical equipment. And do it now."
He looks me over again before nodding then addresses his young subordinate. "You'll see to the transfer. Make sure they're guarded. I want them watched at all times. And Barra? Make sure the transporters are properly adjusted this time?"
The younger man gulps, quailing under the reproachful tone. Glancing at his feet, he mumbles something in his native language as the screen blinks out. As he sets himself to the task of making the necessary preparations to have us moved, I force myself to stand stock still and wait. It's all I can do until they get us to the medical bay.
That's when the true challenge begins, I realize as the first hurdle is passed…trying to use alien equipment to treat a member of a species the equipment wasn't designed for in the first place. And now I really wish I'd spent a little more time studying in sickbay than I did on the holodeck restoring my Camaro…
My eyes find the captain. She's turning blue, and I gulp. I guess I'd better be up to the challenge.
If this is a hangover, it's the worst one I've had since my academy days, and I can't even remember what possible excuse I'd have had for drinking so much. I know I should open my eyes, but that feels like an impossible task at the moment. The fierce pounding in my skull aside, my head feels like it's wrapped in thick gauze and my thoughts have cobwebs clinging to them. My throat is parched with thirst. I'm lying on my side, on something narrow that could pass for a hard mattress and... And now I know that I have to open my eyes – because I'm not alone.
I pry open heavy eyelids and find myself facing a small room with dark metal walls I've never seen before, realizing next that I'm only wearing undergarments in a freezing cold, unfamiliar room, but that isn't what concerns me, primarily. No, it's the breath on the back of my neck coupled with the heavy weight of an arm draping over me that has me frantically searching my clouded memory, trying desperately to come up with some reason I should be feeling a warm body pressed up against my back. A warm body that isn't the only body I'd ever allow near me under these circumstances: the scent alone tells me it isn't him, not to mention the wrongness of the weight of the arm across me.
What the hell is going on here? The shocking feeling of skin against skin along some rather exposed parts of my body is slowly fading to the background as I recognize the persistent thrum I'm hearing as being caused by a warp propulsion system...I'm on a ship, and it isn't Voyager. There's an immediate rush of memories at this realization. The Delta Flyer. Whitmore. The bounty hunter. Tom.
Oh, God, Tom…
But none of these memories can explain my current predicament…unless I was drugged.
My blood boils. Drugs would certainly explain my lack of short-term memory as well as the muddled quality of my thoughts. The person behind me mumbles something into my hair, and I fight back the bile rising in my throat as the arm draped over me tightens slightly and the hand brushes against my breast. I can hear the obviously male voice muttering something in his sleep, and my anger only escalates at the close proximity of his mouth to my neck. The feel of his warm breath on my bare skin is sickening.
Horrified, infuriated, I take a brief moment in which every muscle in my body tenses to take stock of my physical condition, searching through the myriad of unpleasant sensations racking me for any indication that the worst has happened while I've been unconscious. I can't say I feel any pain specifically indicative of that kind of assault, but then again, that doesn't mean anything: my whole body aches.
As the hand begins to roam, my pulse quickens with my growing fury, which tamps down on the revulsion, and my decision on how to proceed is made. Slowly, I work to disentangle my arm, feeling a sharp twinge of pain in my side at the movement. I ignore it, easing my hand down along my hip and reaching back to find him. Mercifully, he's still wearing shorts, but that doesn't keep me from finding what I'm looking for. Without hesitation, I grab a handful of fabric-covered flesh and hear him suck in a painful, gasping breath, letting me know I have his full attention before growling, "I don't know who you are or what the hell you think you're doing, but you will take your hands off me – now."
"Captain!" His strangely familiar voice comes out as a harsh whisper. "Take it easy! It's me – it's Paris!"
A mixture of confusion and relief floods through me, increasing the pounding in my head. "Tom?" It hadn't occurred to me for an instant that it would be him behind me under these conditions.
"Yes," he answers in a pinched, pleading tone. "Captain…please."
"Sorry." I release him immediately and hear him exhale shakily, but under the circumstances, I can only feel slightly chagrined. But at least I know he's still alive… His arm tightens around me as I try to turn over.
"Captain, please, just…give me a minute…and I'll explain." He speaks haltingly and with what sounds like great effort. "Just…don't move."
While listening to his ragged breathing, I try and clear away more of the cobwebs obscuring my memory. I now recall our uniforms being cut away from us and being forced to walk somewhere, but after that, the memories are still shadowed and confused. Was I lying on a floor? Why can I see Tom pounding against a glass pane? And why do I still feel as if I've taken enough sedatives to knock out a dozen angry Klingons?
Finally, he clears his throat and manages to croak out, "Glad you're awake, Captain."
"Lieutenant, what the hell is going on?" I try again to move over to the edge of the bed, intending to rise and face him, only this time, I feel a sharper pain from my side before his arm clamps down again, holding me in place. I realize now that even though his arm was draped across me, he'd managed to completely avoid touching my ribcage.
"You were injured, Captain, and, please…I need you to stay still." Assured by my nod that I won't try to turn over again, his grip finally slackens. "I've managed to stabilize you, and you're on the mend, but the wrong move could easily undo some of the repairs I made. The medical equipment here isn't exactly up to our standards."
"Tom." I clear my throat, hating to admit that my memory isn't filling in all the gaps the way it should be. "I don't…I mean, what happened?"
His body shifts slightly in what I take for surprise at the tone of his voice. "What's the last thing you remember?"
"The containment cells. I remember standing in front of them." My mouth goes drier as another cobweb clears. "I couldn't breathe. There was blood on the pillow."
"They botched the transport when trying to put us into our cells. Something about it wasn't designed for our physiologies...they didn't compensate correctly for something they should have. Anyway, the transport was rough. We both lost consciousness when we rematerialized. I managed to hit my bunk, but you must've hit the sink pretty hard, because I think you cracked a rib. When you wouldn't get up, one of the guards kicked you and drove the broken bone into your lung."
Yes…it sounds familiar, now. "I was breathing blood." I can almost recall the sensation now…the vile sensation of the coppery liquid filling my airway.
"I managed to convince them to let me help you," Tom continues less steadily, "eventually. God, Captain. For a while there, I really thought I'd lost you."
Hearing the worry in his voice and recalling my own panicked thoughts while drowning in my own blood, I can only imagine the miracles he must have worked for me to be awake and among the living now. I swallow thickly before asking, "How long was I out?"
"Assuming their day and night schedule is roughly equal to ours, it's been about a week, Captain."
A week. Half the time it would take to get to Jifan, I realize as I swallow again. It was a week I'd been counting on having to come up with a way to get Tom safely off this ship…a week in which he's been having to tend to me. "And you've been taking care of me all that time?" No wonder he sounds exhausted then, I think.
"You've been pretty stable the past three days. I've just been hoping you'd wake up. I haven't had any way to gage whether or not you would, or if there would be any lasting damage from the lack of oxygen getting to your brain for so long. I had to do the surgery in several stages, and I actually had to open you up in order to reach the injury in time. I couldn't quite get the hang of their scanners fast enough..."
His voice trails off, and I know he's lost in dark reflections. And a week of unconsciousness would explain the desert dryness of my throat, but before I focus on that, there is still at least one major point to be addressed. "As appreciative as I am of your efforts, Tom, you haven't exactly explained our current…proximity."
He actually chuckles at that, and despite the twinge of pain his movement causes, I'm glad he's moved away from the darker path his thoughts had been taking; it's not something I can afford to dwell on at the moment. I can also tell he has that famous Paris smirk forming on his face, and I'm quite anxious to hear his explanation for this. It should be a good one.
"It gets really cold in here, Captain, and they haven't seen fit to give you anything else to wear. This is their medical bay…as well as our current cell. They've let me to stay in here with you, but I'm not allowed to move from my bunk during the night hours, or I'll set off their motion sensors." He indicates the floor around the bed, and I can see small beams of light I hadn't really noticed before in the dim lighting. "I've been having to supplement you with fluid and nutrients every few hours, so I've needed to be able to get to you at night. And I also couldn't risk us coming under some sort of attack and you falling from this height."
I feel him shrug and know that he was only continuing to safeguard me, but as much as I may appreciate his intended gallantry, his admittedly sleeping but roaming hand had undeniably had other ideas.
My eyebrow rises as I clear my throat. "Thank you, Tom…for everything. You saved my life. And, in light of your having protected me from additional harm all this time, I've decided to afford you the same courtesy."
"Captain?" I can hear the confusion in his question, and one corner of my mouth curls upward.
"I won't mention to B'Elanna where, exactly, your hand was placed when I woke up."
He clears his throat and begins to stammer out an explanation, but I wave him off, unconcerned with the natural, subconscious actions of a sleeping crewman. Dropping my hand back to my side, I can't help wincing at the movement. He notices, of course, and clears his throat, suggesting we get some more sleep.
I couldn't agree with him more as I feel the exhaustion pulling at me already, just from this small period of wakefulness. I'm so thirsty I can hardly swallow without discomfort, and my mind is screaming at me to get all the details I've missed during our captivity, but it will just have to wait until tomorrow: I'm in no condition to pursue any more answers at the moment. I sink back into oblivion as the weight of Tom's arm returns, shielding me from falling from the cot as best he can without placing any pressure on my ribs. Aside from the awkwardness of the physical proximity we both feel, I surprisingly have little trouble allowing myself to feel a small measure of comfort from it nonetheless. My last thought is to accept it while I can.
I watch her train. As I replace the alien medical devices into their case under the watchful eye of one of the guards, my eyes follow the captain as she paces around the small medical bay. She stretches and moves. Testing how far she can turn this way or that without feeling pain, occasionally pushing past the limits on purpose. And she's always guarding her side. Moving it out of reach or leading with her other hand. I wonder if she's even consciously aware of what she's doing, but I've come to realize, more fully than I ever had before, that inaction is one thing she just can't tolerate for long.
The guard counts the supplies, checking the contents of the case against the list in his hand before nodding and motioning me back away from the door. I comply without thinking, my eyes drawn back to her movement at the far wall.
It's been four days since she reminded me that she's a woman who can take care of herself in any situation. The entire day after her abrupt awakening, I was acutely aware of how sensitive that particular region of my anatomy was. Turning my head away to hide my rueful grin from her now, I can't help remembering many nights in those first couple of years out here when quite a few of my racier fantasies had included the captain. And, sure, we'd always ended up in bed together – and over her desk, or across my couch and, once or twice, on the conference table – but even my fertile imagination never conjured up anything that could compare to the real life version of events. And it's been a long while since I'd thought about her like that at all. It was an uncomfortable situation, to say the least, but we both got used to the awkwardness rather quickly.
At least we're both clothed now. During her convalescence, I managed to become slightly friendly with a few of the guards. It helped that this crew hasn't had a proper medic for some time, and, despite the alien equipment, I've been able to repair several injuries the soldiers on board had been having to live with. While healing an old, improperly sutured laceration on the second day, one of the aliens remarked with a jerk of his head in the captain's direction that she'd never make it. Half in anger at having my deepest fears voiced and half because I know better than to ever bet against the captain, I made a friendly wager with him: if she survived, he'd supply a spare tunic. If she didn't, well...there would have been some sparkling latrines on this ship. I ended up being thankful for many reasons when she finally regained consciousness.
The rest of the clothes we're wearing are all her doing. And I swear, if that woman wasn't a Starfleet officer, she'd be one of the best hustlers the galaxy has ever seen. There was quite a bit of boredom that followed the intense periods of stress after her injury. I'd managed to make a deck of cards out of some standard starched bandage squares – one of the few supplies I'm allowed to use without the supervision of the guards. One of the younger guards took an interest in what I was doing right away. And as his ambassador to the Alpha Quadrant, of course it was my solemn duty to teach him how to play poker.
Not long thereafter, I found two or three different guards at any one time stopping by to play. It seems that when you aren't chasing a bounty, life can get pretty boring on a ship like this one. By the time the captain regained consciousness, the aliens had already been playing the game for a few days and felt they had a good handle on it. I'd even seen the appearance of a couple of new decks once or twice among the guards. So on the second night of her recovery, they never saw it coming when the captain shyly asked what game we were playing.
At least I knew what she was doing when she offered me a small smile after throwing the first hand and murmured something about liking "the game with the sticks on the holodeck" better. By the third night, she and I both had tunics and trousers.
"Where did you learn to play poker like that?" I have to ask, knowing that we won't be left alone for long.
She doesn't slow her pacing but tosses a smirk over her right shoulder. "My Aunt Martha taught me the basics when I was eight. I never had much patience for it back then…picked it up again in my days as a junior officer. But actually, I learned most of what I know from your…" she stops in mid-stretch, trailing off and moving away from the door seconds before it opens again.
One of the younger guards steps in, immediately assessing the room. I can see the calculating look in all four of his eyes over the atmosphere converter over his nose (I convinced them to alter the air in our room while the captain was in surgery). Despite the more relaxed attitude between us and the guards, neither side has forgotten what's truly going on here. Once the captain retreats a few more steps into the room, he motions to me.
"Paris. Boss wants to see you."
I exchange a look with the captain. She doesn't like it, and neither do I. This will be the first time since our capture that we've been truly separated. I make a production out of getting to my feet. "What about her?" I ask before she can.
He barely glances at the captain. "She stays here."
She steps forward, drawing the young guard's attention. "No. I'm going with him. He doesn't leave my sight."
The guard almost sighs. He swings his weapon in her direction. "Don't, Captain. You know I'll shoot you before letting you take one step closer."
I watch her consider his words. She looks from me to him and to the door behind him. Calculating the odds of one of us making it through the door. He hefts the weapon more carefully, taking a better grip. "Don't, Captain," he repeats. "I was given permission to inform you that he will be returned to you intact…this time…unless you give us a reason not to."
She hisses out a breath and makes eye contact with me. I nod slightly. Whatever else the Grall have proven to us, that they keep their word is one thing that seems to be a constant. They haven't made a single false promise since we've been here.
The captain steps back into her original position, further from the door. "Why didn't you say so in the beginning?" she mutters.
The guard shrugs. "Paris. Let's go. Now."
There's nothing to be done for it. I shrug, too, and join him, catching her eye once more before leaving. I just hope our assessment about their truthfulness is correct, and that I haven't outlived my usefulness just yet.
I'm led down several hallways before being herded into an office that gives me the distinct impression of being in the captain's ready room. Before the guard has left the room, all four eyes of the leader have taken in my appearance, assessing me for any hostile intentions.
"I understand my men have found a new form of recreation." He sits in a plushly cushioned chair and directs me to do the same, gesturing to the more functional seat in front of the large black desk between us. "One day, they'll learn that whatever species is hosting the game is the species that is going to win it."
Not wanting to provoke the man, I offer no answer.
He continues, "It would seem that you've saved me ten million lycca."
Saving the captain from certain death only so she could be delivered to another death sentence has been a sore point for me, so again, I say nothing.
He seems to know what I'm thinking when he comments, "I find it curious that you worked so hard to save her, knowing that I'm going to deliver her to someone who very much wants to kill her – and slowly, at that."
I clear my throat this time to conceal my annoyance. "I don't bet against the captain."
He regards me closely and then sits back in his chair. "I've contacted my client, and he seemed vaguely interested in acquiring you. Especially after I told him you'd been tending to her injuries." He smiles tightly. Coldly. "Although he would have settled for just her head, he was relieved to know we'd taken her alive. He really does seem to want the pleasure of killing her himself." Again, he smiles, and again, I refuse to give him the satisfaction of a response even though my blood is curdling. "However, he refuses to offer me anything for you outside the standard retention fee. I'll be honest. It seems like a waste, Paris. So I'm going to make you an offer. You're a competent medic, and the men seem to like you. Upon making the exchange for Janeway, I'll take you on as a member of this crew. Provisionally, of course. And you'll be monitored as you are now, until we can be certain of being able to trust you not to contact your ship. In fact, I'd probably have to keep you sedated until such time as we have cleared this part of space entirely."
"Well...that's...certainly a handsome offer," I manage without choking – barely. I know better than to let him see my surprise at this offer. I also know enough to not show my disgust at the idea of working for a bounty hunting crew.
"Your only other choice is that I take the twenty-five thousand lycca for you and leave you on the planet with her."
I understand completely that my being on the planet would be worth exactly what my presence was when I was taken on board here: next to nothing.
"You could just leave me on a planet somewhere after the exchange." Here, I'd be watched much too closely. But I could get word to Voyager from a planet. I could at least let them know we're alive, and then maybe they could get to the captain in time... But he waves me off, like I knew he would.
"No. The last thing I need interrupting my fifteen million lycca vacation is a bunch of disgruntled Voyagers showing up and harassing me for information."
Oh, I think Chakotay and B'Elanna would be doing a little more than "harassing" you. And even if Tuvok wanted to, it's not likely he'd be able to hold them back once they discover where you've shipped us off to.
I shrug as if it's no big deal, feeling my heart sink. "If those are my only two choices..." He nods. I rise from the chair slowly, so as not to alarm him. "I stay with my captain."
He snorts and pushes a button on his desk. The door opens behind me, revealing a guard waiting to escort me back to the medical bay. I turn to go, but the alien captain stops me at the door. "Sticking with her might not be doing her any favors, boy. You're a weakness. You can only be used against her."
I swallow and nod, acknowledging his statement. It scares me to death to know he's probably right.
"Do you think Voyager is coming for us? Assuming they don't believe we died in the explosion?"
I'm more than a little surprised at the question. Coming on the evening of our last night aboard the Grall ship, it's probably well past time it was discussed, however.
"Do I think they'll come for us?" The answer doesn't require much thought. "If they don't think we died in the shuttle explosion, then yes, of course they'll try. Chakotay would never leave us behind, you know that." Even if I almost wish he would.
"He wouldn't leave you behind," Tom smirks. "Me, on the other hand…"
He gives me his most innocent grin – which isn't saying much. And it's annoying that of all my crewmen, only he, Seven and Chakotay seem impervious to the look I level at him to reprimand him for his poor joke. Even Tuvok usually has the good grace to at least appear affected by that look, even if I know damned well he's not.
I needn't have wasted the effort on Tom, either; the grin hardly fades by much, and I'm left scowling, instead.
"Of course they'll try," I repeat, "but…" I trail off, considering my next choice of words carefully. He saves me the trouble.
"But without the deuterium the Grall blew to bits along with the rest of the Flyer, even if they can make it there, they won't have enough left to make it very far off Jifan once they find us. They'll be sitting ducks for a retaliatory fleet if Kaelo sends one this time."
"Yes," I have to acknowledge, glad that he's worked most of this out for himself. "Unless they can find a way to replace the deuterium we lost, the danger involved in rescuing us will be extreme."
It hurts. Not only the dire cost to Voyager, but the wasted resources we left behind in trade. Now we have neither, thanks to my inexcusable negligence – shy observers, like hell. I should have seen this coming. It's no one's fault but mine.
I must have given too much of my thoughts away, because Tom's affect brightens unnaturally, and his tone picks up a much lighter cadence. "You know, I've been meaning to tell you…you were pretty amazing with President Araken, by the way. "
Despite knowing he's only trying to lighten my mood, I can't contain a small smile, remembering her gruff, intolerant exterior. It took quite some time to get her properly warmed up to trade with us. And even then, she'd driven a hard bargain. In the end, I'd grown to like her. We might have become friends...if she lived a few thousand light years closer to the Alpha Quadrant. I smile a little more warmly, deciding to allow Tom's efforts to distract my darker focus. "She wasn't an easy woman to please, was she?"
"Are you kidding?" he snorts. "After we made that little gaffe with the opening greetings, I thought she was going to have us fed to her pet serpent."
"I'd be lying if I said the thought hadn't occurred to me, as well. At least initially."
A shudder rolls through me at the thought of the president's "beloved little darling". I couldn't have imagined anyone finding a six foot snake with small, sprout-like legs cuddly, but Araken had clearly adored it. The creature lay at her feet throughout every official meeting, hissing dangerously at anyone who dared draw too near. Twice, I would swear it looked directly at me and slithered its tongue threateningly across its lips, as if daring me just one step closer.
"The woman makes my father look warm and forgiving," he adds off-handedly.
A remorseful pang twinges through me, as it always does to hear Tom speak so bitterly about Owen. I'd thought – hoped – they'd been mending things between them lately, but it appears I've been deluding myself into thinking their relationship had been magically repaired. And it's only in this moment that I realize consciously how we've never really spoken of the obvious discrepancy in our perceptions of him.
Suddenly, after six years and nothing but an endless stretch of boredom ahead of us this evening, I feel it might be time to try.
Especially as, after tomorrow, I might lose the chance forever.
"Tom," I open gently. Cautiously. "You know I've had a very different experience with your father than you would seem to have had."
I watch his face for any sign of discomfort at the topic, but he only shrugs and smiles thinly – a gesture that's hard to read when it's Tom's response to anything from a personal affront to a sincere compliment.
"Not surprising," he retorts lightly. "I'm sure you got along with him much better than I ever did."
I cross my good arm behind my head, half in an attempt to assume a relaxed posture, and half to test the range of motion in my healing ribcage again. "Why do you suppose that is?"
The smile comes again, but this time, Tom's words leave little to interpretation. "Simple. Because you're not a screw-up. You're everything he ever wanted me to be and more. Loyal, hard working, dedicated. And let's not forget, scientifically gifted."
I wince. Obviously, I've struck a sensitive nerve, and I could kick myself for it. What'd you expect, Kathryn? That he'd be thrilled to hear all about how well you got along with the man he lived to make proud, and yet never thought he had? You know exactly what that feels like.
"Tom, I don't think–"
"Yeah." His voice softens considerably. "I know. I'm sorry, Captain. That wasn't directed at you. It's just…" he heaves a sigh, pushing his chair back from the table. "It's a little hard to grow up under the shadow of an admiral, you know?"
God, do I know.
"Most of the time he wasn't even there, and when he was, it was like…nothing I ever did was good enough to impress him. He'd already seen everything, heard everything. And of course he worked with the best and brightest minds in the sector. I don't think I even really blame him for it anymore; he couldn't help it if his standards were impossibly high. I just…fell short a lot, in comparison."
It was clearly more than he intended to say, and realizing what he's just revealed of himself, he forces another tight smile, and then the Tom Paris I've been hoping to see him shed, had been thinking he had for the most part, makes an appearance. "That what you wanted to know, Captain?" he half mocks us both with his sarcastic tone.
My heart aches for him. I've always been sorry for the tempestuous relationship Tom had with the man who, in many respects, was a surrogate father to me while my own father was too often painfully absent. Not for the first time, I resent the Cardassians and all the other aggressive, war-hungry species like them that are scattered throughout the galaxy.
"Tom." I reach out a tentative hand and place it over his on the table before he can withdraw it. "I understand…better than you think I do. But you might be surprised to know how he really feels about you." At his incredulous look, I have to chuckle, recalling my own bitter jealousy over the amount of times Tom Paris came up in casual conversation with his father.
I was still so young back then, in many respects.
"I was always rather envious of you, you know." He snorts derisively, and I have to laugh aloud. "I'm serious. Long before I ever met you, I envied you a great deal. I'd never met a man who bragged about his son as much as Owen Paris bragged about his."
"I find that hard to believe."
"Oh, believe it. Did you know he kept pictures of you and your sisters on his desk?"
Wide-eyed, he shakes his head. "We never got to see his office. He was always too busy to be bothered."
"Well, he did – so many of them, he hardly had any workspace left. He used to have to work on the side table when he wanted to get anything done. But he refused to move them. Whenever anyone suggested it, he'd growl that with every communiqué he sent out and with every interview he conducted, he wanted a reminder of exactly what he was working for within eyesight." I hear the familiar, rueful note creeping into my voice despite all the years that have passed. "I remember wishing that my father could be half as proud of me as Owen was of the three of you."
Tom flushes, obviously embarrassed – and, I think, perhaps even a little pleased in spite of himself. He makes up for it with the dryness of his tone. "Well, he could have mentioned it to me once in while. Would have been nice to hear…just once."
I'd thought as much. Damn it, Owen. Would it have been so hard to say it to him once in a while?
I generally shy away from this depth of self-disclosure with my crew, but I am the one that started this, and it's only fair that Tom know how much I can truly empathize.
"My father made the same mistake, and I would guess probably for many of the same reasons." I suppress a self-flagellating smile. I've given this a bit of thought over the years...probably too much, if I'm honest. "I think part of it is the culture of Starfleet itself. The beliefs we're taught to uphold. Excellence. Dedication. Selflessness and self sacrifice. Then, too, those were extremely uncertain times for the Federation, you realize. They were both very much involved with the Federation's efforts toward keeping the peace with Cardassia."
My thoughts darken as they turn to the tension with the Cardassians, as they always do, but that isn't the point of this conversation. Before Tom can voice the opinions I can see darkening his expression, also, I press, "You must know Owen loves you, Tom…that he's always loved you."
Even if he didn't remember to say it as often as he should have.
He smiles thinly. "Love was never the question. His manner of showing it was."
Knowing all too well what he means, I frown thoughtfully. "No, I don't suppose love was ever really the question, was it?"
There may be tears forming in his eyes, but I can't be sure. Either way, it's something. A more real depth of emotion than I'm used to seeing from him until he clears his throat, looking embarrassed. "Look, Captain…I appreciate your candor, but…do you mind if we change the subject?"
Yes, I do. Don't shut me out.
"Of course not." I wonder now why I ever brought it up in the first place. It really isn't any of my business whether or not Tom gets along with his father. Perhaps it's simply the nature of our current situation that made me speak up at all. Perhaps my own feelings on the subject are still too close to the surface, even after all these years. But for an instant, a solid, personal connection sparks between us as our eyes meet in mutual understanding, and I can't bring myself to regret having braved the topic.
The connection severs, and a moment of awkward silence fills the air between us before Tom finally breaks it.
"I wish I could see B'Elanna's face when she sees her precious engine modifications blown to space dust."
I refrain from pointing out that he'd probably give anything just to see her face, period, right about now. And though he jokes about it, the loss of our best shuttle hurts him, too. The Flyer was more his project than anyone else's.
"Do you think they'll believe we didn't die in the shuttle explosion?" he ventures further, bringing us back to the original topic.
No. Not really.
"I think," I begin carefully, "that Seven and B'Elanna and Harry are some of the most astute scientists I know."
But even so, when they find our commbadges in the debris field…or whatever's left of them…it will seem like a stretch to hope we weren't attached to them. But that won't stop them looking. I hope.
My voice is stronger than I expect it to be, as usual, and I'm thankful for the years of discipline that make it this way. "They won't accept our deaths unless they find conclusive proof we were aboard. I think if anyone could determine that we weren't in that shuttle, it will be them."
"But you're not holding out much hope, are you?"
I shut my eyes, debating my response and summoning the energy to present false optimism. But when I open them again, Tom's clear, knowing blue eyes only take more of the flagging wind out of my sails. I sigh heavily, defeated and annoyed to no end by it. "Do you have any idea, Lieutenant, what an irritating thing it is for a commanding officer to have officers who see right through her– particularly when she's trying to be reassuring?"
"Yeah," he flashes a lop-sided grin at me, unconcerned, "I can imagine how that gets rough for you sometimes, Captain."
I find I can only shake my head, as always oddly amused by his borderline lack of reverence. But now it's well past time we discussed the most important issue lingering before us; we've put it off long enough.
"We should talk about what happens when we get to Jifan."
The simple statement sobers us both.
"You're pretty sure that's where we are, then?"
My eyes narrow, thinking of Kaelo and what awaits us tomorrow morning. "Oh, yes. That's where we are."
"What do you think he wants?"
Pain…mine…and lots of it. With a healthy dose of humiliation tossed in for good measure. Before he eventually kills me, of course.
"I'm not certain," I hedge.
"But you have a pretty good idea."
We both do. I force myself to meet his gaze and to be sure of the complete lack of emotion in my expression this time. "Yes, I have a pretty good idea."
As Tom returns my stare, the sad look in his eyes is knowing. Far too knowing. "With all due respect, Captain, this isn't the time to spare me the ugly details. I need to be sure of what we're facing if I'm going to be of any use to you whatsoever."
Once again, I study my helmsman closely, debating how much I should really confide in him. And he's too damned smart for his own good, I decide. It's clear that he doesn't want to be coddled…that he won't be, to some extent, no matter how I may instinctively want to shield him from the harsh truths of the situation. He's no green officer, as I have to admit to myself, hating how much older it always makes me feel to have to admit of them all lately. And yet I know from experience that surviving captivity depends strongly upon maintaining a sense of hope, green or not.
But I also can't help recalling the mixed blessing Owen bestowed upon me when he opted not to share everything he knew of Cardassian "hospitality" all those years ago. Ignorance did nothing to alleviate my anxiety then, and on some inner, mostly unacknowledged level, I always did resent his choice.
I sigh again. "I'm sorry, Tom. It's habit, you understand. I can't help the way I was taught to do things. It's in the nature of my position to shield you as much as possible. It's just the way I was shown."
"Before you went into command, you mean?" He sounds surprised as I nod. "You were in a situation like this with a superior officer before? When?"
My head snaps up. I scrutinize his face, wondering how he could have gotten that from what little I've said. It's truly unsettling to be read so easily. I suppose it's a large part of the reason I decided years ago that keeping my distance from Tom Paris would be a good idea all around…for my sake, as well as his.
Now that circumstances have thrown us so closely together, I don't have much of a choice but to do the best I can with it.
"Yes," I acknowledge carefully. "When I was an ensign. We were captured by Cardassians, and my superior did his best to insulate me from the more brutal realities of our situation. And I certainly understand why he felt it was necessary to do so. But I've always been…conflicted…over how I might have handled the situation better if I had known." I can see the flicker in his eyes and swiftly cut him off before he can undo the hard-won control I've fought for years to establish over the memories of that experience. "And that's all I will say about that, Lieutenant." He closes his mouth, thankfully, upon hearing the warning in my tone, and I continue, "But in this case, I do tend to agree with you. You deserve to know what I believe we can expect tomorrow…though something tells me you've worked out enough on your own already."
His jaw works futilely back and forth for a minute as he considers his response. I can see he wants to ask about my experience, and most certainly the mention of Cardassians brought a whole slew of questions to mind, but he knows better.
Not wanting to give him the chance to ponder what I've just revealed for long, I press on into the situation we face now, but as I'm unsure of how much he already knows, it's probably best to let him tell me.
"Regarding the incident that prompted our departure…" I clear my throat. "I gave orders that the incident not be disseminated through the rest of the crew. Even so, I'm sure you heard all about it by the time we left orbit." I ignore the guilty look creeping over his face, waving him off when his mouth opens to question my knowledge of the crew's gossiping tendencies. "I'm the captain, yes, but even I'm well aware of how fast news travels through the ranks of the ship. Whether or not it's supposed to. You've heard something, I'm sure. So why don't you tell me what you already know about the events leading up to our departure from Jifan."
I tell her what I remember, and I leave out no details. After all, she's affording me the same courtesy…I hope. I'm dying to ask about the Cardassian thing, because it shocked the hell out of me, for one, but her tone left no room for maneuvering there. And I may push the boundaries sometimes, but I do know where to draw the line – or, I should say, when it's been drawn for me. Instead, I relate my observations from the communications she took from Kaelo on the bridge and then what I'd gathered from her behavior, as well as that of Chakotay and Tuvok. I finish with the few cryptic statements made by Ayala or other security personnel upon their return from each round of "negotiations".
I watch her eyes flicker when I trail off, and I'm surprised when her eyebrow arches in disbelief. "That's it? That's all you, Tom Paris, could find out about what happened on Jifan? That's the entire extent of what you were able to wrangle from two whole security teams?"
Frowning, I realize I have to concede her point. "Now that you mention it, I guess I am slipping a little, huh? I'll have to work on that when we get back."
The captain indulges in a small chuckle. "There's nothing wrong with rearranging your priorities a little, Tom. I'd hope that impending fatherhood would do that to anyone." I bite back on saying it didn't seem to do much for me last time, but then…that's a whole other can of worms we don't need to get into at the moment, and then she's continuing, "Speaking of which, how's B'Elanna?"
"Really?" The eyebrow again. She isn't buying my short response.
I give, in a way grateful for her persistence. Having the captain in your corner is a hell of a mark in your favor, and B'Elanna needs all of those she can get…or at least she did. I hope we're past those darker days by now.
"Yeah, I think so. Really." I shrug. "She's still scared senseless about the whole impending motherhood thing, and so am I. I mean, it was so unexpected…the odds… But I think she's doing better now. The morning sickness is finally wearing off a little, but it was miserable there for a while. And of course if you told her I'd told you any of that, she'd probably–"
"My lips are sealed." Her one-sided smile quirks. "Wouldn't do to lose my best pilot prematurely."
She sobers again. "I'm going to do everything I can to get you back to her, Tom…to both of them."
"I know you will, Captain. I don't doubt it. But it's not going to be easy," I prompt, seeing her hesitation to continue and getting the strange sensation that the change in topic to B'Elanna was half an attempt to avoid having to continue to talk about this. Of course that's ridiculous, though.
"No. It isn't going to be easy," she agrees. "I can't rule out the possibility that Voyager somehow factors into Kaelo's plans, and if so, we'll have to be extremely careful about any information we give him. I don't believe it's the ship he's really after. But if it is…you know you can't put your loyalty to me ahead of the ship. You do understand that? If it comes to the choice between us, you have to choose the welfare of Voyager as a whole over mine. Can I trust you to do that?"
I hate that. I hate the idea that it might come down to a choice between my captain and the rest of the people I've come to think of as my family…B'Elanna and Harry, Neelix and Seven.
I swallow the lump in my throat. "I understand the importance of putting Voyager first." I hate that I really do, too. "But you don't think it'll come to that," I remind her, anxious to get past the subject.
"No. I do think this is entirely personal."
"You think the prefect's ego just couldn't take you rejecting him. Fifteen million lycca." I whistle low. "That's a hell of an ego. Not that you aren't worth every ounce of it," I'm quick to acknowledge with a grin at her rolled eyes, "but that's still a heck of a lot of money to spend repairing a bruised ego."
I'd already told her how obvious it was what he was after – not that I needed to – I'm sure she'd guessed from his frank appraisal of her over the viewscreen that the rest of us knew damned well what it was like trying to negotiate with him.
She shocks hell out of me by tossing me a devious little smirk then. "You're assuming quite a bit, aren't you? What makes you so sure I turned him down?"
She almost, almost has me tongue-tied. But I haven't lost my touch completely.
"Well, if you hadn't, I don't think he'd have anything to be pissed off about, would he? He'd be a happy man, we'd have our supplies, and none of this would be happening now."
She shifts delicately in her chair, and I'm pleased to note that I've finally succeeded in wrangling a blush out of her. She frowns slightly. "Your faith in my…abilities…is appreciated, Tom," her voice drips sarcasm, "if entirely out of line."
"Sorry," I grin, "but you started it."
She waves me off with a nod. "And I should have known better."
"You should have," I agree.
"Yes. To be clear, I refused one of his… advances…on the last day."
"I take it that it wasn't such a friendly advance, either, to have had you leaving so abruptly without those supplies." I make light of it, but there's nothing light going on in my insides right now. It isn't hard to imagine the disgusting prefect overstepping his bounds, and in a big way.
She looks me full in the face. "No, it wasn't a very 'friendly' advance. So much so, that I felt the need to demonstrate my dissatisfaction with his behavior."
I whistle again, strangely feeling almost sorry for the guy, having now been on the receiving end of just such a demonstration of dissatisfaction from the captain. She hesitates a beat too long, until I can't stand the suspense any more. "And?"
"And…in the process, I may have snapped a few of the smaller bones in his wrist."
Wow. I'd no idea things got that far out of hand; none of us did. "Wait a minute…where the hell was security for all of this? It's their job to make sure you don't have to defend yourself in the first place!"
She cows me with a look. "It wasn't their fault. Kaelo's actions weren't readily visible to the rest of the room. They would have had to be practically under the table to see what was happening."
"Oh." I guess that's different, then… "Wait, what? Under the table…I don't understand."
The captain only raises a solitary eyebrow as I sit digesting her words.
"Oh," I splutter stupidly as the picture fully forms in my head. Again, she doesn't say anything, and shivers of disgust roll through me, just barely overshadowed by the anger. "We knew he was a slimy bastard, but I can't believe he had the audacity to–"
"He ignored my request to remove his hand." Another wry smile is wrung from her at my near outburst even as she smoothly cuts ahead of it, and a delicate shrug precedes her next comment, "At which point, I was forced to take matters into my own hands. So to speak."
"You shouldn't have stopped at his wrist," I growl, still boiling. "You should have broken his neck. Or better yet, his–" I do have to sense to cut myself off at the last minute, remembering who I'm speaking to, here.
To my surprise, the wry smile remains. "Almost exactly what Commander Chakotay said, if I recall."
I'll bet. I can't imagine that's all he said, either.
"And I have to admit it was tempting, but that isn't the way we do things." Her expression darkens. "The fact remains that I embarrassed the prefect in front of his trade ministers, and he wasn't happy about it, to put it mildly."
There's only one way I can imagine Kaelo responding to the captain's actions. "He got violent, didn't he?"
She nods. "He tried. He did grab me…managed to rip some of my hair out…the hair you saw the Grall captain produce when we first arrived."
Aha. "And that's how you knew who'd set the bounty. I'd been wondering about that…"
"Yes. It could only have come from Kaelo, however indirectly."
"You never went to Sickbay," I accuse, knowing that I'd have seen the report no matter how discreetly the doctor had filed it away.
She waves me off again. It must be nice to be able to do that, I realize then. "I wasn't seriously hurt. Mister Ayala intervened before things could progress any further. But I'm afraid that only made matters worse, in the long run."
"I'm almost afraid to ask." I was.
"The lieutenant pulled me out of Kaelo's reach…" she sighs before continuing, "and then held him off with a phaser to his throat until the transporter beam took effect."
Wow. I can't suppress the silent cheer that rises up within me, and I don't really want to. Go, Mike! But that really only makes the situation worse now, of course.
"So, I gather the prefect is pretty pissed, then," I manage weakly.
She inclines her head at me, reaching for the cup of water at her elbow and raising it to her lips for a quick sip. "Hmmm," she acknowledges as she swallows, "that may be the understatement of the century."
"But why not just send his fleet after us immediately? Why wait and set a bounty hunter after you?"
"I honestly don't know. We assumed he would come after us then. Chakotay, Tuvok, and I took precautions in anticipation of that possibility, but he never did send anyone after us. There was the attack on the capital shortly after we left. I can only assume it took up most of his focus."
"But not enough to forget about you completely." Obviously. I fall back against my chair, pondering the situation. "So it sounds like you'll be put up on charges for assault, I guess. Any idea what the penalty is for that on their planet?"
"Tuvok looked into it the moment we left. And that's the problem with this scenario," she acknowledges, frowning deeply. "Officially, assaulting the prefect of Jifan is a capital offense, but it isn't punishable by death unless the assault could be considered attempted murder." Her eyes come to rest on me again. "I'm not holding out hope that he'll adhere to those laws, mind you. He has a tendency to ignore them when it suits his purposes, from what little of his day-to-day governing I saw while on Jifan."
I have to ask. "What do you really think he'll do to you, Captain?"
"Suffice it to say, it isn't likely to be pleasant." She dodges it completely. Not that I can honestly blame her. "At the moment, I'm more worried about what he'll do to you. You know," she leans forward, "that his agreeing to purchase you can't be good for either of us. At best, you'll be tried along with me by virtue of association."
I nod. "Those were my thoughts, too."
"That's if he bothers with official channels in the first place. I'm not entirely convinced that he will. And if there isn't an official hearing, and this is just about personal revenge he intends to carry out in private, it may be that he intends to use you in, shall we say, less than honorable ways."
"To force your compliance." To make her submit to…whatever. The temperature in the room seems to have dropped drastically, but I know it really hasn't.
"It's a possibility."
I shudder. The cold realism with which the woman in front of me speaks of revenge being carried out in private – when she'd be the subject of the unpleasant acts we're indirectly discussing – is chilling. Suddenly, there's a worse than sick feeling in the pit of my stomach, and I'm second-guessing my decision to accompany her. I'm wondering what the hell I've done by refusing the offer to remain here.
"You said the Grall captain informed you Kaelo bought you based on your medical abilities."
"Yeah," I grit out past a parched throat. The moisture has receded from my mouth altogether. "He didn't mention his 'client' by name, but apparently, when they told him that I'd been tending to your injuries, he immediately agreed to take me, too."
And my stomach keeps churning. Now I realize fully what that must mean. He'd have paid to see her dead; the idea that he would want to keep her alive for anything like a benevolent reason is absurd. How could I have thought otherwise, given what I'd already known about what a bastard Kaelo is? If he wants a medic, it'll only be to prolong whatever pain he intends to inflict on her. "He'll use me to keep healing you…so he can continue extracting revenge indefinitely. Damn it," I whisper miserably.
The captain only shoots a pointed look back at my crestfallen expression. "This is all speculation, Tom, and now you see why I'm reluctant to engage in it with you. But if that does prove to be the case, I want you to comply with whatever direction you're given. Do you understand me? I won't have you putting yourself in jeopardy by refusing to comply with their requests."
She's waiting for an answer. I swallow hard, not sure that I can promise her what she's asking me to. "And if they don't use me as a medic…if that isn't why he wants me…"
Her voice goes softer. "Then he's probably only interested in you as a means of coercion."
Or torture, I don't add aloud. As crazy as he is, he could just want to make her watch while he kills me. Just for the sake of fucking with her head. Again, it probably wouldn't be a slow death, either.
It's as though she's reading my thoughts. "I put in a request to speak to the Grall captain. So far, I've been ignored, but he'll have to see me eventually. I'm going to ask that you be retained here as a medic. Given the services you've already performed for them, he has to see the wisdom in it."
Oh, shit. When she finds out I turned down just that offer, things aren't going to be pretty. "Uh…I don't think you should do that," I stammer.
But despite everything, despite my doubts of a few minutes ago, I know I don't have it in me to let the captain face Kaelo's deranged wrath alone. I'd never be able to live with a decision like that. Even if she kills me for it.
At her sharp look, I realize how my statement must have sounded just now. "I mean…I don't think the captain would be interested," I amend quickly.
"It's my duty to see you safe if it's within my power to do so. As your captain, I have to try, Tom."
"And if you can't get him to keep me?" God, I want to get off this topic before she figures out that something's up…
"If I can't, there are some general guidelines I'm asking you to adhere to. While we're on the planet, at no time are you to intervene on my behalf. I don't care what happens. Stay quiet, unless directed otherwise. If you're asked any questions about my health or physical condition, I want you to exaggerate to the best of your ability while staying within the confines of verifiable truth. Don't tell lies you're likely to be caught in…even if by doing so you think you may save me some discomfort or even pain."
It's obvious that her orders are aimed at making me look useful for as long as possible. But I can see the sense in it, even if I don't agree with it. Lying won't help either of us if I'm caught at it. On the other hand, for her sake, I can at least pretend to myself that exaggerating any injuries she accrues might serve to spare her harsher treatment… I nod. "And if they really do want Voyager?"
"It's still my hope that they're not interested in the ship. But if asked specific questions about Voyager, you should be able to get away with pleading ignorance. Just tell them you spend most of your time in Sickbay. They should buy that you have no knowledge of engines, shields, propulsion, or weapons."
I nod quietly. That's easy enough to adhere to, at least.
"Lastly, and most importantly, if we're separated, or I'm critically injured and you come across a means of escape which can't include me, you're to take it and not look back." I'd scoff in her face, if she wasn't the captain and if I didn't know that she was deadly serious. "Get yourself away from the capital, and do what you can to get a signal to Voyager somehow. Chakotay will recognize Epsilon three three nine, and Tuvok Theta four seven as coming directly from me. Neither frequency should occur naturally in the area. But if you have something you think Harry, B'Elanna, or Seven will recognize, use that. I'd prefer not to give them false hope about my fate, if possible."
She honestly expects me to do it, of course, not that that's altogether surprising.
"I'm sorry, Captain. But that's not a direction I can promise to follow."
"I'm giving you a direct order."
The glare makes me wince, but it does nothing to make me reconsider my position.
"A hypothetical order," I point out, "and not one I believe I can follow."
"You don't have a choice, Lieutenant," she hisses. "Starfleet officers maintain a strict chain of command while in captivity. I'm still the captain, and you will follow my orders. If you get the chance to escape without me, you're to take it, do I make myself clear?"
"Perfectly," I grit out. But that still doesn't mean I can do what you're asking.
"I hope so," she retorts pointedly.
It signals the effective end of our conversation.
The rest of the evening has passed in somewhat of a blur. The closer we've gotten to morning, the faster the time seems to have flown by. None of the Grall have stopped by for any more games, but the captain and I are taken to separate refreshers and allowed a quick dip in the Grall version of a sonic shower. We're also given a fresh pair of clothing each, which include only a pair of loose pants and a shirt, but our original undergarments come out clean enough from the shower. They even let me shave, but that's only because I'd won the last round of poker. And they only let me use an electronic shaver, which they're quick to take back again as soon as I've finished. The guards haven't relaxed their vigilance in the slightest, and neither of us has spotted an opportunity for escape by the time they lock us back in our room.
The captain insists on having me wrap her ribs in a cloth dressing the guards have provided at her request, despite my argument against it. I think it likely to attract attention to a potential weakness I don't think Kaelo would hesitate to exploit. When she merely lifts one of her][ eyebrows and holds out the dressing, I can see I've wasted my breath on that argument. I still advise against her request, though. I don't want her breathing restricted. It's one of the few things I can advise against in order to guard against the development of pneumonia (or some alien, viral version of it, anyway), but she's unrelenting. She at least concedes to letting me wrap it very loosely, but she wants the dressing there as a symbolic reminder of my "usefulness".
We review standard code words and agree upon a few new verbal and non-verbal communications to be used for crucial exchanges in the event that we are monitored on the planet – something the captain thinks likely if we're to be permitted contact at all. Eventually, she's satisfied with our covert repertoire of vocabulary, and we both retire to our separate bunks to pretend to get some sleep.
Now, I lie here quietly, staring at the low light indicators scanning the floors. My mind is teeming with everything we've discussed today, and I have to force myself to summon positive thoughts and images to ward off the sense of impending doom. I tell myself that Voyager will come for us…and in my heart, I believe they will. Realism makes me acknowledge the possibility that they may believe we're dead, but I know Chakotay, Harry, and B'Elanna better than that. They won't accept our demise without direct, concrete proof of the fact. They'll be coming for us eventually; it just might take them a little while. I know the captain believes it, too, though she'll be cautious about relying on that alone to save us.
I'm resolved to surviving whatever awaits us until they do, and to making sure the captain survives it, too. And I refuse to entertain any scenario in which we aren't both returned to Voyager – alive.
I could kill him. If I could reach him right now, I think I really would.
When he came back from his meeting with our esteemed bounty hunter, Tom told me he was being sold to "the client" along with me. However, he conveniently neglected to mention that he'd been offered a position to stay aboard the Grall vessel – it was only a few minutes ago I found out about that little detail.
We were awoken early this morning when the Grall captain himself came down to collect us for transport. As we were led through the corridors of the huge ship, I tried one last time to bargain for Tom's life.
"Surely he's proven what a valuable addition he would be to your crew," I reasoned. "In two weeks, he has performed a small fortune's worth of medical services for your men – all while still tending to my injuries." It was not without a touch of sarcasm that I added (for good measure), "And I speak from vast personal experience when I tell you Tom Paris can do wonders for shipboard morale."
The Grall leader chuckled at my efforts – realizing as I went on, of course, that Tom had neglected to mention the proposal he'd received the day before. When the alien explained that his private offer to Tom had been precisely that – and that Tom had refused – I didn't think. I stopped in midstride, halting the entire procession, and whirled around to confront my helmsman. The guilty look on his face said it all. He knew. The whole time I sat there, telling him what I hoped to arrange for him, and he'd known all along the offer was available.
I'm probably lucky I didn't earn us both a few blaster burns with my sudden hesitation. I ordered him to remain with the Grall, but our captor only chuckled again, and his next words effectively crushed all hope of getting Tom out of this mess alive.
"I'm afraid that's no longer a possibility, Janeway. I've already accepted payment. The deal is done, and there can be no going back on my word. Now please, before I have you knocked out and dragged, would you kindly step through that door?"
We'd arrived at the transporter room, and while I fretted silently over our last, hellish experience with the beastly equipment, Tom took the opportunity to try and explain himself. I barely listened. I already knew what he would say, and I couldn't argue that he'd already saved my life once, and that sticking with me was the only way he could ensure that he'd be around to do so again. He did go too far when he added that Chakotay would kill him anyway if he deserted me.
The first and only thought I could afford to spare on the appropriate punishment for Tom's stupidity was that perhaps I wouldn't intervene when B'Elanna beat him to a bloody pulp for what he'd just done…
Then again, some wiser sense told me that she would have been as untenable as her husband under the same set of circumstances.
A slew of Jifani guards in full military uniform awaited us on the transporter padd. This was it, then. We were, without a doubt, to be Kaelo's prisoners. The Grall guards goaded us forward into the others' waiting hands even before I could verbally lash Tom for that last quip of his. The elaborate DNA ritual was performed again, this time by a smug, burgundy-skinned Jifani soldier. I scrutinized him for a moment, but he seemed unremarkable as far as I could gather; I hadn't seen him before. Our former captor accepted his payment slip…credit, I noted with no little amount of surprise…and ordered his tactical officer to deactivate the transport signal deflector. The Jifani soldiers took firm hold of our restrained arms, and the transporter took effect. The Grall captain watched us depart with a silent, satisfied smirk on his face…
And now we're on the planet's surface, and there's absolutely nothing I can do to save my officer – damn him and his misplaced sense of loyalty.
We're brought out of a cramped transporter room into bright sunlight – so bright, I can't see, at first. It's been weeks now since either Tom or I have seen natural sunlight of any kind. I'm not one to accept the fate imposed upon me by other beings, but I must admit it's quite possibly the last time we'll ever see it. I try to take in the warmth while I can, squinting into the harsh light, but just as swiftly, we're in a shaded area. Still moving along at the prompting of our armed escort, my eyes take more long seconds to adjust back to the dimness. When they do, I see that we're under an awning of some kind. Tall, ornate pillars rise up in long, orderly rows. They stretch out before us on either side, forming the supports for a covered walkway, at the end of which lie two solid metal doors.
"Move," I hear snarled into my ear. The order precedes a nasty shove that has me biting back a cry of pain at the brutal manipulation of tender rib muscles.
"Hey, take it easy! She's still healing from the–"
Thud. "Shut up, medic!"
Tom's steps quicken, but he doesn't cry out, either. I'd turn my head and glare at his abuser, but that would probably make matters worse, so I hold my tongue, content to know that he's behind me (and still able to walk). That's already two of my orders disobeyed. The hell of it all is that I know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that if I bring him up on charges once we're returned to Voyager, neither Chakotay nor Tuvok will lift a finger to support my position. And I realize slowly that I was wasting my breath in painstakingly outlining those orders for him all night long.
My focus returns to our surroundings. This is a courtyard. A courtyard that looks oddly familiar with the elaborate fountains and scarcely dressed courtiers lounging about, draped almost decoratively over plush lawn furniture which is scattered throughout the lush greenery…
Oh, I recognize this place. This is Kaelo's royal courtyard. If I recall correctly, we're being led right into the main hall. He intends to parade us in public view. I scoff to myself. How fitting: the upstart captain who dared humiliate him brought to heel under his iron-clad rule. Escorted in chains to face his mighty judgment. His state-controlled media is going to have a field day with this…I hope they do. On the slim chance that one of those multi-planet broadcasts reaches Voyager, it will be worth the humiliation.
We're already the center of attention, I note, ignoring the stares I can feel focused in our direction.
The entrance looms closer, and my thoughts, fortunately or unfortunately, become clearer. Gathering my wits about me, I turn to get a look at Tom. He's still behind me, trudging along at the guards' insistence. I tell myself this is a good thing, but then…I tell myself so many things. That Kaelo bought him solely on the basis of his position as my medic cannot be good for either of us. Perhaps he's hoping that the DNA scanner was faulty. Perhaps he wants to make sure it isn't Ayala or someone else he met. I refuse to acknowledge the possibility that Kaelo just wants the pleasure of killing him because he's unfortunate enough to be of some limited value to me…
The time for introspection and speculation has passed. We're at the entrance. The doors are parting, and we're being shoved inside. I do bite back on making a sarcastic remark about the lack of fanfare announcing our arrival this time. No sense in alienating everyone on the planet – if there's a chance I haven't already done so. Setting my head high and my shoulders back, I step through the door, determined to show not even the slightest weakness before the man who has gone to so much effort to capture me.
The first thing I notice is that Kaelo isn't here. From the way she pulled herself up to full height before entering, I kinda got the impression the captain expected him to be waiting…and yeah. The suspicious look she darts over the assemblage of Jifani nobles confirms that she did think he'd be here.
The center chair is empty. I assume that's where the prefect sits; it's higher than all the others, and that fits with his egotistical persona, all right.
The captain almost looks disappointed as she's hauled out into the center of the huge reception hall. I'm pushed to the center of the room too, but at the last moment my escort yanks me over to the side wall, and she's left standing in the middle of the room. We're separated. I don't like it, and my first instinct is to protest…but there's little I can do about it. No way can I break free of the veritable throng of guards surrounding me.
At the back of the long rectangular hall and seated in vast rows of portable chairs are members of both the Jifani media and also about a hundred of what I take to be common civilians. The crowd is measurably excited at our arrival, and the dull chatter permeating the room increases noticeably as we become the center of attention. Still gripped by her restrained arms, the captain is prodded further forward and led to stand on a small red square of tiles, about halfway between the onlookers and the large dais at the opposite end of the reception hall. Eight important-looking officials line the dais, and they're dressed for what appears to be a serious occasion… Unfortunately, despite what Tuvok researched about Jifani law not supporting the death penalty on assault cases, I have to admit to myself that an execution would pretty much fit that bill.
Four soldiers step forward from the side of the hall opposite to where I'm standing. Two of them carry weapons which are trained on her: a silent warning that resistance will not be tolerated. Their approach signals the relief of her initial escort, and the guards who ushered us into the room bow low and then fade away into the line of soldiers adorning the walls. My guards still maintain a firm grip on my upper arms, practically daring me to try anything.
An officious looking dignitary strides out to the floor to stand in front of her. His uniform is different than the others, but it still has the basic outlay of a military uniform. The tunic is longer, and he has an ornate sash decorating his shoulder, unlike the rest of them. An officer? I wonder.
"The prisoner will kneel," he commands in what I can only call a snide voice.
A hush falls over the crowd.
The captain mumbles something under her breath which I can't make out, but from the fairly short distance between us, it sounds suspiciously like "the hell she will". She turns to face the tall dignitary who has stalked out to meet her, and then she raises her voice to full volume. "No. I won't." It's almost a growl. Her chin lifts another notch, if possible. "I'm Kathryn Janeway of the Federation starship Voyager, and I demand to be allowed to contact my ship. My officer and I have been kidnapped, forcibly relocated, and detained against our will."
A slow smile spreads across the officious looking face. "Of course you were. Such is Jifani policy regarding dangerous criminals."
"Criminals? Dangerous?" The incredulous note in her voice is audible. "That's absurd. Prefect Kaelo–"
"I see your purported brush with death has done nothing to make you less arrogant." Kaelo has appeared on the dais…finally. Behind him, heavy, floor length draperies swish where they were jostled by his emergence. He looks larger than life somehow, even though he's standing a good fifteen meters away from us. His expression can only be called one of triumph.
Kaelo looms before us all in the long, open hall, and the official standing between the captain and the prefect has already faded to black. The tall Jifani automatically moves to the side and allows his prefect to have an unobstructed view of her.
Silence descends over the hall, more complete than it was before.
"What is the meaning of this?" the captain demands. A slight chill weaves through me. Her tone is one I've only ever had directed at me once – and once was enough.
"As if you didn't know," the prefect sneers, his strong, square jaw jutting out from beneath the fleshy jowls of his crimson cheeks.
"I understand that we didn't exactly part on good terms, but that doesn't give you the right to –"
"Right? You speak of rights after what you've done? But then…I should expect no less from such a haughty, duplicitous creature." He smirks now as his eyes pass over her in that unsettling, impure leer I remember from the first communication with him on the bridge, and I have to fight back on an automatic shudder. It's a crude, almost possessive assessment, but with a quick glance at the proud posture she maintains, I can see the captain isn't letting it cow her. If looks could kill, the prefect's heavy-set body would have incinerated under the heat of her glare already.
Finishing his leisurely perusal, his eyes settle on her face, and then he snorts darkly. "I must congratulate you, Captain. You gave an impeccable performance."
"What are you talking about?" The captain's tone is sharp enough to cut diamonds now; her words are short and clipped, echoing in the acoustically enhanced walls of the huge chamber.
A few gasps and mumbles ripple through the crowd…I assume at her tone.
But Kaelo takes his time, having obviously prepared this little speech beforehand for the benefit of the grand audience assembled behind us. His words are slow and dramatic, delivered with the air of a practiced performer. "We've encountered malicious and deceitful beings before. But you…you were by far the most insidious." The note of bitterness spilling over into his voice isn't easily missed, even against the preening triumph still glittering in his large black eyes. "You are truly a master of deception."
"I'm afraid I still don't know what you mean."
"Of course you do!"
"No, Prefect, I don't," she snaps scathingly. "I can only assume you're referring to the incident which prompted our hasty departure, but I won't apologize for defending myself against your aggressive and unwanted advances."
I bite back on a low whistle.
At the captain's pointed accusation, a sharp, collective breath is drawn audibly from the crowd behind us and from the officials on either side of Kaelo. All eyes are drawn to the prefect as his eyes narrow in outrage.
"How dare you?" he thunders. His crimson face is flushing dark. "How dare y–"
"How dare you?" the captain cuts over him, her words crackling with anger as they echo in the large room.
Another gasp sounds from the audience, and as the atmosphere tangibly thickens, I keep my eyes inconspicuously fixed to a spot on the third step below the dais.
"Is this how your people operate?" she continues. "No wonder you were so secretive about your governmental policies. Do you really have so little honor that you'll resort to kidnapping and obvious intimidation simply because your ego was bruised?"
She isn't pulling any punches, and now she has deftly called him out in front of the entire congregation, essentially forcing him to account for his actions.
To the captain's credit, Kaelo's eyes dart an unmistakably worried, sideways glance at the nobles on either side of him. The men and particularly the two women on the panel all look distinctly uncomfortable. A few are frowning as they look from her to him, as though trying to weigh the truth of her accusation. And the fact that they're even compelled to consider an outsider's words tells me that even his people are aware of what a complete prick their prefect is.
Kaelo manages a false little laugh that's more bravado than amusement. "Your arrogance is astounding," he spits derisively. "You speak of 'aggressive advances', and yet I merely responded to your openly lascivious invitations."
I don't bother to hide my snort of disbelief, and for the first time the prefect's attention fixes on me, albeit briefly. In fact, I now have the attention of every other occupant of the room. I can feel myself flushing under the intense scrutiny. Oops.
Well, I hadn't meant to draw attention to myself, but I do steadily hold the prefect's imperious stare, not even registering the captain's warning glance in my direction. Yeah. I'm sure the captain was practically begging you for it, pal, I tell him silently, challenging the obvious lie with the look in my eyes alone. Because you're such an irresistible specimen of manhood, she just couldn't help herself.
He tears his eyes away from me with a snarl. "I cannot be blamed for your fickleness, Captain. Had you merely displayed your waspish nature to me, I would have turned the other cheek for the sake of diplomacy between our peoples."
I'm not sure who snorts loudest this time, me or the captain, but we're both ignored as he continues.
"The crimes I speak of are far greater. And you will be brought to justice."
"Again, Kaelo, I will ask you to explain what, exactly, you are talking about."
He just looks smug now. "And now that you face the penalty for your heinous crimes, you continue to play the innocent, hoping to escape your punishment." The prefect's features twist into an expression of utter contempt. "You sicken me! How dare you stand before me, before all of Jifan, and deny the magnitude of what you've done?"
"Heinous crimes?" she echoes disbelievingly. Now I'm confused, to say the least. Her eyes dart briefly to me, but I can only shrug in response, so she turns back to him. "Clearly there's been some confusion here. If we could discuss this rationally, I'm sure we can get to the bottom of whatever misunderstanding–"
Now the prefect laughs genuinely, cutting her off. "Hoping to use your famous charms to your advantage again, Captain?" he taunts. "Yes, I remember all about your very personal method of diplomacy." A few people snicker at his thick innuendo, and though my jaw tightens, I keep quiet. "But that won't help you this time. And I grow tired of your attempts at beguilement, Janeway. I now see all too clearly beneath your false exterior. And I may have had to put up with your sharp tongue before, but now you are at my mercy," he snarls, before shooting another imperious look at the soldier who stood behind her before. "Silence her." As if he'd been waiting for this, the man darts forward, a long strip of cloth in his hands. Then, to the official who'd been standing between them, Kaelo orders: "Proceed with the presentation of the official charges."
"The prisoner will kneel," the well built official sneers again as the soldier behind her pulls the strip of cloth taut over her mouth and ties it tightly behind her head over her loud protests.
This time they don't wait for compliance. Her legs are kicked out from under her by the same guard, and his hands on her shoulders force her to keep kneeling. The official, again in the center of the room by now, reaches into his heavy ceremonial jacket and produces a thin data storage device, which he begins to read aloud. "Kathryn Janeway, captain of the human Federation Starship Voyager. You are hereby charged with the following offenses: five thousand, forty seven counts of murder, degree one, all counts; conspiracy to commit mass murder, degree one…"
They cannot be serious, I think as my jaw practically kisses the floor.
I'm stunned. Of all the scenarios I imagined when we first were forced to kneel in the Grall hangar, this was certainly never one of them. The realization of what she's being accused of is staggering. My eyes start to lose focus, and the entire situation takes on a surreal quality.
And now the insanely exorbitant bounty on the captain's head makes so much more sense. Kaelo hasn't summoned her with the intent of inflicting punishment for rejecting his advances. At least not openly. He's going to try to pin the recent terrorist attack on the planet's capital city on her. On us, probably…oh my God, and on Voyager.
"Conspiracy to orchestrate a direct attack upon the Jifani government, collaborating with known enemies of the Jifani people, supplying terrorists with weapons of mass destruction…"
The absurd list drones on indefinitely, but the soldier's words fade into the background as the captain cranes her neck around to steal a significant look at me. Outwardly, her expression is surprisingly calm, and I guess she means to reassure me, but her efforts fail miserably. The entire thing is simply too unreal to process.
Standing at the side of the hall, I can only try to remember to breathe as the soldier continues to accuse her of one unspeakable atrocity after another. And hope that, somehow, the situation isn't as dire as I know it really is.
I'm finally ushered out of the stifling building through a discreet side entrance. Instantly, the temperature drops by several degrees, and I try to wrap my mind around recent developments. Anger permeates every fiber of my being, must radiate from my every pore.
The past few hours have been grueling, and not once have I been allowed to do much more than react as the whirlwind of activity has unfolded around me. After the charges were read and I refused to enter a plea of "guilty", there was a quiet uproar. Kaelo had me removed from the room, calling for a recess in the proceedings. The military dignitary who'd read the charges aloud directed my removal personally, hissing a completely unnecessary warning in my ear that any trouble I made might result in unpleasant consequences for "my lover". I followed the direction of his curt nod over to Tom, who stood along the wall still under heavy guard.
I stiffened, seething as he hauled me to my feet in front of the entire assembly, all the while wanting nothing more than to plant my foot somewhere on the officer's body that would wipe that knowing smirk off his face. Yet I knew I couldn't stop him from moving me even if I tried. With a final glance at Tom's whitened face, I allowed the relocation with as much dignity and bearing as I could muster.
I admit to being more stunned than I liked by the entire ordeal. Considering the hideous charges that had just been leveled against me – least of all that I engaged in improper relations with members of my crew – I found it difficult to focus properly on what was happening. I was swiftly ushered into a small antechamber built along the private hallway adjoining the reception hall.
"Wait outside," I heard the soldier/dignitary order the four men trailing behind in our wake. Shoving me a few steps further into the room, he shut the door in their faces, throwing a heavy bolt into place behind him. And upon spying only the blank viewscreen on the far wall, a small metal table in the center of the room, and a single metal chair with leather straps built into the arms and legs, my heart began to pound. This wasn't good.
"If I were you, Captain, I'd cooperate." His tone was dangerous. "It'll make everything much easier on you – and your pretty boy officer, of course."
I turned abruptly to face my escort, squaring off to confront him as I assessed the situation. He stood between me and the door and was immediately advancing into my personal space. With my arms bound behind me, I knew I wouldn't be able to fight him off indefinitely. Nor would undoing that bolt be any picnic, either: it was just high enough to make releasing it in my current position impossible. If I managed to knock him out first. With the gag in my mouth, I wasn't even going to be able to call out for help – not that help was likely to be forthcoming from the men just outside.
He smirked down at me, but I refused to cower. After all, there were still my legs, which I could put to good use if necessary…
"I'm Intendent Gwiln. Do you remember me, Captain?" he asked in a dangerously silky voice. Furious, I shook my head, refusing to give in and back away from the confident, strong-featured soldier. "A shame. I remember you." He reached up to my face, yanking the gag down to hang around my neck as he advanced even closer, nearly pressing up against me.
"What do you want?" I spit immediately after swallowing to try and restore some moisture to my mouth.
He smirked again, his hand splaying dramatically across his broad chest. "Me? I want nothing." The hand reached between us to rest heavily on my left shoulder. I tried to shake him off, but his fingers squeezed harshly into my bones, though the expression on his face, the confident gleam in his dark eyes never flickered. "I'm just a soldier following orders, Captain. I serve at the mercy of my prefect."
"Somehow, I doubt that," I retorted, making him smile thinly. Despite having regarded him for only a few short minutes, I already knew this man was anything but ambitionless. It practically radiated from him, the hunger and enjoyment of power.
He released my shoulder, shoving me roughly away from him, but before I could regroup, another voice rang out just behind me.
"Have you managed to talk sense into the scheming bitch yet?"
The demand, coming from behind me, had me jumping in spite of myself. I knew that voice. Ignoring the intendent's chuckle, I spun around and found none other than Kaelo's hideous visage dominating the viewscreen along the far wall. Even as his cold eyes passed over my body the way they always did, the look of hatred he leveled in my direction wasn't missed.
I only hoped to hell the one I shot back at him wasn't, either.
"These charges are absurd!" I hissed, determined to take advantage of the opportunity to speak. "You can't have a shred of proof to back up these allegations, because you know we had nothing to do w–"
I was stopped in my speech as Gwiln took hold of both shoulders and simply shoved me bodily into the single chair beside me. I landed hard, winded at the sharp twinge in my side just as the prefect exploded in rage.
"You signed your own death warrant when you humiliated me in front of the entire embassy, bitch," Kaelo was snarling. "And before I have you killed for it, you're going to be put to some good use, understand?" I thought I was beginning to. "My people desire vengeance for what was done to them. And they deserve to be reassured that nothing like this will ever happen again, which is precisely where you come in, my dear. With you tried, convicted and punished for the crime, my people will have nothing to worry about – worth every lycca I had to shell out to snatch you back here."
I could only stare in disbelief as he outlined his plan to use me as a political scapegoat and hope he felt my utter contempt for him through my glare. "It won't work," I promised him. "I'll never confess to something I haven't done."
"I suggest you cooperate. We'll only have to make you suffer more if you don't. Don't forget, Captain…you're under my control now."
"You don't control me," I snapped back. "And you're truly delusional if you think you ever will."
He snorted, unaffected. "Believe me, you will cooperate and sign a confession. Your precious ship isn't coming to rescue you this time, because your crew thinks you're dead. And even if they do come after you, by the time they get here, you will be dead. And don't forget…there's still the matter of your little medic to resolve. I can still bring him up on charges…I can indict your whole ship on charges of conspiracy. Is that really what you want?"
He knew me well enough already to know it was the last thing I wanted.
He leaned forward at the dangerous flicker in my eyes and sneered, "But it would be easier just to use the one we already have. He must be special to you if you allowed him to accompany you on your little ambassadorial away mission to Araken."
I tried to show nothing, but at least a flash of surprise must have shown in my expression, because he laughed almost maniacally. "Oh, yes, I've been kept very well informed of your activities from the moment you left. Did you honestly think I was just going to let you walk out of here after humiliating me like that?"
Bastard, was all I could think through my rage. Unbelievable bastard. "You can't have any evidence to back up these charges," I spat, certain that he couldn't possibly.
"No?" The pleased, triumphant twist of his mouth warned me before he spoke that I wouldn't like what I heard next. "I have eyewitness testimony from several of your coconspirators in the resistance that clearly identify you as the mastermind behind the bombing. And once I have your confession, no one will question your guilt, I assure you. But back to your little medic. If I want, Kathryn, I'll have him strung up and cut into tiny pieces, bit by bit, while you watch, helpless to save him. I can make you listen to his screams while he begs for mercy and then pleads for death when he realizes mercy won't ever be forthcoming. My men are quite skilled. They can make him last for days if I tell them to."
Everything in me, my instinct and all of my experience both with aggressive species and with this man personally, screamed that he was capable of doing what he threatened. What was more, I realized with sickening dread, was that he would enjoy it. My stomach lurched treacherously, feeding on pure rage and fear now. "You son of a bitch," I growled. "Do you have a shred of decency anywhere in you?"
He only smirked like his intendent had and then turned his gaze to his subordinate, completely dismissing my comments. "They're calling for the proceedings to resume in twenty minutes. See what you can do to persuade her in the meantime." His gaze flicked back over me briefly. "Just don't leave any marks. Thanks to Jorca's rabble over the freedom fighter, the whole panel of justices is going to be on the lookout for any obvious signs of coercion now."
I felt the intendent's heavy hand come to rest on my shoulder again, squeezing it lightly, and I jerked forward out of reach as he laughed and drawled, "Yes, Prefect. I heard about that, and I quite agree with you. No reason to stir unrest if it can be helped. We'll be very careful, won't we, Captain?" I craned my neck around, looking up into his smirking face, giving serious thought to spitting in it, and drew my legs slowly under me in preparation to defend myself against whatever abuses he planned.
Kaelo didn't see fit to address me further, but of course his hooded eyes raked over me one last time before he jammed his index finger down on the console on his desk. The screen faded to black while I sat there stunned, enraged, and more than just a little terrified for Tom.
Wasting no time whatsoever, the intendent came around in front of me, and I saw that he was peeling away a thin adhesive layer from a thicker, otherwise nondescript white patch. Of course I was meant to get a good look at it.
"What the hell is that?" I demanded as he circled swiftly around my back again, one arm crossing over my chest, pinning me into the chair and the other hand snaking down to my waist. Before I could predict his actions, he'd hefted the hem of my tunic up to my chest, scraping the skin of my stomach with the rough fibers as he exposed my abdomen to the humid air, and without giving me time to react, he slapped the strange patch to my stomach with the hand of the arm crossed over my chest. Furious, I tried to dodge it, but far too late. With his other hand, he pressed it more securely into my skin, where it stuck fast. I felt his mouth close to my ear, the nearness of it thoroughly distasteful, but there was still no moving far enough away from him to quell the revulsion of his breath against my skin.
"Just a little something to get you in the mood for our discussion, Captain," he whispered with a little chuckle that raised the hairs on the back of my neck at the pure malice in the sound.
The burning sensation began immediately. I hissed in a sharp breath I intended to use to berate him with, but within seconds, my ire was rapidly thinning to a dull, muted kind of apathy, and I quickly forgot what I'd been protesting in the first place.
After a few moments in which my vision swam and the room dipped and spun around me, Intendent Gwiln came around in front of me and gave me his version of a motivational speech: in short, he played a brief holo-video featuring of some of the Jifani military's more physical methods of coercion.
"The freedom fighter we mentioned," he explained smugly, switching on the viewer.
It shouldn't have been as effective as it was, and I knew I had the drugs to thank for that. My stomach is still churning from the sight of the unfortunate, unidentified Jifani male, bedraggled and miserable, denied even the courtesy of clothing, essentially tortured by anonymous prison guards in an obscure interrogation room until he broke down completely. The footage was well edited, I remember thinking darkly…only the most hideous things that were done to the man in what had probably been a span of hours, if not days, were displayed. One horrendous, atrocious act after another perpetrated against him. And while the tortures I witnessed weren't particularly unique or unknown to me, I've never had much stomach for the deliberate inflicting of suffering on one sentient being by another.
The chemicals in my system only heightened my nausea as I fought for control of my facial expression and listened to the muted sounds of anguished moaning coming from the screen. My skin broke out in a cold sweat, making the loathsome intendent grin, but I couldn't help it. Even when I closed my eyes, I still heard the faint screaming, and that was almost harder to listen to, in a way.
Because I didn't need to hear his screams: some my worst memories and twenty years of subsequent nightmares provided them for me.
As the intendent hinted that Tom could be made to join in any festivities as well if I "forced their hand", I began to know the kind of blanketed, burning hatred I thought I'd reconciled within myself over twenty years ago. Chakotay was right, I'd thought at the prospect of what was looming before me, and possibly Tom, now. It's so easy to start hating.
And they hadn't even touched us yet.
As the footage drew to an agonizing end, my only redemption was that my outrage at the man's suffering had been stronger than any fear the video was undoubtedly meant to instill in me. Gwiln ripped the patch from my skin, yanking my shirt back down to cover the angry red mark left behind, leaving it to fade on its own in the interim.
After another snide smile and a promise that such methods of "persuasion" were easily modified to be more applicable to my alien physiology, I was led back out into the main hall, noting with vague anxiety that Tom had been removed in my absence.
My surroundings had long since taken on a surreal quality. There was no gag in my mouth this time, it having been left back in the holding room by Gwiln. He'd known it wouldn't be necessary anymore – fighting the lulling effects of the medication in my bloodstream sapped most of my effort. I didn't even hear much of the rest of the proceeding. My mind was sluggishly busy trying to calculate the benefits of continued defiance of Kaelo's wishes, namely that I give a false confession. As far as I could gather, a confession to such a heinous crime would result in my execution. The Jifani do practice capital punishment for severe offenses, and I could think of no more severe offense than terrorism resulting in massive casualties. And despite the threats that had been leveled against us in that small room, I knew that if I died, Tom would hold no more value to Kaelo. My helmsman would follow me swiftly in that fate should I be put to death…there was no reason for Kaelo to keep him alive if he couldn't be used in some fashion against me.
Of the choices before me, both were abhorrent. The situation was untenable but it was real, and a choice I would have to make, regardless. Until I knew that I'd be directly endangering Voyager otherwise, I would fight to keep Tom alive as long as possible, allowing Chakotay time to work out what had happened to us, hopefully in time to at least save him.
Already, I had little expectation of making it off the planet alive myself.
And then I was finally ordered to enter my official plea…again. Gwiln's prodding into my back let me know that I was expected to answer this time. Though the sedative made me fight to speak clearly (I assumed that's what it was as it made thinking and reacting so difficult), I still knew what I had to do. And I took extreme pleasure in the poorly contained rage in Kaelo's expression as I looked directly into his hated black eyes and repeated, "Not. Guilty."
The rest of the ceremony is a blur of speech and motion. I vaguely noted the hostile murmurings of the crowd behind me, and then someone slightly familiar from the sidelines – one of Kaelo's more loyal cronies if memory served – suggested that I might be more cooperative after a few days of incarceration. That was less well received than the second suggestion that the confession be outright beaten out of me.
I remember Kaelo looking ready to spit nails, wanting to flay me on the spot if his glare was any indication when a woman to his right calmly asserted that forcible coercion was illegal under Jifani law, and that care should be taken to see that the honored Jifani judicial system be respected and adhered to, even in matters of serious criminal cases. She counseled that official policy was to remand me into government custody, where I could be questioned by a specially formed committee and periodically inspected to be sure I received proper treatment. It took long, confused moments for the meaning of her words to sink into my struggling brain.
The rest of the panel was silent for a few moments, but from the little I could gather, they appeared to be nodding their approval of her proposal.
When Kaelo didn't contradict her, I eventually worked out why from his earlier discussion with the intendent. The "talking to" I'd been given by Gwiln wasn't an illustration of official policy. And Kaelo may have been prefect, but he was very worried about appearances. Most of the nobles alongside him on the panel weren't his trade ministers, the men who had sneered and smirked at me at the negotiation table, lapping up every badly veiled innuendo and slight he hurled at me. Absently, I recalled Tuvok mentioning something about the high court being the only body of truly elected officials on Jifan. These officials' opinions appeared to carry some real weight, I realized slowly, with the small spark of hope igniting within me for the first time since our capture.
As Kaelo kept looking to the reaction of the media and the onlookers each time after one of the panelists commented on the proceedings, I began to wonder if it would be enough to save our lives for long enough for Voyager to come after us. I latched onto that helpful fact with everything I had and used it to fuel me through the rest of the proceedings. Twice, I swayed on my feet and was righted again by…someone…behind me (before it became too obvious) as I dimly caught that a second plea hearing was scheduled for two weeks from now. In the meantime, Tom and I are being relocated to a detention facility.
He hasn't been officially charged with anything, but Kaelo made it clear what his ultimate purpose here would be. He was going to be held over my head in order to garner my cooperation. And after he outlived his potential usefulness…
Not that I'd had any real doubts in the first place, but hearing it said aloud was entirely different. My primary duty here is painfully clear. I will protect Tom as best I can from the likes of Kaelo and his men, but I will also have to be very careful to do nothing which could potentially endanger Voyager and the rest of the crew. Kaelo still has a sizeable fleet of warships at his command, should he be so inclined to use them.
I look for Tom now in the small, walled courtyard I'm standing in, holding my breath in spite of his earlier, repeated warnings to breathe deeply. To my utter relief, he's brought out to join me from another exit, and he looks unharmed.
Thank God – every one of them ever listed. I didn't honestly think they'd let me see him again; I'd been afraid that we weren't going to be reunited after they separated us in the main hall. So I'm surprised, but I certainly won't be complaining.
The sedative might be wearing off, because walking is gradually becoming easier as we're marched through the deserted grounds. But my thinking is still sluggish. It takes an awfully long time to analyze my next objectives. We're bustled into a secured ground vehicle, swiftly surrounded by guards in the tiny, cramped transport. I assume it will take us to the prison.
Whatever awaits us there, I'll be grateful when the omnipresent guards are no longer hovering over us. Maybe by then I will be able to think clearly…and formulate a plan for getting us out of this mess.
The wait was horrible. Not only was the small holding room way too hot, but it was also soundproof. With only my contingent of angry guards for company (how many men did they figure it took to contain a single, restrained and unarmed man?), it felt like hours before I was finally brought to my feet and dragged out through a discreet exit into another courtyard. Seeing that I had no idea of Jifani judicial policy, the guards took great pleasure in taunting me with the prospect that she'd been shot: executed right there in the hall. And though Tuvok had apparently learned that the crime we thought she'd be put up on charges for wasn't punishable by death, I was pretty damned sure something like mass murder and terrorism might be. So when I see the captain again, standing in the courtyard already, I almost cry with relief.
She doesn't exactly look well. Something about the unfocused glaze over her eyes and the clammy pallor of her skin leaves me wanting to go to her immediately, but of course that isn't allowed.
We're bundled into a small armored ground transport vehicle, and the captain and I are in separately sealed compartments. So I don't get to ask how she is, or even to ask what happened while we were apart or where we're going. The guards are kind enough to inform me that we're being taken to a detention facility to await "further developments" in the trial, but when I try to ask what developments they're expecting, I'm tersely given the choice of shutting my mouth or having it shut for me.
Eyeing the size of the thick arms alone on each of my two escorts bundled in beside me, I opt for the latter, focusing on taking deep, steadying breaths of the cool ventilated air filtering over us. I barely notice when the engines whine to a slow halt.
"Get out." The guard to my left, a nice, Hirogen-sized beast of a man, helps shove me out of the vehicle with one thick hand curled around the back of my neck, making me stumble over the threshold. Tossing him a dark look, I opt for prudence and keep my mouth shut, obeying as swiftly as possible with the ankle restraints that were added while I waited in the holding room back at the reception hall. The cuffs are just a hair too short to let me keep stride with our escort, and a few more brutal shoves are my reward for my shortcomings. I think the captain's behind me, but it's hard to tell with the soft slipper shoes the Grall gave us not making any noise on the walkway.
I look around, keeping my head down but my eyes peeled. Drinking in every detail about the prison. Unfortunately, it's well constructed. The entrance is incredibly secure. After passing through a tall outer wall that's protected on either side of huge, heavy manual doors by a forcefield, we walk another twenty meters to reach the building itself. From there, it takes a special wristband interfacing with a terminal and a visual confirmation via a surveillance imager to gain entry. Once ushered inside the main set of doors, we're still only in a sealed corridor with separately powered force fields that block the inner set of doors. Four Jifani prison guards await us there, and they take stock of us as we're prodded forward to approach them. Since there's nothing else happening in the room whatsoever, I'd say they've been waiting for us.
I turn to get a good look at the captain as she's pushed up to stand next to me. She looks all right…considering. Her movements are slower than usual, though. I catch her eyeing me, but she doesn't speak, and then her eyes are drawn to the guards in front of us short seconds later.
The difference between the soldiers we've dealt with up until now and the prison guards is noticeable right away, and not only in the dress code. There's a much more lax air around them, and unlike the soldiers, not a single one of them looks to be in top physical condition. They don't stand or carry themselves as if they have any kind of military training, and aside from a wary, assessing look in each of their eyes as we draw nearer, I would take them to be common civilians – and not the picks of that litter, either.
The lead guard…maybe the guard captain from the confident way he carries himself, even sitting in the solitary chair at the intake desk…fixes his eyes on the captain, primarily, but does glance briefly over me after a moment. I keep my expression fixed, taking the captain's lead and saying nothing for the moment. His lip curls up in something like disgust as he holds out his hand for the official orders from our escort. Once received, he scans them derisively, nodding his head as though bored, and then orders the captain to walk through the large scanner archway looming behind him.
With a sidelong glance at me, in which I can see this time that her eyes have slowly, very slowly started to regain some of their focus, she steps forward. She still doesn't speak, but something in her expression warns me not to call any attention to myself right now or to object. With about four armed military soldiers behind me and another four prison guards in front of me, I can't see the wisdom in disobeying her.
She steps slowly through the archway, and a low frequency tone is emitted from the panel. Noting this, one of the guards steps behind her to follow her to the other side.
"Your turn," the next guard growls in my direction. I follow the path the captain just took, stepping through the archway to join her and the single guard on the other side. Now we're in a smaller section of the long corridor, and I'm pushed immediately up against the wall next to her by someone behind me. The wall is frigidly cold against the side of my face.
"Stand still and don't move while we wait for the intake officers," the second guard instructs, his rusty translator taking several seconds to catch up to his spoken words.
"Intake officers?" I echo, curious about the distinction.
He ignores me.
Beside me, the captain turns her head away from the wall where she's being pressed against it by the first guard to make eye contact with me. "I refused to plead guilty," she informs me in a low murmur, filling me in. "They're hoping to make me change my mind by throwing us in here, but I don't think they're allowed to harm us." I take in what she says, knowing the guards are listening to every word as well. "Are you all right?" she asks, and I frown even as I nod, noting how pale and clammy her skin still is.
"Fine, Captain. Do you have any idea what they gave you?"
She starts to shake her head but has no chance to answer further. The second set of doors swing open, and two more guards are admitted into the room. One carries a bundle of neatly folded grey cloth. Both glance briefly over us but ignore us, for the most part.
The guards who'd been holding us still release us now that the forcefield snaps into place again behind the newcomers. The captain and I both turn around slowly, noticing our two guards are still watching our every move and not wanting to provoke them…yet. Darting a quick glance back the way we came, I no longer see the soldiers through the archway and assume they've left for…whatever it is they do when they're not escorting prisoners.
The one who'd been holding the captain against the wall approaches the two newer guards, who stare at him expectantly.
"Capital offenses," he grunts. "That one," he jerks his thick crimson neck, indicating the captain, "is Janeway. The one they think was responsible for the bombing. I don't know what they want with the other, but he's listed as a witness under suspicion."
Silence descends over the small space in which the six of us stand, and all eight eyes are on us now. The open hostility permeating the air between us and them is palpable, and the tallest of the newer guards' eyes go frighteningly hard.
"I know her," the tallest one spits. The look on his face alone is enough to make my insides twist in apprehension.
"So which one first? And how did you want to do this?" the shortest guard (who is shorter than I am by at least four centimeters but a hell of a lot heavier) asks, holding up the clothing in his hands.
The tall guard nods to the captain. "Let's start with her." The short guard, along with the one who'd held her still before, both move forward to take one of her arms a piece, holding her in place between them. My guard has his fingers curling into my left arm already, yanking me to the side and out of the way while the taller man approaches her, a menacing, dangerous look on his face as he eyes her.
"A good friend of mine died in that bombing, Captain," he hisses.
Oh, shit. Life in this prison just got a whole lot worse for us, I can't help thinking. As if it needed to be any worse than it already is.
I tense expectantly, ready to step in if I have to, and at my slight movement, my guard's hand tightens over my arm. His grip is impressive, despite his apparent lack of physical fitness, but I'm barely paying any attention to him.
"I wonder," the tall, heavy guard continues, "when you're lying in bed at night on that comfortable starship of yours…do you ever think about your victims, Captain? Do you ever hear their dying screams in your nightmares? Or does that only happen to those your victims leave behind?"
"We weren't responsible for that," she grits, speaking up for the first time. The look on his vermillion face doesn't bode well for whatever he's planning on doing now, clearly disbelieving her proclamation of innocence, but the look in her eyes is clarifying, at least. "I'm sorry for your loss. But we didn't have anything to do with that attack. We weren't even here when it hap–"
"Prisoners only speak when spoken to," he cuts over her loudly, his hand closing over her throat and choking off her speech. My guard presses something small and round into my side as I instinctively shift, preparing to intervene. Glancing down, I can see it's an energy weapon, the barrel of which is jammed smartly between two of my ribs. He shakes his head once, but I only spare a second to glare at him, my eyes already back on the captain and the guard threatening her. He's leaning down into her face. "I'd learn that quickly if I were you. And don't worry." He produces a blade from a holster on his belt with his free hand, flicking the adjustable length up several notches as he holds it up in front of her face, and then my heart stops beating completely. "Maybe if you're absolutely still, I'll make sure not to sever anything…important."
Absolute silence descends in the room. Even though I'm no longer breathing, my toes are already digging into the smooth floor through the thin shoes, and I'm ready to move the instant that blade does, the weapon being held on me aside.
"Easy with that one, Najtu," the guard captain from the other side of the arch drawls lazily. "She's priority green, my friend." I glance almost gratefully over at him as he strolls through the security arch, and the dry, almost bored look on his face is still there. He extends the orders the soldiers handed off to him, and the tall guard reluctantly draws away from her and takes the thin data storage device, scanning through it impatiently while I continue to hold my breath.
The captain, on the other hand, takes the opportunity to breathe again, her face decidedly red, but she shakes her head at me, mouthing, "I'm all right."
The tall one lets out a little curse, and then the look of hatred in his typically dark Jifani eyes redoubles. "Fine." The word is almost literally spit out. He thrusts the padd device back into the guard captain's waiting hand, his eyes finding hers. "You're a very lucky woman, Captain," he hisses irately. "I hope you know that."
I relax slightly and feel the weapon removed from my side when I do. And I realize that whatever priority green means, it just saved at least her some considerable abuse in this prison, if not me, too.
She says nothing, shows none of the relief I'm sure is displayed across my face as the angry one mutters something to the other guards surrounding us. Then he stalks over to the desk on the other side of the archway and out of sight.
"Uncuff them," the guard captain orders. "They'll dress themselves."
Immediately, the restraints at my ankles are loosened and then removed. Next to me, the captain's arms are already free, and she begins to rub her wrists, which look sore from the restraints. As the now-warm metal is removed from my own wrists, I can tell before I even pull my arms in front of me how mine are going to look the same, and they do. Unpleasant tingles are shooting through my almost numb fingers, but the sharp prod from what feels like a hard baton in my upper back makes me stop and look up.
"What are you waiting for?" the shortest one growls, looking from me to her as he dangles the grey cloth in front of him disdainfully. "An invitation? We don't have all day!"
The oldest looking guard, who'd held the captain still from the beginning, smirks at her. "Maybe they're waiting to be shown the dressing room?"
"It's not a fashion show, Captain!" the tall one interjects from beyond the arch. "Don't make me let them assist you!"
The older one smiles lecherously, his evil grin utterly sickening as he takes a step closer to her. "Please make him let me," he suggests.
I look from him back to the captain, tensing again, but she doesn't even address the comments, not dignifying them with a response. Her eyes focused dead ahead of her, her chin at that same proud angle as usual, she begins methodically removing the nondescript Grall uniform we'd been given only earlier this morning. With an inward shrug, I follow her lead, knowing it's the wise choice, hoping that's the end of this line of commentary…and knowing that it probably isn't. Once again kicking myself for being here next to her while this is happening.
When we're standing in our underwear, we both pause automatically, to the decided annoyance of the tall guard as he strolls back into our section.
"All of it!" he barks.
Damn. At least the Grall left us with our underwear. The Jifani aren't leaving us with anything.
I want to protest, but I know better. This is probably standard intake procedure, though that doesn't make it any easier when the guards are rapaciously eyeing every single move we make. The captain is quicker to move than I am, and I avert my eyes while we finish undressing.
"Not much to look at, are you?" my guard sneers, circling around me a few times and looking me up and down. He glances over at the captain. "But she's not too bad, considering."
Considering what, I don't know, and I don't really care as there's general agreement on the assessment among the other guards. I grit my teeth and silently send her as much support as I can, knowing it's stupid to think she can hear my thoughts but not knowing what else I can offer right now.
The tall, angry guard makes a point of looking her over too while I keep my glare focused straight ahead of me, mimicking her posture as best I can. "What happened here?" he sneers. "One of your victims already try getting even for the atrocities you've committed?"
I assume he's talking about the decorative dressing around her ribs, and her terse explanation confirms this.
"No. I've told you, we're innocent." She ignores his snort of disbelief. "I was injured aboard the ship Kaelo sent after us. The transporters were misaligned, and I fell."
"Good," he spits back instantly. "I hope it hurt like hell. Even if it did, it was nothing compared to what you deserve." He circles around her once, twice, then calls behind him to the guard captain, "What section is she in?"
"Government detention," the guard captain drawls back. He's been leaning against the opposite wall, arms crossed in front of him and idly enjoying the show along with the rest of them.
"Perfect." I can hear the predatory malice in the tall one's chuckle. "Hey, Frum. How long do you figure since wing three has had anything new to play with?"
I really don't like the sound of that, and I can't help that my eyes are darting over to her despite my original intention not to. There's a tense few seconds in which she shakes her head furiously, warning me into silence (not that I'd thought of anything to say), but before anything else happens, the guard captain speaks up again.
"Just remember, boys, she is priority green. The orders are signed by Judge Advocate Jorca. You'd better let the others know, too – especially if you're putting her in three."
Whatever that means to the guards, it's finally enough to end this little display of humiliation. A few disappointed looks and grumblings later, a bundle of grey cloth is slapped into each of our hands, and we make quick work of dressing before the two that brought our clothing, the short guard and the angry one, are hauling us out the way they entered. They don't cuff us again, but they do draw their weapons and prod us forward at the ends of them. We don't get to see what happens to the clothing we've left behind on the floor, but I already know we won't be seeing it again.
A cool current of air passes over me as the forcefield to the second set of doors fizzles out, and the doors slide apart. We're marched swiftly through three long halls, and then another set of force fields makes us stop for the guards to buzz for entrance. The field is deactivated from the other side, and then we're prodded forward yet again.
The first thing I notice is the God-awful stench washing over us as we step past the next set of doors and into a narrow, filthy hall. And, yeah. We're in the main prison facility now. There's no mistaking that delightful blend of poor plumbing facilities and unwashed humanoid being delivered over the stale, recycled air of a closed ventilation system. I can't for the life of me figure out where the scent of disinfectant could be coming from, though: none of these surfaces appear to have come in contact with any type of cleaning agent since they were originally constructed.
The captain's coloring looks much better now, a fact that provides a little comfort in light of the claustrophobia settling in as we're led down the narrow hall in single file, her and her guard both ahead of me.
The guard ushering the captain is my main concern, though. He keeps leaning over her to whisper something as he nudges her along. I don't know what he's saying, but from the way her shoulders are going straighter and straighter, it isn't anything good. I can only trust her to handle herself and hope that whatever he's saying is just meant to scare her.
Otherwise, the sights we encounter are appalling. This place is a cesspool of depravity. It doesn't shock me, knowing Kaelo's style of leadership, but I can't help trying to edge a little closer to the captain as we walk, either – though whether for her protection or mine, I can't even say for certain. She looks as though she'd dare anyone to try anything serious as my guard pushes me up to walk next to her.
I admire her composure. The guards wait for her reaction as the jeers and hollers begin, sniggering to themselves as soon as it starts. But they soon understand that they're to be sorely disappointed. The captain holds her head high, acting for all the galaxy like she can't be bothered to summon even a spark of interest in her surroundings. She certainly doesn't give any indication of being humiliated or embarrassed – as I'd expect her to be while running the gauntlet down long halls of cheering, whistling catcalls and explicit compliments. Most of them are in a different language, but then…I suppose that's where things like tone and hand gestures fill in the gaps and deficiencies of verbal communication. There are many more men here than there are women, and though they're apparently housed together, the disproportionate ratio certainly shows in the overall atmosphere…
Amidst the whistles and jeering, both from the guards we pass and from the more healthy prisoners, the words "pretty boy" reach my ears through the translator that must be affixed to something on the guard closest to me.
My head snaps around automatically, but I can't tell where the comment came from. "Guess I'll take that as a compliment," I decide under my breath as we finally clear the second cell block. And I can only hope to hell that we're not being housed with any of these unfortunate, crude souls shouting after us.
I should have been more careful what I wished for. Clearing the next junction with energy fields and heavy doors, the next hallway is filled with long sets of smaller, solid doors on either side, unlike the completely open, mass holding areas we just marched past. We barely make it past the first few doors when the short one beside me gestures for me to stop.
"In here," he grunts, opening the door to his immediate left with a wristband and shoving me inside before I can protest.
A tiny metal bunk built into the wall with no bedding whatsoever and a hole in the ground for a latrine are the only amenities in the small, coffin-sized cell. It stinks to hell, too, not that that's entirely surprising. I turn back swiftly to face him, realizing that there's only room for one in here, and my heart sinks into the filthy, insect-ridden floor. "Hey, what about her?" I ask, already knowing the answer, anyway.
"Oh, not you, Captain," the angry one laughs from outside before my guard can answer, I assume as the captain has protested the separation, too. "This is witnesses' quarters. You're in a different section altogether…capital offenses. We've got the perfect spot for you in section three."
"Wait a minute," I hear the captain respond from outside in the hall as the short one steps back out into it, his weapon drawn and held on me warningly to keep me from trying to follow. "I want to speak with him before you–"
The door slams shut, and then I can't hear another sound.
There are too many people here. I've begun to feel crowded, even though there has to be a good five meters of open space surrounding me on all sides. The spotlight is too bright, and the room is far too warm. The perspiration beginning to form on my skin makes me itch as the nauseating scent of cheap alien soap fill my nostrils. It's nearly impossible to rinse off completely, as I've come to discover.
"Frankly, Captain, I find this feigned innocence insulting."
The familiar monotone draws my attention back to my surroundings, and I draw in a shallow breath to respond. "It isn't feigned. I had nothing to do with this."
A deep, long-suffering sigh. "So you have said, over and over. And yet with a preponderance of evidence stating otherwise, it's difficult to believe you, somehow."
"What evidence?" I don't care enough to keep the annoyance out of my voice anymore. "You keep insisting you have proof, yet you refuse to tell me what it is. How can I be expected to present a defense against accusations I'm not even made aware of?"
They don't answer that one. They never do. Because I'm not supposed to present a defense, obviously. I'm just supposed to roll over and capitulate.
Like hell I will. They've picked the wrong woman for that.
My legs have begun to ache, but of course they're probably counting on that. Hours of standing can't be intended to produce any other result, but here I've stood for the better part of the day, already. At least I think it's been the better part of the day. There's no way to tell, really, though the officials across the table smile as they make a grand show of beginning their second meal since I've been here. The foreign scents are especially potent in the closed interrogation room (as bare as it is of furniture, that's the only purpose I can assign to it). Occasionally, a hint of something appealing tickles my nostrils, overwhelming the noxious smell of soap haunting my every slight movement.
My stomach stirs, growling at the stimulation of my olfactory senses, but I force the faint whisperings of hunger back. Thinking of Leola root casserole is usually all it takes, but beyond that, my body is used to going prolonged periods of time without food. I make a point of that.
I must admit I haven't been making so much of a point of it lately – my stomach growling in the first place testifies to that. And damn Chakotay for it, too. He has, unfortunately, learned my weaknesses all too well over the years… I should have another twelve hours at least before even noticing the hunger.
Thirst is another thing, entirely. I'm used to having my throat well moistened at the very least, but I refuse to even think about coffee…
Damn. Too late.
They manage to eat in good spirits, despite the inconvenience of my continued defiance. Enjoying each other's company while pointedly ignoring me. As usual. I can only stand and wait for them to finish. My head pounds continually and my side throbs just as fiercely. The ankle restraints are too tight. They're cutting off circulation to my feet, but when I pointed that out in the beginning, the smirk of a response from the guard fastening them assured me this had been the point. Retaliation for refusing to put on a better show for them in the shower earlier, I'm sure; he's one of the guards from my section.
At least the manacles on my wrists aren't as bad. Almost, but not quite.
Needing to occupy my mind with something other than the discomfort, I survey the committee before me, the loathing I've developed for them no longer worth the effort of concealing. At first, it was vaguely interesting to note that two of the officials are government and two of them military. From what we'd gathered on our initial visit, the two groups don't often engage in cooperative efforts. They seem to be making an exception in my case, however.
I haven't seen Tom in four days, not since they shoved him into a tiny cell in an entirely separate wing on the way to section three – home to the cell I'll be stuffed back into when this bureaucratic hell of an inquisition is over for the day. I have no idea what he's being subjected to in the meantime, but they're taking great pleasure in making me think the worst, of course. Mostly, they've refused to even acknowledge my questions about his location and well being.
Minister Dukkan, the official who has done most of the questioning, finishes first. His dark, burgundy skin is a rarer shade than the usual crimson his three companions have, and it flushes slightly purple whenever my responses displease him.
He flushes often.
"So, Captain," he sighs heavily as he turns back to me, swiping a cloth napkin across his wide mouth, "tell us again what Voyager was doing here six weeks ago?"
I told myself yesterday that if I heard this question one more time, I'd vomit. Thankfully, I'm not fed anything but a dry rations bar every evening, and last night's has long since passed into my intestines.
"You've asked me this at least several dozen times, Minister," I remind him through gritted teeth, "and my answer has been the same each time. We were here attempting to trade for supplies. Jifan IS the center of commerce in the sector, isn't it?" I can't resist adding, knowing full well that it won't do a bit of good to make sense but afflicted with the compulsion to continue trying.
"A most convenient answer," the infuriating Dukkan grumbles, exchanging guarded glances with the other three panelists, who all nod in agreement.
They do that often, no matter how ridiculous his statements are and to the point where I'm almost convinced he could look right at me, declare that I have three heads, and the others would probably immediately nod their belief in that, too.
"Convenient indeed," he repeats.
"Convenient for whom?" I snap, well beyond my limit of tolerance. "Certainly not for us. We wasted three days trying to trade with Kaelo – who probably never had any intention of helping us procure those supplies. It certainly wasn't convenient for me to be snatched from our shuttle in a confrontation where one of my officers died and the other was dragged back here with me to face your twisted version of justice!"
Diplomacy was abandoned yesterday, the third straight day of questioning, when they began to belittle me with not so vague insinuations about what I'd been prepared to trade for those supplies…and further suggested that I commonly use that same "commodity" to garner the loyalty of my own crewmen.
"Don't pretend to care about your medic, Janeway," the other, even smugger (if less vocal) government official leers unexpectedly, exchanging glances with the other three. "If you gave even half a damn about him, you'd confess now and save him the additional suffering."
My breath catches in my throat. Tom. It's the first time they have entertained hardly a second of conversation regarding him, and it's certainly the first time they've referred to any specific suffering on his part.
My eyes snap to the younger official, locking onto his hostile dark orbs like a tractor beam. "What do you mean? What about my officer? I want to see him."
All four are very interested in my interest, of course. They share a nasty little laugh and several meaningful looks between them.
"Why, Captain," the minister finally mocks, "didn't you know? He's in military custody. Obviously."
No. He can't be. There's no way that's true. They wouldn't…
"He's being questioned about his part in your involvement in that bombing."
I resist the urge to swallow – or to spit at him. Obviously, this official was let in on Kaelo's little secret with Gwiln, the intendent who'd threatened me during the initial hearing. Or maybe they all know what goes on behind closed doors within their righteous judicial system, and they simply don't care. Either way, this is a common tactic of interrogation. So common, I shouldn't even waste time denying it to myself…it's surprising that they've waited this long to try it. "I don't believe you. He hasn't even been charged with anything. If anyone, I'd be the one your military would be interrogating."
"Yes," the higher ranking military attaché acknowledges scornfully, looking me over derisively as he is inclined to do most times he honors me with his attention (which hasn't been often, especially considering that he's been sharing the same twenty square meter room with me for the better part of four days now). "That's true that he isn't officially charged. Which makes him a witness, not a criminal."
"And the government has no jurisdiction over witnesses," the minister cuts in immediately, making my head swivel back to him, "because the government doesn't concern itself with the whereabouts…or well being…of witnesses."
His malevolent stare tells me for a certainty he knows all about my experience with Kaelo's intendent at the reception hall. And the military officer certainly knows. Those dark, hooded eyes of his sparkle as maliciously now as Gwiln's had then. Hell, he's probably a trainee of the vicious intendent's.
But despite the knowledge, the expectation that the tactic would be employed eventually, my stomach sinks through the floor, and I know my face has gone white with blood loss. I barely manage to catch control of my expression before it can flicker and give away just how much fear is racing through me at the thought of it.
The clear memory of that unidentified, unfortunate soul being beaten and subjected to all manner of tortures flashes in ugly, bloody imprints through my mind, and for once, I'm grateful that my ankles are locked into harsh restraints. If they weren't, it's quite possible my legs would give out on me entirely.
Blood pumps furiously through me again, my heart pounding in my ears as I can't help considering their words. Would they? I have to admit, they might. I've always known they might…hell, Kaelo threatened to do just that before Gwiln said a single word to me. Tactic or not, it's still entirely possible… The minister's triumphant face is all I can see as my vision tunnels. He could be telling the truth. Tom. Have they really been torturing him this whole time? Trying to get him to turn against me? But of course he wouldn't do that; he'd die first, and so they'd have continued mistreating him…
Oh God, if Tom has been…
No. I don't know where the conviction comes from, but as I survey the eager faces in front of me, I'm overwhelmed by one sure thought: they're lying. I don't know how I know this with such certainty, but I do. Instinct tells me they're lying. Trying to get me to confess on a bluff.
It's a hell of a gamble to take…a hell of a gamble to have to make, but as long as I hold out, he still at least has some use to them. They're bluffing. They must be…they have to be.
"I don't believe you," I snap, marveling at the certainty radiating, somehow, from my sure tone. I still don't know how I manage to do that so often…sound so much more certain than I am. "And even if you were mistreating him, it wouldn't work. He has nothing to tell you, because I had nothing to do with that attack."
There's a tangible release of pent-up expectation. Disappointment reflects on each of the four faces on the panel, confirming that I've read them correctly, and further, that I've managed to present enough of a confident front to dissuade them from pursuing this line of intimidation. At least for the moment, anyway. I don't miss the dark look shot by all three panelists to the military officer as he glowers at me.
The captive breath releases slowly from my lungs.
"This is pointless," the dark military attaché sneers sullenly.
"I quite agree, gentlemen," I'm quick to note, surprising us all, even me. My heart rate still hasn't returned to normal.
He shoots me a dark look, his lip curling up in distaste before turning back to the panel, which he obviously deems more worthy of his attention, and continues, ignoring me. "We knew it going in. The prefect as much as told us she would be impossible to crack using conventional methods."
If he did, it would be the only smart thing Kaelo ever said.
The minister rests his head in his meaty left hand, stroking his jawbone with fat fingers. His eyes flicker thoughtfully over me, but he speaks to his companion. "What do you propose, then?"
The military officer…Jerral if I recall his name correctly…gives his snide little smile. "Perhaps that change in venue is in order, after all. We're getting nowhere in here. Let's request an emergency session." He leans in intently, going for the kill, "Give her over to us. Let us do what we do best, Dukkan."
Jerral has been insistent from day one. He wants me handed over to military care so badly he can taste it. He has suggested this what must be ten times already, but I've paid him little attention because the two government panelists haven't been paying much attention to him, either. Not to mention the woman from the original panel and her assertion that the government…at least what little, uncorrupted part of it remains…does not condone the mistreatment of prisoners.
But that was before I'd so sorely tried their patience. As I look to the minister again and note his purple-flushed cheeks, I have to admit that he must be nearing his limit with me. He and his young companion bow their heads together and confer with one another for an eternal moment.
I fight the notion creeping over my exhausted body that my time has suddenly grown much shorter here. Hurry the hell up, Chakotay, is all I can think to myself while the whole time I'm schooling my expression into one of utter defiance. It never pays to show fear, even when it's clawing its way up the back of your throat in a silent scream.
Because there's no way I can hold out against methods like those I witnessed on that surveillance video for very long. No one could. And, worse, they may not really have Tom in military custody now, but if I'm moved? Wouldn't they give him over, too?
Of course they will. He's no good to them without me.
I accepted that I'd eventually have no alternative but to confess to this crime on the very first day. That, given enough time, they'd force my hand, and that my only recourse is to either find a means of escape or to hold out for Voyager to arrive.
I'd just hoped I'd have more time than this…
Dukkan's dark eyes slide over me again. His mocking smile stretches his well-fed features. It's difficult to suppress the shudder that wants to roll through me as he nods. "We did believe we would be able to convince the captain see reason," he announces slowly. "However, the events of the past few days have left us in doubt as to whether or not this woman even has the capacity for remorse. She's clearly no closer to repentance than she was on day one."
I know they're recording this, likely getting sound bytes to be played for the media. It's how they operate, and the perpetual politically-motivated commentary furthers this assumption. He's staring at me. Giving me a chance to reply. To admit the error of my ways before he continues with his announcement.
So what do I do now? Beg him? Confess? Neither option is palatable. Not yet. I have to hold out. And I hate right now that I'm holding my breath, waiting for his decision…
"Propose your suggestion tomorrow at the emergency session. We'll support you if necessary."
That's it, then. I'm as good as handed over if they all recommend it. As my fate is coldly pronounced for me, the ever-present guards sidle forward from their positions against the walls to release me from my ankle restraints and lead me back to my solitary prison cell. Or, more likely, to the showers and then to my solitary prison cell.
They still haven't told me what's really been happening to Tom.
"Must we really continue to play these games, Mister Paris?"
"You tell me, Governor."
The lead questioner looks tired today as he eyes me cagily, and he's not the only one. Hell, I'm the one who's been standing here all day – again. He, at least, gets a chair.
"Don't you ever tire of this ridiculous assertion that your captain has done nothing wrong?" he sighs.
"No," I bite out, "because she hasn't."
"As we've told you repeatedly, she's already confessed."
"And as I've told you repeatedly, I don't believe you. Where is she?"
No answer. Only a few snickers and another question. Again.
"Mister Paris, why was Voyager here six weeks ago?"
I could scream with the number of times they've asked me this. "I've told you a hundred times already. We were trying to trade for supplies."
A deeper sigh. "You still maintain this ridiculous line of argument?"
Through painfully gritted teeth, I manage, "Yes. I still maintain 'this ridiculous line of argument'. It happens to be the truth." Not that these officials give half a damn about anything so inconvenient as the truth.
These guys just don't give up. They've been pushing for days, but it's the same bureaucratic nonsense they've been pedaling since day one while trying to wear me down with deliberately uncomfortable conditions. The room is too cramped, the floor too cold on my bare feet. The lighting is too bright. Every so often, I see the flash of a holo-imager behind the officials' table from the reporters lined up along the back wall, and then I'm blinded for a good few seconds…
"And tell me again then why Captain Janeway felt the need to set up covert meetings with key leaders of the underground resistance?" the lead interrogator – sorry, official – drawls.
"She didn't. That never happened."
"Yet that's not what she says."
Here we go again. If they weren't so bad at this, I might actually be intimidated. Instead, I usually leave these little sessions so frustrated, bored and annoyed that I've the urge to kill something. Slowly. "I don't believe you."
"Are you calling me a liar, Mister Paris?" a sly voice asks. I keep forgetting his name. The old man to the far left of the panel… Bern? Bearn? Something like that. It's hard to think after a few hours in here. But whatever his name is, he's the worst one, by far.
He grins at me, and I'm reminded that Jifani dental practitioners aren't exactly up to Federation standards, because he's missing two teeth in the front of his mouth. The gaps between his teeth amused me at first. Now they just manage to annoy the hell out of me.
I grit my own teeth, but that's really more like grinding them now – I don't get the chance to unclench them often. "Am I calling you a liar?" I echo, realizing how stupid I sound. Not caring anymore how stupid I sound; as far as I'm concerned, it makes me fit right in here. "If the shoe fits…" I shrug.
I can tell immediately the translators didn't have trouble with the expression. The old man growls and sputters to his companions at the panel, and then the imagers are snapping shots again. Damn. That only happens when I've screwed up, as I've come to realize… something in me snaps also as the grumblings of "malicious" and "spiteful" are passed back to the reporters, who soak up every word the officials say.
"More evidence of the deviousness of humans," the lead affirms.
"Look, you can tell me the captain has confessed to a crime she didn't commit all you want, but she'd never admit to doing something she hasn't done."
And she wouldn't. Not when she knows as well as I do they'll kill her for it. Unless she thought that by confessing…
The reporters in the back of the room fall silent. They don't think much of my sound bytes. Must have something to do with the message. They don't seem to have much of a taste for hearing the truth around here. I scoff to myself. Guess there really is no accounting for taste.
"I don't understand your reluctance to help her, Mister Paris," old Bearn wheezes what I'm sure he hopes is slyly. "Do you resent your leader so much?"
This is new. My ears perk up, and I straighten in the restraints. "What are you talking about?" Are they really this confused about how we operate? "Of course I don't resent her. She's my captain."
"And yet, your captain is suffering for every moment that you refuse to cooperate – quite needlessly."
Suffering? Never mind. They have tried this before, but it's been getting worse the past two days. They want me to believe the captain is being mistreated. I'm still doing my best not to believe it. Clinging to the fact that the woman from the first judge's panel said they weren't supposed to harm us, according to the captain. But it's hard to remember that in the face of scowling jackals – excuse me, statesmen – who're so obviously out for her blood. I can only imagine what those reporters are so busily writing about her this whole time. My guess is it makes Kaelo's little speech look tame by comparison.
"Well, human? What do you have to say for yourself?"
I haven't heard the question. And really, it doesn't matter. The answer has to be the same, anyway. Taking a deep breath – and hoping to hell that wherever they're stashing the captain, she's remembering to do the same – I prepare to give my standard response.
"The captain had nothing to do with the attack on your capital. I don't care how many different ways you try to get me to say otherwise – I won't. Your empty threats don't mean anything to me, so you can save your routine for someone who's buying it. She's innocent. And I want to see her."
Though I've said this a thousand times already, have stood in the same position until my legs ached from the strain and stared at the same set of faces under the bright spotlight until they've pretty much warped into one twisted red leer, this time, something very different happens.
This time, I can feel my stomach dropping to the stone floor as the lead panelist smiles widely.
Not a good sign.
I've only been back in my cell for about an hour, and two guards already come strolling in from the dim hall just outside.
"Let's go, human."
"Back already?" I scowl at the two huge hulks of Jifani guards. They're not the usual ones, either. I wonder what that means, especially given the odd results from my session yesterday. "And here I was looking forward to getting some sleep this morning," I grumble, making my way to standing with some reluctance. It's hard on the feet, standing all day in that cramped interrogation room.
They aren't impressed with my preferences, or with my jokes about being able to sleep in a filthy, humid shoebox of a cell with guards that thrive on tormenting their inmates on a regular basis.
"You're being moved," the other informs me, taking a bruising grip on my arm and yanking me the rest of the way out of the cell when I don't comply fast enough. He shoves me against the wall, face first, while his companion secures my wrists.
"Moved." This is interesting. Probably not in a good way, either, though I'd love to believe nothing could be worse than this shithole of a cell. "Moved where?"
They snicker but don't answer. As if I expected them to. All I can do is move along at their insistence, hoping it's not anywhere even further away from the captain than I already am.
"Let's go, Captain – on your feet!"
With those shouted words, bright lights burn into my retinas as my eyes snap wide open and sinking realization hits me. Damn. I fell asleep meditating – the only way to combat the mind-numbing boredom and unpleasant lack of sensory stimulation in this cell for hours on end.
I hate it when that happens, when it works just a little too well. Because the soothing, comforting sensation of having been lying on cool morning sand is a jarring contrast to the reality I wake up to here. Steel fingers clamp over my arm, raised to shield my vision from the glare. The world tilts on its axis and when my head stops spinning, pounding, I'm standing upright, my bare feet on the cold, filthy floor. Scrambling to stay that way and not to fall at the pace being set by my escort, who drags me to the wall beside the door.
Bastards. They were waiting for me to fall asleep, just so they could give me the jarring wake up call. It's one of their favorite games, but this time, there appears to be more on the agenda than just making my life as much of a living hell as they can. He's attaching the familiar wrist restraints, nudging me into position against the wall so he can pull my wrists behind my back.
"What is it this time?" I grumble, in no mood for any more of their games. It feels too early to be taken to the committee, or to be transported back to the reception hall for the emergency session, but then, I really have no idea how much time passes while I'm in here any more. "I've already been to the showers. I'm not taking another," I inform him.
"I'm not taking you to the showers. You're being transferred," he grunts, roughly cinching the restraints in place. "Orders came down a few minutes ago."
His answer puts a cinch of a different kind on my insides. I don't have ask where I'm being transferred. That was fast, I can't help lamenting. I think it's still only morning. And I'd thought they would drag me to the emergency session, where I'd be able to observe the panel's reaction to the suggestion. I'd assumed they'd jump at the opportunity to parade me before the cameras again, but I was mistaken – apparently.
I ask the only thing that matters now as he interfaces with the locking mechanism allowing the solid door to slide open in front of us. "Is my officer being transferred, as well?"
He ushers me swiftly past rows of doors that I'm not even sure are housing anyone. And despite the fact that I've never seen him before, he's no more agreeable than any of the others have been.
"Don't know, don't care," he grunts in a gruff voice. "All I know is that you're no longer our problem. Let's go."
The new cell isn't set up like the last one. Apparently, being given over to military custody isn't exactly a step up on Jifan. The facility is underground, which I only know from being bustled out of the hovercraft I arrived in to find myself in a cavern of sorts before being ushered into the building built into it. The cell itself is in a deeper, more isolated section of this imposing, stark compound. It takes a good thirty minutes of being escorted through set after set of various security measures to reach it, and when we do, I have to suppress the urge to sigh. It's nothing. No furniture, no amenities…nothing. Literally a hard floor and a set of three solid-looking, dingy walls. The fourth wall is just an open forcefield – a good one, because after a while of testing, I still haven't managed to find any weaknesses. I have, however, in the few minutes since I've given up and finally taken a seat in the far corner, identified several new species of insects here. This cell is crawling with vermin – it's worse even than the last cell. And somehow, I just can't bring myself to be surprised.
Movement in the silent halls outside catches my attention again. I don't suppress a growl of irritation: I've barely been left in peace for an hour this time. "You've got to be kidding m–"
But I trail off as the most glorious sight imaginable is pushed into my line of view. It's the captain. And she's fine. The captain is alive, and, miraculously, she's fine. Well…fine might not be the greatest way to describe it, but she's here, she's breathing, and I can't see any bruises on her. The way those Jifani officials were talking, I expected her to be beaten, emaciated, something…but she's fine. I can't even feel the insistent aches in my legs anymore, I'm so entirely filled with relief.
I almost reach out and hug her when they march her up to the forcefield and then shove her inside. She doesn't have much trouble moving, catching herself easily as she stumbles into the (our?) new cell. The two soldiers escorting her laugh and depart without so much as a comment but my focus isn't on them.
She surprises me as she darts a long look behind her to make sure her escort has retreated. Then she looks back to me for a long minute, eyeing me up and down. When she seems satisfied with my appearance, she crosses the space between us in two strides and pulls me into a fierce hug. "Tom," is all she whispers.
I know how she feels. After a week of not knowing where she was, or what was happening to her… It only takes a few seconds for the shock to wear off before I'm gratefully returning her embrace.
She's clean. It's the first thing I noticed when she stepped up to me. She smells like soap. It's embarrassing, considering what I must smell like, and as she finally lets me go, stepping back, I cock my head, curious. "They've been letting you shower? They must like you a heck of a lot more than they like…"
The way her face freezes then goes automatically blank, I realize I've inadvertently hit a nerve. What? How, though? I can't imagine what I could have said, but it's clear as anything that I said something. She just went to way too much effort to clear her face of any expression – my father used to do the exact same thing when he wanted to hide something from us. "Captain? Have I said something wrong?"
She waves me off, already herself again. "Of course not. I'd count myself lucky if I were you." At my baffled look, she forms a half smile, rubbing at her neck under the neckline of the tunic. "The soap. It itches like hell."
My face must still read uncertain, because hers goes concerned in no time flat. "They haven't hurt you?" she asks, pinning me with the I-can-see-through-you-so-don't-bother-lying stare.
"Not unless you count suffering through a criminal lack of competence in the art of interrogation." I let it – whatever it was I'm not meant to delve into – go at her obvious preference and shrug at her questioning glance. "They wanted me to say you'd helped orchestrate the attacks. But they didn't touch me at all," I'm quick to add. "I had to stand through official inquiries most of the last few days, but that's all."
"Good." She nods slightly, looking relieved. "That was about my experience, too." She darts another long look back out at the forcefield, her eyes scouring the empty hall. "They've grown tired of that. We've been handed over to military custody in hope that they can get us to cooperate." Her gaze slides back around to me. "And they've obviously decided to house us together…for the time being."
I nod in agreement. Obviously.
"We're probably being monitored."
"Probably." It makes sense. I can't see any other reason for throwing us in here together after having kept us so carefully separated for close to a week. And I know that means no talk of Voyager or anything sensitive until we know for sure that isn't the case. "I understand," I let her know, and she nods, satisfied that I do.
"Good." Her command mode takes over. I see it in the glint of her eyes as they start scanning the cell that's maybe ten paces wide and twenty paces long. Her hand finds her hip, and her gaze rests on me again. "Then first things first. Let's have a look at our new temporary home, shall we? Have you had a chance to test that field yet?" She indicates the invisible wall with a jerk of her head.
I nod. "I didn't find any weaknesses. And it packs the appropriate punch, that's for sure." I extend my left hand for her to inspect, which still bears the faint burn from the field's negative energy discharge. At the look she gives me, I shrug. "There wasn't anything else to use."
She doesn't look convinced, but she accepts my evaluation. "Then next are the rest of the walls, while we have the chance – we have no way of knowing when they'll be back for us. We'll start on opposite sides. Look for any weaknesses you can find, any abnormalities in structure or temperature."
I can't help noticing the complete lack of indication that something like macadam or concrete, which is what this cell is entirely made of, is honestly going to have any structural deficiencies, especially as it's been designed to hold people inside. But it is procedure. I move to comply. "You think there'll be any weaknesses to find?"
"No." A tight smile as she turns and strides the ten or so paces to the opposite side, pressing her hand to the wall and testing its solidity. "But stranger things have happened, and we'd be fools not to double check."
I have to agree. "And if they're watching us?" I venture as I reach the opposite side and kneel down to begin my half of the search.
She doesn't even pause, shrugging. "Then they learn a few things about proper inspection of a prison cell. They'll let us know if they object."
No doubt they will.
"You can give me your full report while we work," she adds.
I say it just because I can, the smile spreading across my face in spite of myself. "Yes, ma'am."
He's supposed to be sleeping – not that I can blame him for not being able to. When we'd confirmed the security of our cell was solid, I ordered him to get some rest while we had the chance. Those circles under his eyes are telling enough indication that his guards were no less bastards than mine in that regard. I doubt he's had a decent stretch of sleep in the past week, but it isn't enough yet to enable him to ignore the cold hard floor or the bright lights glaring into the room from the other side of the forcefield. So instead, Tom is sitting up against the back wall, having given up on pretending entirely.
I can't sit still. Needing to move, needing the motion to help center my thoughts, I pace the length of our cell without really noticing, pondering our situation.
I'm beginning to see now how perfect a scapegoat I must be to Kaelo. The rogue captain of a lone ship, no friends nearby, and virtually no political ties with other governments to consider. Pin the attack on me, and he makes his people believe the violence was a fluke: a one time occurrence only made possible by our direct involvement with the underground. He appears to maintain law and order, making the Jifani people feel safe again in the aftermath of devastating violence.
And so far, I have to admit it appears to be working beautifully. Judging by the reactions of some of the guards in the last prison, most of the population already believes me guilty as charged. All that's left for Kaelo to do now is to eliminate the single threat he's identified for the public to focus on…me. Once he accomplishes that, he'll have no trouble lulling his people into the false belief that an attack of that magnitude could never be orchestrated against them again.
And of course his little plan has the side benefit of allowing him to extract his revenge for the unforgivable blow I dealt his massive ego. I have to hand it to him. It's quite a neat little solution. Brilliant, really. So brilliant, I have trouble believing this was his idea at all…
But there's only the one, minute little detail he has to overcome now: I didn't do it. Voyager never supplied anyone with the weapons or the tactical support Kaelo's claiming we did. Without a single scrap of evidence, he'll be unable to prove his perfect theory – unless he can get me to confess to having aided the terrorists.
Fifteen million lycca to capture me alive: that's what maintaining this public farce is worth to him. Oh yes, he wants this confession – and, as I've already noted, he's hoping he can get it as cleanly as possible.
It's an advantage. A very small advantage, but possibly the only one I have at the moment, so I intend to make full use of it.
I turn back to Tom, who sits quietly in the corner with his back still against the wall. One leg is drawn up against his chest, his arm resting across it, and the other leg is straightened out in front of him. He looks a thousand light years away right now…and I'm immediately certain I know why.
"She'll be fine, Tom," I promise. My heart aches for him. I can't imagine what he's going through to be cut off from his wife at such a crucial time in their relationship. The past few months have been anything but easy on the two of them. "B'Elanna and the baby will be just fine. The doctor won't let anything happen to either of them." I pause, weighing my next words carefully. "If it's within my power to make it happen, you'll be back with them before long."
He lifts his gaze to my face, giving me a soft smile. "Yes, ma'am. I know."
For some reason, it isn't until this moment I fully realize how much Tom's eyes are like his father's. So very, vividly blue. And trusting. Not quite innocent, but still devoid of that muted quality that never left Owen's familiar eyes after…
I don't let my expression cloud, and I don't allow myself to wander too far down that path. Forcing myself to focus on the present, I look down at my right hand, flexing it purposefully. Feeling the individual muscles and tendons stretch and tighten, focusing on the sensations the movement evokes. I don't close my eyes, knowing better. And I almost want to curse fate for putting me in this predicament with this man – of all people – for company. The parallels are too similar already, and the real fun hasn't even begun yet.
At the last dark thought, I wonder when, exactly, I got so cynical. I hadn't really noticed that happening.
"I need to take a look at your side, Captain."
I'm still pacing. I stop short at the realization and force myself to still. This won't do. Not only do I have zero desire to give the guards (or whoever else may be watching) the satisfaction of seeing me squirm, but worse, it can't be doing anything to reassure Tom.
His eyes are solemn as he approaches me, seeking permission to check my wounds. I'm tempted to wave him off and tell him I'm perfectly fine – which I am. A few jostles and jolts here and there are nothing compared to what could have been…still might be…but something in his eyes has me nodding instead.
Better that he feel useful right now then wallow in the powerlessness of being confined in a small cell.
"Would you mind lifting up your shirt for me?" At my raised eyebrow, he gives me a sad excuse for a lecherous grin, but the humor doesn't quite meet his eyes.
I have to get him out of here.
I look him over carefully again. He does look fine. For now. I'm not sure I trust that the orders they mentioned…orders regarding our level of protection from abuse, I'm assuming…will extend to us here. If they don't, I only hope to hell they'll leave him alone, for the most part. I'm going to proceed under the assumption that they will.
"Captain?" He gives me a questioning glance – probably because I haven't moved.
"Sorry." Shaking my head clear of the dark thoughts, I reach over with my good arm and grab the hem of the thin, coarse prison tunic and slowly raise it up to just below my breasts, careful to turn my back to the forcefield to shield myself from the view of any passersby. I do my best to ignore how cold his fingers feel as he kneels down beside me to unwrap the bandage he hadn't wanted to apply in the first place, once again dry from the early morning shower of about half a day ago, if my internal clock is still correct.
"You're sure this isn't too tight?"
"No. It's fine." His expression tightens in concentration as he begins pressing his fingers at different points along the faint scar along my ribs, occasionally rubbing small circles in a precise, exploratory fashion with his thumbs, and I can't help quirking a smile while watching him.
"Can you even determine anything without a tricorder?"
He glances up, not quite hiding a small smile of his own before admitting, "Not much." But his eyes stay fixed on mine. "I really wanted to make sure you hadn't been injured again when we were separated."
I frown at the admission, annoyed. "You could have asked me, Tom."
"I could have," he acknowledges mildly, "if I'd wanted to hear you tell me you were fine. But I wanted to see for myself."
"And?" My brow arches as he rewraps the decorative dressing around my ribs.
"And it looks OK," he admits.
"Meaning I'm fine."
He smiles thinly, running a hand through his hair. "So far, I think it's healing all right. You have to remember to keep breathing deeply," he reminds me as he peers up at me.
"Aye, sir," I acknowledge with a mock little salute. His answering chuckle is as weak as the joke was to begin with.
"Look, I'm sorry, Captain." He sighs as he stands, and I allow the tunic to fall back in place. "I know it's still sore as hell, regardless of whether or not you'll admit it, but if you pick up any kind of lung infection from not breathing properly, there'll be nothing I can do for it here. Even if I knew how to treat it, I'd say the chances of getting my hands on what I needed to fix it probably aren't very good."
"Oh, I think you're selling yourself short there. You saved my life with the complicated bit of surgery you performed to heal this in the first place."
He moves back to the wall. "Not that I'm complaining about it, Captain, but that was pure luck. I'm a medic, not a doctor. We're both lucky I remembered enough from watching the doc perform that maneuver with draining and repairing your chest wall and lung. I've seen it a few times now, but if I hadn't…"
I cut him off before he can venture along even more depressing paths, "You wouldn't have to do anything for me if you hadn't pulled that little stunt of refusing the captain's offer to stay on the Grall ship."
He carelessly shrugs away the sharpness in my tone. "I could hardly abandon you, and you didn't really expect me to in the first place," he points out – correctly, much to my annoyance.
Hell, if Mortimer Herron refused to do it, why should Tom Paris?
"I do have to admit – back then, this isn't at all what I expected we'd be facing right now." He shakes his head. "I'm still trying to process it all. Do you think Kaelo honestly believes we had anything to do with that attack?"
"Oh, no. He knows we didn't. But he needs someone to take the blame for his failing to prevent the attack in the first place."
He picks it up quickly, "You're a scapegoat."
"Exactly. From what we heard of the incident on Ramor, there's been quite a bit of civil unrest since the attack. The Jifani people are questioning Kaelo's leadership ability."
He blanches, seeming to be lost in thought…or perhaps memory. "And that's his worst fear, isn't it?" Tom asks. "That his power will be undermined, and he'll lose his position?"
"Yes. Everything he does is to protect his image, and this attack has shaken that image. He feels threatened, just as he did by our arrival." As an afterthought, I add, "that's probably what prompted his…impolite behavior…during our trade attempts in the first place."
Tom's eyebrow rises speculatively, but his expression is difficult to read. He doesn't say anything.
I can't help biting. "What?"
"Nothing," he dodges, his famous smirk undermining his dismissal.
I can feel my eyes narrowing. "Don't make me pull rank." I do bite off the lieutenant, conscious that we may be being listened to and needing to maintain the ruse that he's an ensign in sickbay, not the lieutenant assigned to CONN.
He still smirks, even while throwing his hands up in surrender. "All right, Captain, but remember: you asked. I was just thinking that was an awfully nice way of putting it, that's all."
"Putting what?" I hear myself growl. Chakotay is right. Our helmsman is downright infuriating at times. "What are you getting at, Tom?"
"You're saying Kaelo was posturing that whole time he was pursuing you? Trying to prove his dominance, so to speak?"
My head automatically inclines forward in agreement. "It would fit his character profile, yes."
I'm surprised when he lets out a truly amused snort of laughter this time. "Yeah, and so would just plain going after something he wants." I arch an eyebrow at him, and he has the nerve to laugh again. "Sorry, Captain." He holds up his hands in supplication at my glare, but his grin doesn't fade. "But I already told you we saw the way he looked at you the first time we hailed them. You might have been too busy to notice right away, because you were focused on making the request to begin negotiations, but the rest of us saw it clearly. I'm only saying that I'm glad he won't get near you this time, either."
He does sober at that thought, saving me from having to knock him down a peg or two. The transformation is instantaneous, and the grin vanishes without a trace. "I don't mind saying that a part of me is glad he wants a scapegoat so badly. I was sure he was going to…" He trails off as his eyes find mine, but we both know what he was going to say, anyway. "I didn't know how I was going to be able to stop him."
My anger evaporates. I can't help being touched by his level of concern – more deeply than I'd like to admit, really. "You shouldn't have worried, Tom," I admonish crisply. "As a command level officer, I'm trained to handle it."
It's only half a lie, not something I can't live with embellishing a little, for his sake.
His mouth is silent as he regards me solemnly from across the dingy cell. Mercifully, he only calls me a liar with his eyes.
"At any rate, I don't think he'll have the option now." I can feel the corner of my mouth lifting wryly, "He wouldn't risk having a private meeting with an accused mass murderer."
It's a poor joke. Neither of us manages to muster even a false chuckle, and the ensuing silence is awkward. Eventually, I have to break it before it can break me. "I can't give them what they want, you know. I can't confess to this."
His shoulders slump ever so slightly. "I figured as much." He stretches his legs out in front of him, sending a few small, dark insects scurrying to take cover. "But they're going to try to make you, aren't they?"
"Probably." Definitely. That video I watched a few days ago is still prominent in my mind, despite the fact that it was a week ago I watched it.
"But a confession extracted under duress doesn't mean anything," he reasons, retracing the path my own mind has wandered for the past several days. "Since they're obviously determined to get it from you anyway, giving them what they're after now seems like the easiest thing to do."
I sigh, shifting in place and letting my left hand find my hip. "And, normally, I might have to agree with you…"
But there's the tiny problem that once I give Kaelo his confession, we're as good as dead. Worse, he could use my false confession to go after Voyager.
Our eyes meet as the words pass unspoken between us. We both know it's true. We die the moment I give in to his demands. Well, maybe not me – at least not right away. Kaelo wants me to suffer, after all. One way or another, he's going to make sure that I do, and I doubt a quick death will give him the satisfaction he seeks. He can probably find ways to torment me for weeks before I'm publicly executed for my "crimes". And even that I would gladly endure for the safety of the ship, but Tom…
Tom is dead the minute they can no longer use him to coerce me. I'm forced to wonder now, as I was aboard the Grall ship, whether I've really done him any favors by negotiating for his life. I may have only prolonged his agony – and my own.
My death means nothing compared to what acquiescing to Kaelo's demands could do to Voyager. Confessing myself criminally liable for a violent attack on the Jifani government would leave the ship, and everyone on it, open to being hunted down and punished by association. In the ship's currently weakened state, I can't risk it.
Most of these are things I'd rather not say aloud, even given my "agreement" not to shield Tom from reality. This experience could very well be worse than I'd expected, and now I find I would prefer to let him remain hopeful. Survival in a brutal place like this depends upon maintaining the hope of rescue, and even if he knows the truth, hearing his superior saying it aloud will make it a harsher reality.
Still, I owe him an explanation. He deserves to know the truth – at least with regards to the decision I've made. It's a delicate line to walk.
He sighs, and my attention is drawn back to him. I join him by the wall, mimicking his movements with a little less ease than he did, perhaps, but then, I'm no longer as young as he is. When I'm settled next to him, I make sure my voice stays low but strong. "Not only does lying go against everything I've ever been taught to believe in, but it could endanger Voyager. Nothing has changed in that regard from when we discussed this earlier."
"I gathered as much," he nods grimly.
"And I can't endanger the ship in order to spare myself a few days of discomfort."
And I can't. The ship is too weakened, even with Chakotay left in command…
Chakotay is a man who can do a great deal with very little. He thrives under the most adversarial of circumstances – in fact, it seems to bring out the best in him. His success as a Maquis proved this much before I ever laid eyes on him. With him in command, even the less-than-ideal condition of the ship doesn't so much concern me...no more than usual, anyway. But each man has his breaking point, and a good captain knows the individual limits of every member of her crew.
I'm not sure what will happen to me here. I do know that, whatever it is, when he finds out, Chakotay will not be a well man. And it may have been only in my own imaginings, but I've seen him over my dead body, and I know what this will do to him. No matter which course I choose, it won't spare him intense pain when he learns of my fate in this prison.
Of course he can handle it if I die; he couldn't be my second in command if I didn't think that he could handle my dying. What I worry over now is the circumstances of that death. The before. This will change him – and I don't think for the better.
I bow my head momentarily against the dull pain that wraps around my heart on his behalf. I can only hope against hope that if I die here before Voyager manages to find us…before Chakotay manages to find us…Tom will have survived, and he and B'Elanna, the doctor and Tuvok can manage to get Chakotay through this.
Tom meets my eyes again, a fierce, steady determination burning in his blue gaze. It shakes me loose from my internal musings. "Of course I understand, Captain. You have to protect the ship first. If confessing might endanger them…I understand. And if it comes to it, I hope you know I'd never want you to risk the ship for me, either. I understand that you can't do that just for me."
Bless him – and damn him, too. My eyes burn fiercely with the pride I have in him at this moment. Once again, Tom Paris has proven himself to be much more perceptive than I've given him credit for…and he's just managed to relieve me of a burden of guilt that never should have occurred to him I might be carrying as his CO. I reach across the negligible space between us and hold out my hand to him, palm up. He takes it without hesitation. "Whatever happens here, Tom, I want you to know something." It takes a minute of staring at the filthy floor to summon the right words. Finally, I find them and glance back up at him. "Six years ago, when I offered you a place on my senior staff, I knew I was taking a risk…"
"Making an ex-convict your chief pilot? I'll say." His signature smirk twists his mouth.
"And yet I never doubted that you would prove yourself worthy of the faith I placed in you."
His grin falters, and this time he can't entirely hide his apprehension. "And…have I? For the most part?" he hastily adds.
"Many times over," I assure him.
A tiny bit of the weight I hadn't felt hanging over my shoulders is lifted at the admission. When he smiles, a real, heartfelt smile this time, I know I've done the right thing by saying it.
"Thank you," he whispers as his hand tightens around mine. "That means more to me than you can possibly imagine, Captain."
"It was probably long overdue," I have to admit somewhat ruefully. I stare down at my hand, still clasped in his. "I suppose I haven't been much better than your father was in that regard…"
"No, ma'am," he absolves softly, looking me in the eye again. "You're a hell of a lot better at showing it than my old man ever was."
It's a relief to hear, but movement in the corridor outside our cell catches our attention. Shadows play along the opposite wall for a moment, but, eventually, they fade, and when we look to each other again, the moment has passed.
I open my fingers, releasing the hand I still hold and he withdraws it, settling into a more comfortable position against the wall. "We should try and get some rest while we can. They'll probably come for us soon enough."
He nods, and we pass the rest of the evening in silence, neither of us really managing sleep, but especially me.
I can't help wondering if I'm making the right decision by not filling him in on my conversation with the intendent or telling him what likely awaits us. But as long as they leave him out of it, I can hope that he'll be spared the worst of our experience here.
I'll do whatever I can to make sure of it.
The bright light is my first warning. Not as bright as earlier – but that's because it's night, if the glaring spotlights swimming in my squinted vision are any indication. Before I've hardly processed it, my hands are ripped away from my ears, and it's only now that I realize the screaming has finally stopped. I don't know what that means for him, really; I just know that the moment I've been simultaneously dreading and hoping for has arrived.
I knew it would come; he told me it was coming, and that there was nothing I could do to stop it now. Blurs of grey ridges and smiling teeth swim in front of me against the streaks and flashes of white-blue lights, and boisterous laughter fills the emptiness the mind-numbing screams leave in their wake.
I know better than to fight them, but it doesn't stop me trying, knowing what their intentions are. However, as they drag me from the moist dirt, out of the cramped box, my limbs are once again too uncooperative to protest in any meaningful fashion. And then I begin to realize, as the sounds of more than one voice are heard around me, crude, ugly comments passed among them and rough, strong hands paw at my hair, my face, my body, that maybe I had no idea what their intentions were, after all.
I don't hear the one from before, the leader. The one in charge isn't here. I don't know why, because his is the one face I've been most dreading seeing, but I get the sensation that it might be worse that I don't see him now. That this isn't exactly a sanctioned occurence. The smell of alcohol, pure from the smell of it, hangs heavy in the stagnant air, along with the peculiar, clay like scent of the creatures surrounding me.
And the voices continue to taunt, to crudely assess me in words I've rarely heard in my entire twenty-five years of existence, and never directed at me, used to describe me. I recoil under the verbal assault almost as much as the physical as I'm dragged over to a lone figure hanging from a solitary post, so limp, so pale and white, he could be dead, and I've never – once – known the likes of the several different forms of terror racing through me now.
The figure hangs taut over the tatters of a red and black uniform. Strung too high off the ground to let his feet support him. Nude. They've stripped him. These creatures are monsters. They didn't even let him keep his dignity while they set about destroying his mind.
I hate that my next thought is that I don't want them to strip me, especially with the comments being passed between them, hissed into my ears and spit into my face, but they already are. My filthy jacket is ripped from my shivering body and hands, hurtful fingers are digging into me. I want them to stop – stop pawing at me, stop touching me and especially to stop hurting the admiral. Dear God, haven't they done enough to him already? But I already know begging will do no good, and even if I wanted to, the words are frozen, sticking in my throat.
"Let's wake him up," someone suggests behind me, his laughter raucous and snide. "Don't want him to miss what we do with the little kitten before she gets the same treatment, do we?"
"Yes. I've been looking forward to trying out my first human woman," another agrees swiftly."Only fair to let him watch since he's the one who so nicely brought her to us."
The words make the breath hitch, catch in my lungs. The evil in them, the pure menace is terrifying. Twisting, pulling, trying to drag my heels into the dirt beneath my feet is doing nothing to stop them. I can't stop them. One of them breaks free of the crowd dragging me, pawing at me and slaps the admiral full across the face, making me cry out in anger as I'm thrown to the gravelly ground at his feet. But I can hear the small moan he gives, and then I could cry, period, as I look up at him, because his open, haunted eyes clearly come to focus on me. He's alive. He's alive – and oh God, they're still tormenting him.
"Wake up, human," the one holding his head up to the glaring floodlights sneers in a sing-song voice. Relishing what they're about to do, the torment they're going to inflict.
One of them bends down behind me, a heavy hand keeping me pinned on my knees before I can stand and another closing around the disheveled ponytail of my hair, yanking my head back painfully. The admiral's eyes flicker. I swallow, seeing an almost destroyed look there I've never seen in any human being before and knowing these Cardassians are the ones responsible for putting it there. Trying not to show him how terrified I am, trying to remember that I'm a Starfleet officer and that I'm not supposed to feel fear.
"Nothing to say, Admiral? You're being quite rude. We thought you'd want to see this." The hand leaves my shoulder but not my hair, and then a cold finger strokes along my cheek, making me jerk away. "Your little kitten here has been so patiently waiting to join in all the festivities. Haven't you, kitten?"
The voice in my ear makes me shudder from somewhere deep inside of myself, a full-body, bone chilling trembling, and then other hands dig into my arms, jerking me to feet…
Hands are digging into me, have dragged me to my feet, I realize, jolted out of the familiar nightmare I'm not entirely surprised to have experienced for the first time in years.
Apparently, the jarring wake-up calls aren't a thing of the past, as I'd hoped.
It hasn't taken long for them to come for me, perhaps a few hours, at most. A little shocked to realize I've just been dreaming, I don't remember dozing off in the first place. Tom doesn't awaken until they have me well out of the cell, they're so quiet, the hands expertly pulling me to my feet, dragging me into the corridor outside. There's barely time for the two military guards surrounding me to snarl at him to shut up when he protests before we're already around the corner, his voice fading into the background.
I'm surprised when we don't go very far. After making an immediate left turn outside of the cell, it's only a short stroll down the adjoining hall later that I'm ordered to stop walking. I do so with not just a little tension coiled in my stiff body, but I don't feel the need to ask where I'm being taken or for what purpose. I know, of course, and I'm only thankful they haven't chosen Tom as I note that there's a door right beside me, I begin to turn and face my fate. This would be the room in which I will be "convinced" to confess to a crime I haven't committed…
A voice stops me cold. "Strip."
"What?" I can't stop myself from vocalizing. The order is unexpected. Already? I can't help thinking, a jolt of alarm buzzing through me. Here in the hall?
When I try to turn fully, rough hands close around my arms, shoving me up against the door, and I barely manage to turn my head in time to avoid smacking face first into the hard metal.
"I don't remember telling you to turn around," a clear voice growls into my ear. I recognize the voice as the one belonging to the soldier that grabbed me from the cell as he speaks again, "You do nothing until we tell you to, do you understand me, Captain?"
"Yes," I grit out, swallowing my anger and apprehension both with some difficulty. Neither will help me now.
The hold is released, and I push away from the door, straightening my shoulders. But the original order was not forgotten, as I'd hoped it would be.
"Now. Strip," the second guard repeats, and this time, his sneer is audible. "Unless you would prefer we do it for you."
"But making us strip you would render those garments useless." The first soldier's warm, solid mass is pressing into my back, deliberately crowding me now. His bulky arm snakes around in front of me, and a small blade is waved in front of my face. Pure prudence has me freezing, not even breathing as the blade approaches my neck but angles away at the last second. My head has to turn to observe the flat of the blade being smoothed over the rough strip of fabric covering my right shoulder. "I understand it's strict policy to give out one uniform per prisoner…no exceptions. So unless you prefer to wear nothing for the rest of your stay here, you should choose your next action very carefully."
I don't have to see his leer; I can feel it in the warm breath washing over my neck. Can hear it in the snide, self-satisfied tone of his voice.
I take a second to consider my options. There are none. I don't for a moment believe Kaelo has qualms about me being forced to parade around nude if these clothes are destroyed; he'd never intervene on my behalf. I'm not certain whether they know that, but this isn't the kind of test that's likely to have much benefit, either way.
At least, according to what this man has just said, they do intend upon giving me my clothes back.
"All right," I growl, swiveling my head an inch more to the right and catching the soldier's eye, "but I can't do it with you breathing down my neck like that."
He considers his options now. I wonder how many he really has. How far is he allowed to go to keep me in line should I test my theory regarding what Kaelo will permit them to do if I prove uncooperative? He throws me an annoyed look (from what I can tell at this close, distorted angle) and steps back from me.
"Quickly," the other guard snarls as I hesitate.
"All right," I snap, gritting my teeth and going to it. Any more stalling will only let them know precisely how uncomfortable this makes me. I shouldn't have hesitated in the first place, and I can't afford to show any more reluctance now.
The uniform consists of a mildly well-fitting, sleeveless top and a simple pair of trousers. There are no undergarments, so undressing doesn't take long, even with the residual tenderness in my side. The shirt is snatched from my fingertips the moment it comes off, leaving my hands free to smooth the elastic waistband of the uniform pants over my hips and let them slip smoothly to the cold, stone floor, and then…
Nothing. Nothing but heavy breathing for a long, eternal moment, until I wonder whether they expect me to bend down and pick up the discarded clothing. It'll be a long wait before I do that without some heavy prompting, however.
"Good." The word slips off his tongue smoothly as silk. He's still far too close for my liking, and my body feels so tightly tensed that I'm afraid I might sprain something.
The irony in that thought, the way my mind automatically worded it, isn't lost on me – it just pisses me off even more.
The soldier's hand smoothes along the decorative dressing spanning my ribs, and I force myself to remain absolutely still as his fingers curl into the top of the wrapping, pulling it away from my back. The cold tip of the knife gently grazes my skin, more of a caress than a threat, and then the bandage is sliced right down the middle. It falls to the floor atop my discarded pants, and silence descends for another nerve-wracking moment. I can feel their eyes moving along my bare flesh, making the skin there crawl under the unwanted scrutiny. At least I can be thankful I'm not facing them…
"Turn around." Damn.
Slowly, resolutely, I comply, waiting for him to pounce, and prepared to introduce him to a whole new world of pain when he does. At least the Grall were well behaved. Downright gentlemanly, now that I look back on it. It doesn't even matter that I won't be able to take them both out, if the second guard still presumably keeps his weapon trained on me…I'll settle for maiming this one…
I'm stunned when a small glass is shoved at me; it's the last thing I expected to happen.
I stare at the tiny shot glass in confusion. The blue liquid inside of it amounts to no more than a thimbleful at best, and I can't imagine what it could be. My right hand is seized, my fingers forced to curl awkwardly around the curved glass. I don't even think to ask where the hell they could have gotten it from.
It isn't a request. I lock gazes with the soldier. It's still the same one that grabbed me from the cell. His hair is shorter than his companion's, only down to the tops of his ears instead of the more standard, shoulder length style worn by most Jifani males. For the first time, I see the small, gill-like flaps just below the ears on either side of the throat. "Drink it," he snarls again.
"No." As I speak, the gills flutter. Annoyance? Anger? It's difficult to gauge.
"Drink it, or I will hold you down, and my companion will force it down your throat," he snarls, dark eyes flashing with menace. A quick look to "his companion" confirms that the soldier's weapon is still aimed levelly at my chest. I don't think he'll miss.
"What is it?" I counter, stalling for time. Hoping that it isn't anything too poisonous…
The gills flap wide open. It's repulsive the way they flex involuntarily like that; at least, I assume it's involuntary…
"Last chance," he warns, shifting even closer to me in preparation to make good on his threat. "It's going down, one way or the other."
Looking him over to gauge his resolve once again, I find myself believing him. And I would prefer not to be pinned down and force fed. For all I know, this is acid, the beginning of some torture, and I might inhale it accidentally. Imagining that it would be better to ingest voluntarily than to inhale involuntarily, I toss my head back and open my mouth, making a show of downing the bitter liquid. My face screws up in disgust; the drink is tart. I give an exaggerated swallowing performance, but to no avail. The young soldier close to me rushes forward the instant the glass leaves my lips, one hand covering my mouth completely and the other grabbing my throat.
The glass falls to the floor and rolls away, virtually unnoticed while I struggle not to swallow accidentally.
"Now," he spits, as his eyes hover inches above mine, "swallow again."
Once more, I consider my options. Again, I could draw this out, or make it easy. It's clear from the expression on both of their faces that this drink is going down, whether I like it or not. And what I don't like is the feel of the stocky soldier's uniform pressing against my bare skin as he uses his superior bulk to pin me against the cold door. I particularly don't like the way I can feel for a fact that he isn't as unaffected by my nudity as he is pretending to be. Wanting him off of me so we can get this phase of whatever it is – interrogation prep, torture – over with, I swallow the bitter liquid. My throat muscles flex against his hand, which is still tightly closed around my neck, and I can tell by the slight smirk on his face that he knows I've obeyed him.
He doesn't let go immediately. He shifts even further into me, pressing my back further into the door, and bringing his face down closer to mine. When his lips almost brush my mouth and my knee is poised to make him regret his next action, he murmurs, "Good girl," and then releases me, taking a step back.
The door behind me is moving, grating against my bare flesh and rubbing me raw. Startled, I jump forward, nearly into the soldier's waiting arms before I catch myself…
But his hands are not outstretched to grasp me, as I assumed. Instead, they push forward, and the Jifani officer shoves me backward without warning. Before I even know what's happening, I stumble, losing my footing, and hurtle backward into the unknown…
The smug faces of the two soldiers are the last things I see as the heavy metal slab slams back into place. I can hear the hiss of a pressurizing seal, and then I'm standing alone in…
A tiny bathroom, of all things, I see, as I turn a slow circle to observe my surroundings. A single fluorescent light flickers above me, its power source obviously neglected as it sputters in and out every few seconds or so. The walls are grey, smooth stone. Macadam, or concrete, I think. Plain, like the cell. None too clean. A toilet of sorts lines the left wall, and a shower stall adorns the back wall, slightly to my right. A tiny sink is nestled into the corner between both, and that is the extent of the fixtures I can see. The whole room is no larger than the minute cell Tom and I are kept in.
The thought of my officer, vulnerable and now separated from his leader, once again, gives me courage. This is strange. This is beyond bizarre, really… But whatever it is, I can certainly handle it. At least the drink hasn't killed me yet.
A voice, the voice of the second, less hands-on soldier, booms from some intercom I can't locate visually, but from the general direction of the echo, it has to be somewhere in the grated ceiling…
"Everything you'll need for the purging is in this room."
"What do you mean, 'everything I need is in this room'?" I feel my hands go to my hips in sheer annoyance as I stare up at the ceiling, wondering if they can see as well as hear me and hating the not knowing most of all. "Just how long will I be in here?"
"When it's finished, you'll want to clean yourself up. There's a soap dispenser in the shower, and a mouth sanitizer in the dispenser just to the left of the faucet. We'll be back to collect you when you've completed the cycle."
The damn thing buzzes off before I even have a chance to respond, cutting off the litany of questions racing through my mind.
Purging? Cycle? What the hell…?
The first surge of incredible nausea hits with the force of a tidal wave, and I'm practically thrown to my knees. It's pure luck (or design of the room) that I hit just in front of the toilet before voiding the contents of my heaving stomach. The newly mended muscles and bones in my side scream their protest, but there's little I can do about that as another wave of nausea precedes yet another violent bout of retching.
As I hang my head over the receptacle, it occurs to me that if I thought Jifani prison fare intolerable on the way down, it's nothing compared to the vile taste as it makes its way back up.
I can't remember a time when I've been so ill; not once in what has to be twenty long minutes do I recover enough to sit up straight. The dizziness is overwhelming enough that I nearly pass out many times. Twice, I bang my forehead on the cool metal, sending sharp pains shooting through my skull as well as my side. Every last ounce of sustenance in my stomach is expelled, and even afterward, the dry heaves don't quit for long, agonizing minutes. And when the nausea eventually does recede, I barely have time to inhale a full breath of relief before another, even less pleasant sensation grips me.
I understand, now. Purging had meant just that, and the bitter liquid wasn't aimed at voiding the contents of my stomach alone. It's attacking my entire digestive system. And there is nothing I can do now but endure until the drug has run its course.
At least I'm clean, I muse silently to myself. And there'll be no need to utilize the God-awful "facilities" in our cell (a hole in the ground) for the remainder of the day…assuming I'm ever going to see it again. And I can only pray that Tom is still there, relatively safe and untouched in my absence.
The door opens while I'm standing over the sink, rinsing my mouth of the foul taste of bile. I've barely enough time to snap my head up when the older guard grabs hold of my arm and yanks me out of the room. The young one pushes me roughly against the wall, pulling my arms behind me and attaching restraints while I try to ignore the feel of him pressed, once more, against me.
They don't leave me to wonder what their intentions are this time. The two Jifani soldiers have my arms in a solid grip, practically wrenching my limbs out of their sockets at times as they jerk me along between them down the short hall. Their strong fingers will likely leave bruises behind on my skin. Unable to keep up with their brisk march, I lag, losing my footing. They don't pause. Instead, they drag me the last few meters down the narrow hall. The tops of my feet scrape against the cold, rough grating below. Only pausing at the entryway to the interrogation room, as soon as the doors part, they resume their pace, again making me stumble.
They finally throw me into the solitary chair in the center of the room, and I hit with a jolt that sends a spasm of residual nausea through me. The short trip here leaves me hunched over in my chair, effectively drained and shaking. For a moment, I'm afraid I'm going to suffer another relapse and vomit, but the sensation mercifully subsides, and I force myself to look up.
The solitary figure standing in the center of the small room smiles coldly down at me. And of course, it's the intendent from the reception hall. Gwiln. He's been watching me the entire time, I realize, and force my spine to straighten against the metal back of the chair.
"Good morning, Captain," he acknowledges pleasantly, his white teeth flashing briefly under the bright spotlight overhead. "I trust you and Mister Paris have had a pleasant stay with us thus far?"
I glare up at him, stubbornly mute. He knows we haven't.
The grin widens. "Not feeling very talkative this morning?" He shakes his head, feigning disappointment. "That's a shame. I was hoping you would have used the time during the purging to rethink your position." His smile fades, and the lines surrounding his dark eyes tighten noticeably. "Have you?"
I wonder how many times I'm going to hear this question in this room. Something tells me it's going to be quite as often as it was in that last room. I set my jaw, making my voice as hard as I'm able. "No. I had no part in the attack on your capital."
"Don't play games with me, Captain." It would be a growl if he didn't sound so unaffected. "I don't put up with them as well as the minister does. In fact, that's why you were transferred into my tender care to begin with."
I say nothing to this, but he doesn't seem fazed. "You met covertly with leaders of the resistance. You supplied them with weapons."
Finally. He's getting down to business. It's something concrete that I can argue, at least.
"You also imparted knowledge of the internal structures of government buildings you were shown as part of your –"
"That's preposterous," I interject, unprepared for the backhanded swing immediately connecting harshly with my face. The pain is sharp, but by no means unbearable.
I'm surprised at the use of violence...a little. I'd thought they were being careful about using these tactics in my case, and I'd assumed they still weren't wanting me physically harmed – at least, not so obviously.
I'll have to rethink that position, I realize grimly. My lip has been split under the force of the intendent's blow; I can feel cool air stinging the open wound. As I tentatively run the tip of my tongue over my lower lip, I can taste the slightly alkaline, metallic tang of my own blood.
"Lesson one, Captain," the intendent is droning as I swivel my head back around to glare at him, "don't ever interrupt me while I'm speaking, is that understood?"
It's difficult to maintain a calm front. My breathing hasn't calmed yet. Not trusting myself to speak civilly and avoid another "lesson", I only nod tersely. Provoking him won't spare me any of what's to come, and I have to hold out as long as humanly possible. For Tom's sake, and for Voyager's, if not for my own.
"Very good, Captain." He's smiling again, pleased, and that makes one of us. I have to suppress the urge to snarl as he continues, "As I was saying before you so rudely interrupted me, we already have a full confession from one of our resistance leaders. He claims that Voyager – that you, personally – contacted him, and on more than one occasion. He also assures us that you provided him with tactical support and logistical aid." The smug smile still decorates Gwiln's face. "He's told us all about your involvement."
He's probably lying…but then again, having watched the surveillance footage and having listened to those screams, I have to admit that the intendent might be telling the truth after all.
I speak up, careful to give him nothing he can use against me in any fashion, no matter how obscure, "If this so-called resistance leader really exists, and if he really did make such blatantly false statements, then I can only assume he was telling you what you wanted to hear."
The intendent bends down, leaning in closer to me. Not altogether the brightest of moves, considering that only my arms are restrained behind me…and those not even secured to the chair. I wonder whether he is that confident I won't try anything or whether he's simply underestimating the amount of damage I could do with just my legs...again. Seems to be a habit of his. I file that little detail away for further study as his dark lips part to reveal those even teeth again.
"Oh? And why do you suppose he would have said such a thing if it wasn't the truth?"
A dark, humorless snort escapes me. "I'd say that's rather obvious, Intendent. A man will say anything under torture."
It strikes me now how this conversation is already beginning to sound similar to another conversation I've had with a hostile interrogator…though that was years ago. Even so, the similarity is eerie.
Gwiln's even teeth are flashing at me again, drawing my attention back to him as he continues to lean over me. His face is only inches from mine now, and I find myself fixating on those teeth. They're so bright against his smooth, crimson face, it's almost mesmerizing.
"You're right, of course," he concedes glibly. "Eventually, a man will say anything under torture." I can feel his breath against my skin. It's warm, and it carries the hint of an exotic fragrance I don't recognize. Not at all as foul as the breath of some of those prison guards. "And believe me, Captain. Given enough persuasion, so will a woman." He leans back to study my expression, which I keep neutral. Noting this, he smiles again. "But who said anything about torture?"
He has righted himself again, standing erect. His tall body casts a long shadow from the spotlight behind him, and his entire demeanor has changed – though it's clear he's still mocking me. "We're not going to torture you, Captain," he assures me, his smile widening by the second. "The Jifani government doesn't condone such barbarity, as you well know. We simply intend to question you."
I ponder the absurdity of his statement for all of a half second. Ignoring my stinging face, still smarting from the blow he dealt, I allow my gaze to sweep deliberately over the room, from the requisite hanging restraints to the vulgar array of prominently displayed implements of torture affixed to the walls. I meet his taunting gaze again, remembering my ordeal of just a short while ago; I'm still weak from the violent expenditure of my bodily fluids.
Since he clearly expects a verbal response to his question, I arch a solitary brow and note, "I'm not sure what you'd call administering a substance that makes someone violently ill, but where I come from, it's certainly not procedure during any standard 'questioning'." Seeing his widening smile, my anger flares. "And if you were hoping it would make me any less determined to maintain my innocence, I'm afraid you're going to be sorely disappointed."
"Oh, no, Captain." He has begun to cluck his tongue now, pacing leisurely back and forth in front of me, amusement decorating his strong features. "You misunderstand our intentions." At my raised eyebrow, he lets out a dark little chuckle. "That was as much a courtesy to you as it was a precautionary measure. I like a clean work space. A clean subject. I assure you if you make me begin questioning you in earnest, there's an excellent chance you'll lose all control of your bodily functions. You will be in such agony, your muscles contorting into such unfamiliar shapes, that you will likely embarrass yourself. I simply took the necessary steps to prevent that from happening." His cold assertions are chilling, not that I give him the satisfaction of allowing a single one of my muscles to twitch in acknowledgement as he continues, "I've done you a favor. You're a proud woman. I doubt you would relish the idea of losing control of yourself so completely, now, would you?"
It makes a sick sense, I suppose. A wise measure borne out of prolonged experience with the intricacies of his profession. Discounting that there are any number of ways to have accomplished this end – one of which being that he refrain from assaulting me in the first place – I could almost follow his twisted logic.
My expression stays fixed. "As you'd be the one directly responsible for causing that loss of control, you'll forgive me if I don't say thank you." I can't tell if I'm amusing him or just pissing him off; I don't know him well enough yet, but I will take advantage of the opportunity to speak while I'm permitted to do so. "Your government's detainment is unlawful. We've done nothing wrong."
His expression is unreadable. "If you were innocent, it might be. But we both know you're guilty."
No. Given the close nature of the relationship he appeared to have with Kaelo, I'm positive he knows the opposite, but I settle for proclaiming my innocence, anyway. "I know nothing of the kind. I demand to be allowed to contact my ship."
"You demand nothing," he spits, not really surprising me in his refusal. "There will be no privileges of contact with anyone until you admit what you've done."
The same tired line the minister and his ilk maintained. I'm beginning to suspect that I know who coached them.
"But I haven't done anything," I point out…futilely, I expect.
"Yes, you have." His tone softens to mock disappointment instead of the strong, commanding tone he's been using so far. "It's such a simple request, Captain," he chides almost mildly. "Confess – and then we can discuss allowing you to contact your vessel." His voice is perfectly reasonable. Almost believable. So far, he's sticking to his part in this game well enough, and he's pulling out all the stops the minister had this past week. It's the same song and dance I've been enduring for the past five days, and aside from the physical violence Gwiln seems permitted to use, I can only give the same, pointless responses I've been giving all along.
"There's nothing to confess to," I sigh, "because we've done nothing wrong."
The intendent regards me silently for a moment, his gloved hand stroking over his chin, apparently thinking about my words this time. "Perhaps not intentionally," he eventually concedes. He cocks his head, peering intently down at me. As if giving serious thought to some new idea. "It would change things considerably if you had no hostile intent."
So he wants to be friendly now. Trying to connect with me, offering me a lifeline, as if I'm stupid enough to latch onto it. I suppress a snort of disgust. It took Minister Dukkan a full day to begin using that particular tactic…and it's not as if the Jifani have any sort of monopoly on such age-old tactics, either. Amazing, really, how the nuances of psychology seem to vary so little amongst sentient species, even from one end of the galaxy to the other…
He leans in to me again. Again, that strange, not altogether unpleasant scent reaches me.
"Your people were new here," he continues. "In unfamiliar territory. Trying to make friends in a strange place. Perhaps you were confused when the collaborators approached you for help. Perhaps you thought that by aligning with them, you could procure the supplies you needed for your ship more quickly. One can hardly fault a leader for thinking in the best interests of her people, Captain."
He's threatening to put me to sleep now, with that soft, soothing tone. I'm still exhausted, but thankfully my training kicks in automatically. I'm grateful for it. In my head, I can almost hear the manual being read aloud in the droning voice of Admiral Hayes: accept no faulty premise presented by the enemy interrogator...
"No. They never approached us at all," I maintain, still holding his gaze.
Dark irises contract in…annoyance? No. More like resolution. Definitely not surprise. "This defiance serves no purpose. We have the evidence." The dangerous edge has crept back into his words. He's abandoned the other tactic already. "Admit your mistake."
At my stubborn silence, the cold smile returns, inexplicably, to his cocky face. For the first time, he gives an indication that he is aware of my lack of clothing. His dark eyes slip past the line of my shoulders to take a thorough inventory. I'm not meant to miss it, and it reminds me of his attitude back at the reception hall. It's pure, predatory intimidation, but he's the one in charge, this time. This is his domain, and admittedly, it's far more chilling coming from him now.
"It's been said that Prefect Kaelo was rather...taken with you. Before the unfortunate misunderstanding that arose at the banquet."
I ignore his perusal to the best of my ability, steeling myself to indifference, though I feel the edges of my teeth grit firmly together until his gaze returns to above shoulder level. Again, this is a classic technique– and so very predictable of him.
They did have a very thorough training course at command school, and it at least glossed over this eventuality – not that I'd needed it at that point. And, as with the two guards earlier, I can't show any reaction, unless I want to encourage this line of intimidation.
I hold on to that notion with everything I have, knowing it to be the only chance I have of saving myself an entire line of hellish tactics from this man. His eyes fuse with mine, searching my expression intently for some sign of reaction from me. I've given him none.
I pray that I've give him none.
After a time, the corner of his mouth twists upward in a sneer. "I suppose I can see why the prefect was drawn to you, Captain."
So predictable. A competent interrogator relies upon cues from his subject before determining which methods of coercion to apply. Neither relief nor anger can show on my face or be betrayed in my body language in this moment.
"What do you think, Airrek? Kohr?" the intendent inquires of his two soldiers, who have yet to leave the room.
And now there are three of them staring at me. Feigning indifference is not as easy as it sounds when you're being eyed like fresh kill by a pack of hungry, circling vultures…but although this is radically different, I have to acknowledge to myself that if I can pretend to be unaffected by Chakotay's devastating smile, then I can pretend to ignore anything.
I forcefully shove that thought out of my head as one of them draws closer to me.
"Not bad. Interesting skin tone," he grunts from just outside the line of my vision. The one who'd pressed me into the door earlier.
I don't move, and it takes everything in me not to flinch away or, more appealing at the moment, not to reach out and wipe the smirk off the young soldier's face, and perhaps permanently.
The intendent holds my eyes the entire time. Practically devouring me with his intensely scrutinizing gaze, even as he shrugs with a perfect display of indifference.
"Personally, I like them younger. A little firmer and…bigger, if you understand my meaning."
Oh, I understand his meaning, all right. Better than he thinks I do. He's looking to wrangle a reaction out of me any way that he can. Pure intimidation failed to work, so now he's trying to invoke my sense of vanity. I would consider it child's play if this were a training scenario, and if he were one of my instructors back at the academy, but the cold fact remains that he is not, which makes this a hundred times more difficult to bear for that reason alone.
This isn't a drill. It's real, and I'm too aware of that knowledge as the intendent keeps up with his line of intimidation.
"The fact remains that the prefect finds you pleasing to the eye. If I were you, Captain, I would not waste such an advantage. Confess. Do it soon enough, and the prefect may show you…lenience."
Telling him it'll be a cold day in hell before I want that kind of lenience – from anyone, let alone his precious prefect – is as tempting as it is stupid.
I scoff instead. "You really expect me to believe he's going to let a major terrorist attack that killed thousands of Jifani citizens go unpunished? When the people are baying for blood because of it?"
He doesn't answer right away, seeming to ponder something. Instead of trying to figure him out, I use the lull to reassert my position. If nothing else, my logic may sway the soldiers I know are ready to spring at me the instant I attempt to resist them physically. Perhaps I can use their presence to an advantage somehow, instead of a pure disadvantage. If I can convince them of my innocence…a long shot, but worth a try.
Anything is worth a try at this point. Especially if it changes the subject to anything else but my state of undress.
"You expect me to believe he'd let me walk away?" I press, careful to keep an eye on the soldier I can see as I speak, "After falsely confessing to such a heinous crime? That would defeat the point of pinning this on an off-worlder. And that is why you chose to target me, isn't it? Because I'm a convenient target?"
His eyes go hard, darting to the soldiers behind and next to me, and I can see I've hit a nerve, so I expect the blow. This time, I'm able to somewhat brace myself for the crack of his palm across my mouth. I move my head back out of his reach, ignoring the sting and hiss, "You know as well as I do that neither I nor anyone aboard my ship was involved with this plot. We were here for three days. Most of that time was spent in Kaelo's very presence attempting to trade for supplies. We didn't the have time to do the things you claim we–"
The third blow is expected as well; he has to lean forward to deliver it. This one catches me across the cheekbone, the pain exploding on impact, and a loud cracking rings in my ears. My head snaps to the side and, under the force of the motion, I'm almost thrown out of the chair. Even before I have a chance to right myself, another blow is catching the untouched side of my face, hurling me in the opposite direction, and an involuntary grunt escapes me. Damn. I have to fight back against the pain this time, keeping my head bent down in an effort to focus my blurred vision.
When I'm aware of my surroundings again, the intendent is still speaking over me. "Lesson two," he intones. "Don't contradict me. Ever."
But his tone is just a bit less uninvolved this time. It's something.
I glare up at him, knowing I have a choice to make. I can capitulate now and save myself a little pain in the short term, or I can dig into this tiny crack I've opened in his defenses and let him know how little I think of him and of his 'lessons'. I suppose it doesn't really matter in the long run; either way, I'm going to suffer in this room.
The temptation proves too much to resist.
"Stop making false statements, Intendent, and I won't have to contradict you."
The fifth blow comes right on cue. This time, I'm unable to keep my seat. The floor is unforgiving, jarring tender muscles still strained from vomiting. The pain in my side is excruciating. Damn, I hope that didn't just…no, I can breathe. The fall wasn't far enough to aggravate the old injury, at least not severely. Yet.
A shadow falls over me.
"Get up," I hear as I do my best to pick myself up off the cold floor. He makes no move to assist me – not that I expected him to. With my arms still bound behind me, it's not an easy task, but I manage it in the end.
His features are hard, set in a determined frown. The dark eyes cut into me, doing their utmost to intimidate as he slowly begins to circle me. Around and around he walks, the soles of his boots making soft sounds as they connect with the metal grating below.
For my part, I stand still, my shoulders as squared as I can make them. Waiting. Reinventing my body into a stone likeness of myself. Not in control, and very much aware of it right now (as I'm meant to be), but retaining as much of my dignity and poise as I can. Determined to make this man work for each and every reaction he draws from me.
Not like the Cardassians. I've learned a thing or two since then.
He stops just behind me. Out of sight. His mouth is positioned above my ear.
"You have one last chance, Captain," he informs me, with just the right amount of concern lacing his authoritative voice. "Be reasonable. I will have the truth from you, one way or another. The only difference will be in how much suffering it will cost you. And I would really prefer not to hurt you. "
He has this routine down to a science: the perfect mixture of intimidation, coercion, and compassion. He's good at his job, much more efficient than Dukkan and his three amateur cohorts – unfortunately. I will have to be that much better at mine because of it.
"Confess to your crimes, before I'm forced to move on to less pleasant methods."
I refrain from asking what he considers "less pleasant", knowing I don't really want the answer to that question. And I don't react to his nearness, or to his false concern. I barely breathe, even to respond to his demand. There's only one response I can give him, anyway.
The heavy, requisite sigh of regret sounds in my ear, sending ripples of warm air to dance over my skin. "Then I'm afraid, Captain, that this is going to be a very long day. Secure her."
The last words aren't for me; I recognize the crack of command when I hear it. So I'm not surprised when the guards behind us start forward and each takes a bruising grip on one of my arms. They mean to frighten me as they drag me toward the wall on the far side of the room. If I had less training, less experience they might have, but I'm able to maintain my cool. As we approach the wall, however, I can't help the sharp intake of breath when we pass a line of darker grated silver on the floor. Instantly the temperature drops by at least thirty degrees. It's like walking into a giant, old-fashioned food storage freezer, and I should know: my parents kept one.
I almost have to laugh. Of course. It would be cold they'd choose, wouldn't it? Couldn't be excessive heat – oh no. That would be too easy.
I'm shoved against the wall then forcefully pulled out about a meter away from it. As the older soldier kneels down beside me, his strong fingers curl into the tendons on either side of my heels. Pressing cruelly, he encourages me to allow him to position my feet on either side of a metal eyehook embedded into the floor.
They mean serious business.
Looking down at him, I consider giving these guards a demonstration of just how much they underestimate my ability to defend myself but think the better of it. Now isn't the time. I'd have to make it past the intendent, the other soldier, and somehow out of this room before getting anywhere at all…
The metal restraints feel like ice as my ankles are shackled together to the floor, secured through the eye of the hook between them. Only then does the other guard, who has kept an unnecessarily strong grip on my left arm until now, release my original restraints so that I can now move my arms again.
The intendent has stalked up to us. Facing the wall, I couldn't see his approach, but now his voice sounds again in my ear, "Put your hands flat against that wall, Captain."
I consider his demand. To do that, I'd have to lean considerably forward. I rub at my sore wrists for a few seconds, trying to get the sensation back into them before complying, and it proves to be a mistake. Something cool and small presses into the skin of my back, and then a considerable crackling sound snaps off in my ears. But the sound isn't what concerns me. Rather, it's the intense, mind-boggling level of pain that sears through me from the point of impact, a razor sharp, intense agony. The sensation tears forcefully into me, spreading throughout my upper body and even into my arms and neck. A roaring sound fills my ears, and my teeth chatter uncontrollably as my muscles seize up repeatedly in shock. I can feel the tissues surrounding my ribs ripping open again. Just as the pain begins to become truly unbearable and I'm at risk of loosing my footing entirely and falling at an awkward angle while still in the restraints, it recedes into a dull, residual ache.
I'm left standing there, shaking and in too much shock to react, shivering violently and gasping for air.
"Amazing, isn't it?" the intendent purrs from behind me. "That was the very lowest setting. Much higher, and right now you would be almost completely paralyzed. And hardly any marks to show for it. Consider that lesson three," he adds. "When I give you an order, I expect you to comply immediately. Let's try that again, shall we?" His voice hardens as I bite back on the angry retort that finally springs to mind, "Hands against the wall, Captain."
I lean forward and do as he instructs, staring at my shaking hands stretching out in front of me and placing them against the cold grey wall. It's not the most comfortable position in the world, but then…that's the point. It's meant to be awkward. And of course I'd be infinitely more comfortable standing here if I had the benefit of clothing…any clothing, but I won't hold my breath waiting for them to offer me back my uniform.
I'm not entirely surprised to hear his footsteps retreating back into the far end of the room. This is how he intends to begin, then, and though it's a simple technique, it isn't uncommon. I'll probably be forced to maintain this position indefinitely. Thanks to the residual charge of that device, my calves and thighs are already cramping, and it's difficult to keep my hands from slipping down the smooth wall's surface.
Without him having to say it, I do know better than to remove my hands from the wall. He, or one of the guards, will be watching every single breath I take in this room, whether they leave me standing here alone or not. Gwiln will be waiting for an excuse to zap me with whatever that atrocious weapon was, and I refuse to give him that excuse.
Not that he needs one. He'll do whatever he wants.
I search my mind for appropriate endurance techniques to help me through the long, tedious hours I expect will follow before the intendent decides that I've been worn down enough by the pointless, degrading pose he's left me in. At which point, if his technique thus far is any indication, he will then try and initiate another painful round of "questioning".
It could be worse, I know – considerably worse, and I should be grateful that it isn't. Yet. Still, I sigh, steeling myself for what's to come and try to ignore the agony of my cramped, seizing muscles.
He's right about one thing. It's going to be a long day.