November 1995 - January 1996
A companion piece to "Talisman." The way I see it, every fanfic writer must eventually write a hypothermia story. It's inevitable. This is my twist on that story. Chakotay has disappeared without a trace, and Janeway must deal with her decision to leave him behind. This story was published in Now Voyager.
by Laura Williams
On the third day she watered his plants.
She could not identify the impulse that had prompted her to enter his quarters while he was gone, but an hour after the briefing she found herself striding past his door as if it weren't even there, as if it didn't matter to her. She forced herself to slow down, stop. She walked differently without him, she'd noticed it on the second day. The easy stroll was gone, the casual glance up and to her left to see that he was there, the tilt of her head to make sure she didn't miss a word of whatever suggestion he was making or story he was telling. She was back to the old gait, the one he'd once called the Starfleet Strut - quick and purposeful, eyes staring forward at nothing, mind a thousand light years away. He'd asked her to slow down, look around, walk through the moments as she lived them rather than running from place to place. He hadn't asked for anything unreasonable, just that she stop contemplating the future from time to time, stop analyzing the past and take in the present, see where she was and appreciate the now before it passed away forever. It was where he walked, in the now, in the moment. Sometimes she could see his past stretching out behind him like a tapestry, patches of light and shadow that wove him into the man he was. Sometimes she turned to look into his eyes and could see the sparkle there as he anticipated the bright thread of his future. But the now, that was where he walked, every sense attuned to the time at hand and the scenes passing by. Fascinated, she had finally relented, slowed to walk beside him through the corridors, through the moments.
That was all gone now, and so suddenly that it startled her. Without him there the easy stroll felt clumsy, purposeless. She was off-balance, she realized, the sparkle was missing, the fascination, the quiet warmth in his voice as he provided a running commentary to their walking, proclaiming wonder in the ordinary and sacredness in the everyday. She sped up and returned to her old walk, the one from before, but even that felt wrong now - too fast, too unconcerned, too lonely. Her mind shot ahead to the future, but she pulled away from it. It was too much to contemplate, the days stretching ahead, long and empty like the last three had been. And the past - she could not think of it objectively, not yet. And so on the evening of the third day when she found herself sailing past his door, she stopped, caught in the moment, in the now. He would have laughed at her, shaking his head at her unaccustomed awkwardness.
She keyed in the override combination and slipped into his quarters hesitantly. She'd been there with him on numerous occasions; she'd even been there alone once, a time long past when he'd been ill and asked her to retrieve his medicine bundle. Then, she'd had a purpose, a valid reason for being there. Now she had none, just a vague feeling that there was something she needed to do. She did not consider that she was intruding; he was not there and had not been for three days. Hadn't been at dinner for three days, hadn't played pool with her at Sandrine's, hadn't sat beside her on the Bridge. She did not allow herself to wonder when he'd be there again, or if he ever would.
The room was dark and quiet, but in addition to the ghostly emptiness she had expected, there was life there, lurking somewhere just beneath the silence. The idea amused her; it was the way she often thought of him, dark and quiet, but always with a glint of warm humor in his eyes, a smile in his voice. Alive and intense, maybe even passionate, somewhere just beyond the calmness he showed the world.
She glanced slowly around the room, remembering the last time she'd been there with him. A quick chat after Sandrine's and before they'd both turned in for the night, she standing in the doorway, only half in the room, he standing near the windows, a smile shining from his eyes even though his lips were still. "Anything else I can do for you this evening, Captain?"
She'd started suddenly, caught staring at his shape silhouetted in the faint starlight. "I don't think so, Commander. See you on the Bridge."
He took a step toward her, frowning a little. "Aren't we meeting for breakfast? Neelix is making us a loggerhead egg omelet, remember?"
She had laughed and promised to meet him at 0700 for breakfast.
She had not kept her promise.
Her eyes fell on the bed, left unmade. She'd called him to duty an hour early to join an away team, an hour before they were to meet Neelix in the galley. She would have gone to breakfast alone, but she'd decided to save the special occasion for a time when they could share it. And the circumstances of the ensuing hours had precluded her departure from the Bridge anyway.
She crossed slowly to the bed, shaking her head. "We never did get to taste that omelet, did we, Chakotay?" There was no answer. "Maybe someday we will..."
She reached out and brushed her open palm across a pillow, still depressed from the weight of his head, but long since cooled from the warmth of his body. Without thinking she pulled up the sheets, tucking them carefully under the mattress as she moved around the bed, then straightened out the blanket over them, gently smoothing away the wrinkles. The blanket was soft and thick, decorated with lines and circles and shapes she had seen in his carvings, but in a pattern she did not recognize. She held the edge of it between her fingers, puzzled by the feel of the coarse threads. It almost felt handmade, and she gasped lightly, wondering where on the ship he had hidden the loom. Then she realized that he must have programmed the coarse weave into the replicator. Chakotay was many things - a sculptor, a painter, a poet - but she doubted his artistry extended to tapestry weaving.
Then again, she had never taken the time to ask.
With a regretful sigh, she dropped the edge of the blanket and turned away from the bed. A half-empty teacup and a plate of breadcrumbs caught her eye and she smiled to herself. So he had had a snack before he left, perhaps a quick bite before they were to meet Neelix, just to make sure he wouldn't be forced to eat too much of the dubious omelet. At least he had gotten something in his stomach before the landing mission. A last meal before he disappeared.
With a dismissive shake of her head she swiftly brushed the scattered crumbs onto the plate and gathered it and the cup together. He would not want to return to a messy room, she reasoned. The cold tea and breadcrumbs she dumped into the refuse slot, the plate and cup she rinsed and set aside. As an afterthought she refilled the cup with water and turned back into the room.
The sakra plant was dry and thirsty. She emptied the cup into the soil surrounding its roots, gently pushing aside the stems and leaves. A few stalks broke off in her hand; she placed them in the stone pot beside the plant and lit them with a wick, remembering the many times she had watched him perform the small ritual. The thought that she was forgetting something crossed her mind, some sacred word or gesture, but then a familiar fragrance filled the room and swept away her uneasiness. She breathed deeply, recognizing the light, sweet scent. It was the smell of his uniform in the morning before the ship's air stripped it away; it was the smell of her hair in the evening after she left his quarters. The fragrant cloud rose around her face and she closed her eyes, remembering. She seemed to sense his presence, his voice in the room, his quiet laugh. If she turned around she felt she would see him sitting on the edge of the bed or standing near the windows, smiling at her, teasing her gently for giving in to her imagination. She leaned forward and placed her hands flat on the table, surprised to find that they were trembling. With an effort she turned to look behind her, irrationally afraid that he might really be there, or that he might not.
He was not.
She refilled the cup, mentally chiding herself for the moment of weakness.
She moved slowly around the room, watering his many plants, examining the textures of their leaves and stems with her fingers. She recognized only a few of them - the sakra plant he kept for incense, a small tree with round green leaves, the seeds of which he collected and dried for late-night snacks, the flowering cactus he had cultivated early in their journey. The rest of them were unfamiliar to her; she supposed that he had been gathering seedlings all the time they had been traveling through the Delta Quadrant, turning his rooms into a garden, a constant reminder of the places they had visited. He habitually gathered rocks and sand and occasional pieces of wood; the many textures and colors of his collections fascinated her. There were no natural reminders here of his own world, beyond the scant items secured safely in his medicine bundle. And so, in the absence of his past and the uncertainty of his future, he had chosen to dwell in the now, filling his rooms with the many worlds he had seen, creating his own world with the stones and plants and soil he had collected.
She returned to the sakra plant and added a few more of its slender stalks to the incense pot, letting the fragrance fill and warm her. The little plant, dry though it was after two days' neglect, obviously flourished in Chakotay's room. She passed her fingertips over it, imagining his hand repeating the same gesture, and smiled. "Does he talk to you?" she whispered. "Do you talk to your plants, Chakotay? I wonder..." She laughed quietly, but stopped at an unexpected echo.
Again she felt the odd sensation that he was in the room with her. She whirled around, half expecting to see him disappear into the bathroom or duck behind the screen. She felt she would find him there, if only she knew the right place to look - the closet, perhaps, or somewhere less obvious...
She was halfway across the room and lowering herself to peer under the bed before she fully realized it. The sound of her own harsh laugh filled the room as she fell to her knees. "Damn," she muttered, shaking her head ruefully. "Now he's got me hunting for spirits..."
She cocked her head to one side, listening for an answering laugh that did not come.
As she rose she pulled the blanket off the bed and wrapped herself in it, intending to sit and rest her eyes for a moment only before she returned to the bridge and to the seemingly endless waiting. She sank into his easy chair with a soft sigh.
Twelve hours, she'd told them at the briefing. Twelve more hours and they'd have to call off the search and resume their journey without their first officer. Their faces had shown disbelief - Harry's eyes wide with shock, Tom's cheeks slowly reddening as his eyes closed, B'Elanna leaning her forehead in her hands. Even Tuvok had been surprised, raising an eyebrow at her and asking how she had arrived at this decision. She couldn't justify it, she said, couldn't justify four or five or ten days merely hanging in space, hovering over the last place they had sensed his presence. Tom had spread his hands on the table. "But Captain," he'd said, "what's four or five days out of a journey that could last seventy years?"
She'd shaken her head and turned away from the hurt in his eyes, in all their eyes. "What if we don't find him in ten days, Paris? What if we stay for a month and we still don't find him? A year? How long do we stay before we finally decide we've stayed long enough?"
There was a silence in the room. "Are there any other comments?"
She should have expected B'Elanna's voice then, but it still cut through her, the voice and the words. "You realize, Captain, that if we leave without finding him, you've essentially given him up for dead."
"I know that, B'Elanna," she'd whispered. "Twelve hours. Dismissed."
They'd filed out of the room slowly, silently, leaving her standing alone, holding her own arms for comfort.
She'd spent an hour in the conference room, going over all their search methods, sensor logs, transporter patterns, tracking data, everything they could think of to locate their missing officer. Nothing. She replayed his last voice communication with the ship over and over, just a routine request that Harry beam up the rest of the landing party, there was one last thing he wanted to check out...
Then silence. Not another word, no sensor trace of him, no comm signal, no biological impression to track. On the second day she'd even gone down herself to search for him with her own eyes, but there was nothing. Three days of nothing, no clues, no hopes.
Twelve hours. No, less than eleven hours left now. She'd rest for a few more moments and then redouble her efforts for the scant time remaining, even though she'd barely slept since his disappearance. Just a few minutes to clear her head and gather her thoughts in this room where she felt his presence, where she could imagine he would return shortly - he was only on a brief trip and would soon come back, full of enthusiasm for the things he'd seen, the familiar smile on his lips. She closed her eyes.
When the night of the third day dragged on and stretched into the morning of the fourth, she was still sitting in his chair, wrapped in his blanket, sound asleep.
When she awoke the world was white.
Her universe had narrowed to the room - the bed, the chair where she sat stiffly, the lingering scent of sakra and the echo of a forgotten laugh. There seemed to be nothing beyond, nothing outside the window or even on the other side of the door.
And all was white; the walls, the floor, the ceiling. Unyielding brightness that shut out all color, all form. Even the bright pattern had fallen away from the blanket, leaving her wrapped in a coarse white cloth that gave her no warmth.
She called out to the computer to lower the lights but the white remained, unbroken and blinding. She blinked hard, once, twice. It was her eyes, it had to be. She closed them against the whiteness, the lack of feature or color. A shiver ran up her spine. It was suddenly cold in the room, as if an unexpected wind had burst through a crack in the wall, lifting her hair and scattering the sakra ashes in a tiny whirlwind. A prolonged howl reached her ears from far away - but perhaps it was in the next room, or only in her own mind.
Then all was quiet again, so quiet she could hear her own loud breathing, almost panting. She was reminded of a time, long since gone, when she'd sat outside during a winter storm and listened to the sounds of birds and animals and wind. But the wind had died suddenly and she'd closed her eyes at a strange new sound, soft as a whisper, the almost silent music of tiny frozen crystals falling on fresh snow. Ice formed on her shoulders while she listened, shivering with the cold, but fascinated by the sounds and the wintry dampness and the leafless trees stretching into the gathering darkness, each thin branch encased in shimmering ice. She had paid dearly for the experience with a lingering chill that lasted for days, but it had been worth it to see a dying tree, its icy silhouette illuminated by the rising moon, glowing white against the black night sky.
Now she closed her eyes against the ghostly whiteness, longing for form and feature. She gathered the blanket around her shoulders and took a deep breath, willing the chill away from her bones. It was all an illusion, a trick of the eye, the product of fear and worry and lack of sleep. When she looked up again the room had returned to its normal state, full of color and form.
She sat still for a moment, disoriented. This was not her room, not her chair, not her blanket. She stared down at the tapestry, wrapped tightly around her. The lines and shapes slowly coalesced into a pattern that was not completely familiar, but was at least recognizable. She grasped the edge of the blanket in her fist and remembered.
"Computer," she barked. "What time is it?"
"The time is 0638 hours."
"Damn." She threw the blanket off her lap and bolted from the room.
Inexcusable. She must have gone to sleep in Chakotay's quarters, letting almost seven hours slip by without contributing anything to the search. She'd never meant to stay more than a moment, she'd only intended to - to what? Make his bed? Straighten his room? She shook her head at herself. Had she spent half the night wrapped in his blanket just because she'd wanted to water his plants?
She ducked into her quarters and spent 15 minutes, which her mind told her represented roughly 1/20 of the time left, wolfing down a makeshift breakfast and tidying herself for the day. When she arrived on the bridge she was not surprised to find the Alpha crew on deck, though she did not know whether they had returned early or stayed at their posts through the night. She did not ask.
She confronted Tuvok first, demanding to know why he had not awakened her to resume the search. "Mister Kim, Ms Torres, Mister Paris and I continued our work without you, Captain," he replied quietly. "We reasoned that you required rest."
"And you didn't?"
The Vulcan's eyes darted away from her and back again. "Captain, I - "
Tom Paris stepped toward her. "It's my fault, Captain. Tuvok wanted to wake you up, but Kes said you probably needed the rest even more than we did. She said you hadn't slept at all since Chakotay disappeared."
"I appreciate your thoughtfulness, Mister Paris, but in the future - "
Harry Kim cleared his throat. "It's my fault, too, Captain. I tried to find you, but when I realized where you were, I - "
"Harry!" Torres hissed from across the bridge. Janeway turned on her and she blanched a little, backed toward her station. "We just thought, Captain, that - "
Janeway looked from one face to the next, taking in their expressions - Harry young and still hopeful, Tom quietly intense, B'Elanna worried for her friends, both present and absent. Tuvok's face was calm, but she saw the concern lurking behind even his impassivity. She shook her head slowly and looked away for a moment, composing her features. "I don't want to leave him behind, either," she said softly. "Let's get back to work."
Less than four hours left.
They went by too quickly.
With each passing minute, ticked off automatically and infuriatingly in her head, they all grew more desperate, more tense with each other, brittle branches ready to snap. She sat in the middle of them, holding them together as best she could, all the while keenly aware of the empty chair beside her. She could not look at it.
When the time came to give the order she stood up, arms folded across her belly. Her officers settled into silence, waiting.
He did not turn. "Yes ma'am?"
She cleared her throat. "Prepare to leave orbit. Resume our primary course, warp two."
His shoulders slumped even as his hands moved to carry out her orders. "Yes ma'am."
The deck rumbled lightly beneath her feet and the view of the stars ahead shifted and blurred. She waited for them to clear but they did not; the thought crossed her mind that something must be wrong, for some reason they hadn't made the jump into subspace. She started to ask B'Elanna what the problem might be, but when she blinked the view cleared suddenly, then blurred again. Another blink and again the starfield cleared and blurred. Her breath caught in her throat.
"Tuvok, you have the conn," she rasped, and started to bolt from the bridge. "I'll be in my Ready Room..."
B'Elanna's voice stopped her in the doorway. "Captain? We will be having a memorial service for Chakotay, won't we?"
She turned back sharply, not trusting herself to speak, desperate to leave the bridge and the pairs of eyes fixed on her - not accusing now, but sympathetic - before she lost all control. She nodded slowly at B'Elanna, at them all, and fled into the privacy of her office where she slid into a corner of the couch, eyes wide, staring ahead at nothing.
She sat immobile for a long moment, refusing to think, refusing to feel, unable to confront the fact that when she returned to the bridge later, Chakotay would not be there.
He was gone.
Gone for good now, and she had given the order that had left him behind. She alone had made the decision.
Three days they'd searched, almost four. She went over the time again, trying to account for each hour she'd actually contributed to the search, each hour she'd just let pass away lost in thought, wishing he'd come back and worrying that he was in danger somewhere, or worse.
Damn. She rubbed her forehead absently. Three days they'd searched, and she'd spent a significant portion of it wallowing in emotion - rediscovering the way she walked without him, wondering who she would have dinner with every night, making his bed. Watering his damn plants. If she'd spent more time helping with the search, then maybe...
No, her people knew their business, they were as anxious to return Chakotay to the ship as she was. Her fears might only have hindered the process, her constant hovering might have caused them to become tense and careless. She'd sensed resentment from them at first, particularly after she'd declared the 12-hour deadline. But this morning - the resentment was gone, replaced by resignation and despair.
And worry. She'd heard it in Tom's voice as he explained why they hadn't awakened her, she'd seen it in Harry's eyes when he'd mentioned he knew where she'd spent the night. Worry for her, she guessed, worry that she would miss him, that she wanted him back even more than they, that she would be lost without him.
But she'd lost officers before, good ones, and recently - Cavit, Durst, Kyoto. Each time it had gotten a little harder, especially out here where there was very little hope of ever notifying the families who waited for them back home. Each time she'd signed the certificate of death with silent grief and scheduled a time for a memorial service, leaving the details to the discretion of the deceased's closest companions and the spiritual guidance of her first officer.
She closed her eyes briefly. B'Elanna was probably Chakotay's closest shipboard friend, but the engineer was unlikely to volunteer to handle the details of a memorial service. And spiritual guidance... Always Chakotay's realm before, and he'd handled the responsibility with gravity and quiet dignity. Likely she would have to fill that role herself now; likely she would have to organize the memorial service on her own.
She didn't even have a body.
The thought of signing a certificate of death without ever having seen his cold remains filled her with dread. Because it was possible, however remotely, that he wasn't dead at all, that she was leaving him behind forever, trapped in the Delta Quadrant with absolutely no hope of ever returning to his home and family, or even to the ship where he was so desperately missed. In a day or two, maybe a week, he'd realize what she'd done and resent her for the rest of his life...
Janeway shook her head sharply. No, he was dead. He had to be. She could not admit the possibility that he was still alive and that, somehow, they had simply failed to find him. She could not be the one who had stranded him forever.
She crossed to her desk and pulled out a data padd. A memorial service for Chakotay would have to include his spirituality - perhaps she would retrieve his medicine bundle and blanket, maybe some of his plants. Music, surely, if she could find something appropriately subdued but at the same time indicative of his spirit, his calm self-assuredness and quirky humor. And in the absence of a body, she would need a picture of him...
She flipped open her desktop computer and keyed in a series of commands, searching for any suitable picture. The computer sat and thought for a moment, then presented a full head-and-shoulders picture of him, out of uniform and frowning deeply at someone or something out of the frame. The text accompanying the picture puzzled her at first, an odd phrase about a covert operation and a surveillance monitor. There was something vaguely familiar about the words, but she could not place them. She glanced at the picture again, the frown, her first officer and friend dressed in a leather vest and a soft brown shirt, slightly blurred as if he were moving very quickly. A reconnaissance shot, she realized, and sat back sharply. His criminal record.
She stared at the picture until it wavered before her eyes. She willed her vision to clear but it did not; in a matter of seconds everything in her sight had blurred beyond recognition. She lowered her eyes and cradled her head in her shaking hands, Chakotay watching over her with a frozen frown.
On the evening of the fourth day she cried herself to sleep.
There was a presence in the room.
She sensed it before she raised her head or even opened her eyes. There was someone or something there with her, moving slowly around her office, hovering, moving on easily, almost gliding. She stayed very still, listening. Whoever or whatever it was, it had come into her office unannounced and uninvited, but still she felt no sense of impending danger, no threat. Her mind automatically asked who would barge in without asking - Tuvok, perhaps, but only if he thought she were in immediate danger. None of the other senior staff. Chakotay might have, he'd done it once or twice before when he felt she needed to talk and wouldn't ask him directly to be her sounding board. But it couldn't be Chakotay, he was gone now.
The presence hesitantly moved closer to her, a whisper in the quiet room, somewhere between night and day. And cold, swirling around her feet, stroking her cheek. A silent, icy presence slowly wrapping around her, raising every hair on her body, sending chills down her back. She shivered uncontrollably.
Then the cold was in her, cooling the blood in her veins, freezing the breath in her throat, pressing upon her mind the urgent need for warmth and comfort. There were no words that she could immediately identify, just the vague feeling that someone was there with her, and that if she did not move soon they would both freeze to death.
She opened her eyes, hoping to catch the intruder, but there was no one. She was alone in the room, had been all along.
She leaned back heavily, eyes closed, strangely disappointed that it had only been another illusion, the product of too many near-sleepless nights - four of them now. In a few hours it would be the fifth day since Chakotay's disappearance. She wondered how much time would pass before she found a different way to name the passing days, when she would stop measuring her life beginning with the end of Chakotay's presence in it. A sigh escaped her lips, loud in the silence of the room. She rose stiffly, the cold still with her, trapped inside her uniform. Before she left the room she programmed an increase in the ambient temperature - perhaps it would be warm by morning. But the Bridge was cold, too, and the lift and corridors. Once she even thought she felt a harsh wind against her face, though her mind automatically told her such a phenomenon was impossible in the closed atmosphere of a starship.
Outside her quarters she hesitated, shivering, casting a forlorn glance back at his door. Someone would have to pack up his belongings soon, another officer would move into his room - Tuvok, most likely. He'd been sharing quarters since the early days of their journey. And Tuvok would also be the logical choice to ascend to Chakotay's position. She wondered if Tuvok would ever leave his bed unmade, or neglect to tidy his used dishes, or forget to water his plants.
She took two quick steps back down the corridor, keyed in the override and stepped into Chakotay's quarters. She moved around the room as she had the night before - examining his sand paintings, brushing the dust away, straightening his collections of rocks and plants. She kicked off her boots and, with a sigh and a shudder that shook her whole body, she crawled into his bed and wrapped herself in his blanket.
Somewhere between night and day she fell asleep.
On the morning of the fifth day she awoke with a start, as if someone had suddenly spoken her name.
She looked warily around the room - no longer unfamiliar to her. But there was no one there, no missing first officer, not even the sweet scent of sakra. Familiar plants and rocks, familiar blanket and furniture. But an empty room.
She settled back again and wrapped the blanket around her. The temperature must have dropped ten degrees during the night, maybe even fifteen - someone had turned back the environmental controls in Chakotay's quarters. She drew the blanket over her head and exhaled sharply, attempting to warm the space around her face. Her hands and feet had gone completely numb, all her limbs were stiff with cold. With a low moan she stretched gingerly, willing warmth back into her body. After a few moments of slow calisthenics she realized that the chill was not going to go away. She ordered the computer to prepare a hot bath, stripped off her uniform, and plunged into the already steamy bathroom.
Hot water closed over her, stinging her cold fingers and toes painfully, bringing blood to the surface of her skin. She stared down at herself, at her feet and legs slowly reddening with heat. Her eyes watered, hot tears streaming down her cheeks and chin, rolling down her neck and splashing into the bath water. She sank down in the tub and let the water flow over her head, lifting her hair to the surface. Water rushed into her ears and finally shut out the sounds of the ship around her. Her breath held while she sat and listened to her own mind, the faint but incessant whispers of consciousness and unconsciousness. And something else, brushing up against her mind urgently. Too far away, it seemed to say, too far, not enough time, so many regrets. A distant, pained cry.
Her face broke the surface of the water with a loud splash. She struggled up and gasped for breath, not knowing how long she had stayed underwater. So long she must have started to lose consciousness, hallucinate again. So long that the water had gone cold, almost icy. She sprang from the tub and wrapped herself in a thick towel, asked the replicator for a clean uniform and an extra heavy turtleneck, thick socks, long underwear. The hair rose on her flesh while she dried and dressed.
She left the room slowly, reluctantly, dreading the task ahead.
Holodeck 2 was empty, as she'd known it must be - the memorial service was scheduled for late in the afternoon and she had reserved time to program a suitable scene.
Somewhere warm, she thought, shivering. He'd want them all to be somewhere warm and comfortable, somewhere familiar. She voiced a series of commands and the Holodeck grid was soon replaced with red sand, low scrub brush, cacti, distant outcroppings of weatherworn stone. A hot red sun moving toward the western horizon, a thin layer of clouds glowing pink in the evening sky. Birds and lizards and the distant barking of a coyote, or perhaps a wolf. The Arizona desert at sunset. Yes.
She turned slowly, surveying the scene, and a chill ran up her spine. Another series of commands and she seated herself on a rock, waiting for the temperature to rise.
There would have to be words to comfort the grieving crew. He always used the same words, something about circles and joining and lives touched in infinite ways - words suitable for all their gatherings, both solemn and joyous. She concentrated hard but could not remember the phrases, wishing suddenly she had discussed them with him before, what they meant to him and what they meant to the crew. What they had meant to her then, what they would mean to her now, if only she could remember.
But the few words that came to her left her unsatisfied - a good officer, loyal, courageous, intelligent, occasionally foolhardy and endlessly stubborn, but always focused on the journey, always motivated by concern for the ship and crew. And for her.
She leaned forward and rested her head in her hands, eyes closed with sudden fatigue.
The temperature rose around her but she sensed no warmth, only the lingering chill in her bones. She shuddered and suspected that she was ill - the cold, the hallucinations, the lack of sleep. She should have reported to sickbay days ago, probably on the fourth day after she'd gone to sleep in his chair. Or maybe even sooner, maybe on the third day when she'd broken into his quarters with the ridiculous urge to water his plants.
She sighed heavily. Tom or B'Elanna could help her carry the plants to the Holodeck. And Harry must know some suitable music - perhaps he'd even play for the service if she asked him directly. Kes might be able to help her with the words, or even Tuvok. Now, if only the temperature would rise a little more...
"Captain Janeway, please report to the Bridge."
Tuvok's voice on the comm system made her jump. She shook her head sheepishly, guiltily, and dashed from the Holodeck, the Arizona sun continuing to set behind her.
The Bridge bustled with activity.
Alpha crew was on deck again, all her friends at their familiar stations. All but one. She shook the thought away and crossed to her chair.
"Report, Mister Tuvok," she snapped.
"We have received a distress call, Captain, from the third moon of the third planet of the system we are approaching." The viewscreen changed to show the system and the planet, the moon in question highlighted with a faint pulse.
She frowned, puzzled. "But I thought this system was uninhabited."
Neelix crossed to her. "It is, Captain. The planets are all barren."
"There is vegetation on the first three," Tuvok corrected, "as well as on the moon from which we are receiving the distress signal. But no animal life."
"What kind of distress signal is it?"
Harry looked up from his station grimly. "Vidiian, Captain."
"Vidiian? What are the Vidiians doing out here?" she mused aloud. "Is the signal directed specifically at the Voyager?"
"Negative. It is an automated signal, probably from a downed shuttlecraft, addressed at any passing ship. The configuration, however, has been modified from other Vidiian signals we have encountered. This signal is detectable in far more frequencies than the standard Vidiian signal."
"So whoever they are, they're desperate."
She rose and placed her hands on her hips. "Life signs, Mister Kim?"
"Only one so far."
He keyed in a series of commands and frowned. "The signal is too faint to tell yet." He shook his head at her. "Whoever he is, he's probably freezing to death."
She whirled on him in disbelief, feeling the color drain from her face. "What did you say?" she hissed.
He drew back a little, alarmed. "That whoever is down there is freezing to death by now. It's a cold moon - nothing but snow and ice. It's big enough to hold an atmosphere and the atmosphere's thick enough to hold in some heat, but I wouldn't want to be down there for very long, not even in a crashed Vidiian shuttlecraft."
Janeway turned back to the viewscreen, her arms wrapped around her torso, suddenly unable to contain any of her own warmth. It was nothing she could hold in her hand, nothing she could analyze with a tricroder or dissect in a lab. But the clues had been there all along, just waiting for her to see them, to open her mind and understand.
When she found her voice, it sounded strange to her own ears, thin and strangled, tinged with dread. "How long could someone survive under those conditions? A human?"
There was a stunned silence on the Bridge, a complete halt in activity. "Not long, Captain," Tuvok said quietly. "No more than a few days."
"How soon can we be there, maximum speed?"
Tom's hands moved over his console. "About thirty minutes at warp 8.5."
"We might be able to squeeze out warp 9.5, but we can't sustain it for more than a few minutes, Captain."
"Tom, lay in a - "
"Done. Just give the word."
The Bridge exploded with life around her while she sank into her chair, shivering with cold and exhaustion. "And Tuvok?"
"Cancel the memorial service."
She found him in a lean-to constructed of parts stripped from the destroyed Vidiian shuttle.
He was unconscious, barely breathing. She knelt beside him, forgetting Tuvok's presence entirely, and pulled his head into her lap, her fingers searching for a pulse. His heart had slowed to just a handful of beats per minute, his skin was frozen from exposure. Hibernating, but with nothing to protect him but his uniform, the walls of the lean-to and a survival blanket pulled from the shuttle. While Tuvok gave the order and they waited for Harry to send them to Sickbay, she stroked his hair, short and soft and thick, murmuring to him softly.
Her last glimpse of the frozen moon startled her - an expanse of white, colorless, ravaged by wind and weather, almost featureless except for a dying tree, each branch encased in ice, glowing white against the black night sky.
And then they were in Sickbay, a flurry of bodies moving about them, easing him from her grasp and moving him to a diagnostic bed. Hands reached to remove his cold, wet uniform and she moved to help them. But her own hands refused to respond, as if they were not attached to her body at all. She cursed her own clumsiness, her inability to help. Her eyes locked on his face, she reached out with great effort and touched his forehead, so cold it almost hurt. In an instant he was naked on the diagnostic bed, Kes and the Doc descending on him with blankets and tricorders and worried expressions.
Janeway searched Kes' face. The younger woman frowned deeply. "A severe case of hypothermia with many areas of advanced frostbite. We have to warm his blood, but not too quickly. We'll know something more in an hour or two." Kes moved to take her elbow. "You can wait in the office, Captain..."
She nodded numbly and let Kes lead her away from his side, stood back and watched while they worked over him with hypos and other unfamiliar instruments. The process was fascinating - but frightening at the same time. Because it had nothing to do with him, not the man she knew, not the spirit or the soul or the life within him. They were only healing his body, she realized. He would need something more.
She left the Sickbay at a dead run.
The cold wind was with her again, propelling her from behind, lifting her hair and pushing her down the corridor. It drove her back to his quarters, as she had suspected, where she gathered his blanket in her arms. She turned and dashed back to the Sickbay, leaving the door locked open behind her.
She barely noticed that the familiar ruddy color was returning to his cheeks before she scattered Kes and the Doc and their instruments and wrapped him in the coarse blanket. The Doctor started to protest but Kes pushed him away - Janeway caught her smile at the edge of her vision. She knelt beside his bed and stroked his forehead again. "It's all right, Chakotay," she whispered. "You can come back now. I finally heard you..."
Much later she was aware of being lifted from the floor and settled into a chair at his side. It must be night again, but he was awake - he turned his head toward her, wincing with pain, and smiled. She sighed with relief and closed her eyes.
On the fifth day she went to sleep in the Sickbay, the edge of a coarse blanket clutched in her fist.
The next afternoon she found herself walking through the corridors slowly, nodding at Beta crew as they headed for their quarters, smiling at Gamma crew hurrying to their posts. It was all familiar but somehow new to her. She smiled, enjoying the moment, finding sacredness in the everyday events around her, the afternoon of the first day since Chakotay's return.
She'd gotten the story in snatches while he recovered - the cloaked canyon he'd discovered after the rest of the team had returned to the ship, the abduction by the Vidiians, the interrogation, the escape, the crash of yet another shuttlecraft. She had turned to Tuvok with an amused expression - "At least it wasn't one of mine this time."
After her shift she'd asked the computer for his whereabouts, though she knew where he must be.
He had unfolded the blanket on the sand and lay sprawled on his back, snoring lightly, spread out against the Arizona sky like an offering. She knelt near his bare feet, not touching the blanket but hovering at the edge of it, not wanting to disturb him. He stirred a little and she smiled. Dark and quiet now, but with life beneath that calm surface, abundant life, ready to overflow and spill out into the room, touching whoever might be there with him.
She sat for a long time studying him in sleep. She had intended to wake him and hear the story of his escape firsthand. But he slept so peacefully, so soundly, that she found herself unable to disturb him. Instead she knelt quietly, watching his chest and impossibly broad shoulders rise and fall with each of his soft snores. His expression was as open and unguarded as she'd ever seen it, lacking both the quiet intensity and crafty humor that usually dominated it. She let her eyes travel over his calm face, lingering over his features as she never could have had he been awake - the sparse whiskers that had grown overnight, the long slightly crooked nose, likely broken in a fight, the arching lines over his left eye. Finally she stared at his mouth, that unusual curve of his lips that only a master artist could have re-created. The lips turned up in a sudden smile, almost as if he were reading her thoughts even while he slept, and she reddened self-consciously.
Without realizing it she had drifted closer to him. She was close enough to feel the breath he exhaled touch her face. Once, experimentally, she deliberately inhaled that breath, letting his air expand and fill her. As she did so a pleasant warmth spread throughout her, starting from her lungs and flowing down through her belly, up to her head, all the way to the ends of her fingers and toes, leaving her lightheaded, dizzy with heat. The thought so fascinated her, that he could warm her with his very breath, that she inhaled again and again, leaning close and almost sniffing at him.
She became possessed by the need to touch him, to confirm that he was real and alive. She wanted to reach out and very gently stroke her palm across the top of his head, to feel the texture of his close-cropped hair - was it stiff and spiky, like fresh-cut grass, or soft and thick, like animal fur? Without her thinking consciously about it, one of her hands crept across the blanket toward him, her fingers lightly brushing the sleeve of his civilian tunic. Her eyes still locked on his face, her fingers continued their journey, traveling slowly and staying in contact with only the fabric of the shirt, not daring to disturb the flesh underneath. The metal of his communicator felt cool against her skin, contrasting sharply with the cloth that trapped his warmth beneath it. At the edge of his collar her fingers reluctantly left him and lifted a little, hovering at the side of his placid face.
She was reaching out, not quite touching him, still leaning forward and drawing breath from him, when his eyes snapped open. He stared, unmoving. "What are you doing?" he asked.
She froze for an instant, caught almost nose-to-nose with him, close enough to see the shock and curiosity and hint of something else in his eyes. She drew in a sharp breath and started to remove her hand, but he reached out and lightly grasped her fingers before she could pull them away. "What are you doing?" he asked again, an amused expression hovering behind his eyes.
"I was..." She swallowed hard, trying to remember, trying to forget. "I was going to wake you up." She forced her voice to be steady. "How are you feeling?"
A smirk crossed his features, a look of utter disbelief, then was gone. He shivered, released her hand and pulled the blanket around his shoulders. "A little stronger. Stiff, numb. And cold... Every time I think I've finally gotten warm, I remember that place and it starts all over again." He gestured around the room. "Though being here has helped." He cocked his head at her. "Someone left it on. It's a terrible drain on power consumption." A slight smile softened his words.
"I left it on because - "
He looked away sharply. "I know. You were going to have the memorial service here."
"B'Elanna told me after you were asleep last night. We talked for a long time." He raised his face to the sky, the setting sun reflected in his dark eyes. "You were going to leave me behind," he said.
She let out a sharp breath. "Chakotay, I - "
He shook his head to stop her words. "You don't have to explain anything to me, Captain. I understand why you made the decision to leave."
"I had to decide for us all, and my primary goal is to get us home as quickly as possible. I couldn't justify keeping everyone there any longer, and - "
"No, Captain." He interrupted her again. "I understand. You made the only decision you could."
His gaze searched her face, implored her to leave the next words unsaid. But she could not - he had to hear, she had to say it and make it real, not only for herself. "I needed to know I could leave anyone behind, if the circumstances forced me to it." She met his eyes steadily. "Including you."
He nodded, smiled a little and looked away. "How did you know where to find me?"
Her eyes wandered over the desert. "I just knew... I'm sorry. I don't quite understand it, though I suppose you could say it was a hunch."
He kept his face turned away from her, his voice full of quiet wonder. "I tried to contact my animal guide, but I kept seeing you instead. I tried to tell you where I was, but you wouldn't listen to me. I thought I was hallucinating." He smiled. "Maybe I was."
"If you were, then so was I."
He raised his hands to his face and blew into them, rubbed them together and folded them in his lap. When he spoke again his voice was so soft she almost lost it on the warm evening breeze. "You don't think we were somehow...communicating, do you?"
She raked her fingers through the sand, not looking at him. "I suppose it's possible, though I doubt we'll ever know how."
"Do you think it'll ever happen again?"
Cold in the room, suddenly, inexplicably, a memory jostled to the surface unbidden. He had broadcast his emotions to her, his exhaustion and fear, his utter despair, and somehow she had heard him. To be able to communicate with him across the distances, to be so linked to him - she shook her head, unable to fathom how or why it had happened, what it had meant for them. What it would mean for them in the future, should it ever happen again. She shivered.
"I don't know," she said finally, almost a whisper.
He pulled his knees to his chest, wrapped his arms around them and sighed. "You saved my life by deciding to leave me behind. If you had stayed to look for me even one more day I would have frozen to death."
The significance of it hit her suddenly, the realization that, in order to get him back, she had had to let him go. She drew in a long breath and shook her head. "I hadn't thought of that," she acknowledged.
He dug his toes in the sand, shook the blanket off his shoulders a little. The edge of it lightly grazed her arm; she touched it with her fingertips, turned her hand over to grasp one corner. When she glanced up again he was staring at her with a look of shy curiosity. "Can I ask you one more question - off the record?"
"What were you going to do?"
"When you were going to wake me up..." he prompted, his hesitant gaze warm where it touched her. "What were you going to do?"
Her mouth opened once, twice, but she was unable to form words. He licked his lips, dark eyes searching her face, and turned his body toward hers, leaning forward a little. "If you won't tell me, then show me. Please show me what you were going to do."
Janeway sat very still, the corner of the blanket still gripped tightly in her hand. Easy, she thought, it would be so easy to just close the distance and place her open palm against his cheek, to let her thumb slide over his mouth, to pass her hand through his short hair - she was close enough to see it now, it was soft and thick. Easy to frame his face in both hands, to lean forward and let him breathe that warm breath into her again, to let her head fall down onto his chest. Easy to let him go back to sleep, to pull the blanket over them both, to wrap her body around his and rest in his embrace. It would be so easy, her mind teased, to cast off their roles and responsibilities and give in to this moment, with the sun setting before them and the ship quiet around them and home half a universe away.
"Show me," he pleaded, the invitation plain in his voice, his eyes, his hands held out to her in silent question.
Far too easy. And far, far too dangerous.
She shoved the inappropriate thoughts from her mind and raised her chin. "I don't know what you're talking about, Commander."
He stopped short, every motion tinged with confusion, then the intensity evaporated from his face. "I'm sorry, Captain," he murmured, eyes downcast.
Something in her, some urgent, insidious presence, begged her to respond to the dejection in his face, to the lost hopelessness in his voice. "By the way..." She turned back to the setting sun and closed her eyes. "While you were gone, I..."
Her voice trailed off as the time came back to her in a rush, the long empty days full of careening emotions, the agony of the decision. She could feel him beside her, endlessly curious.
She smiled suddenly. "I watered your plants."