Disclaimer: Star Trek belongs to Paramount. Or is it CBS? Whoever you are, no infringement intended.
Author's note: A caravanserai is an inn on a desert trade route where caravans rest at night, usually a large bare building surrounding a courtyard.
Summary: Post-Endgame. Janeway takes a job in a remote part of space for reasons she keeps to herself. Her boss wonders if the posting could have something to do with Chakotay's whereabouts. J/C
"'What a dump.'"
Ambassador Elias Brandt looked up from his PADD and studied the petite Starfleet admiral standing in front of the view port. She'd been standing there quietly for several minutes watching their destination grow steadily larger with the Santa Fe's approach. He had a good idea that she was referring to something from her Voyager days, but he played the usual guessing game. "I beg your pardon?"
Kathryn Janeway smiled at him over her shoulder and nodded toward the dilapidated outpost. "Have you seen this place? Caravanserai is what Tom Paris would have called 'a dump' when we were in the Delta quadrant-a phrase he picked up from a classic black and white film from Earth's twentieth century."
Brandt smiled. In the six months since she'd joined his staff, he'd learned that his new military attaché connected nearly every event to one she experienced during her seven-year odyssey through the Delta Quadrant. It was the subject of frequent good-humored teasing between them. "Ah, yes. Mr. Paris-your resident expert on pre-Federation Earth culture and history."
She turned back to the window, and he looked past her at the dark and deserted outpost that was to be the site of their diplomatic summit. "It's obvious that the Neikwai haven't used this place in years, Ambassador, not since this trade route dried up seventy years ago. I'm surprised it still holds an atmosphere."
"Well, it was always just a stopping place before ships tackled the long route around or through the nebula. We only need a small part of it for three days."
"Even so," she said, crossing her arms, "I want a security team and the engineer to check it out thoroughly before you beam over for a tour."
"Whatever you think is best, Kathryn." He studied the mothballed outpost a moment more, and then pretended to read the data on his console while he kept his eye on her.
He was fascinated by Janeway. She was a compelling combination of feminine vulnerability and solid titanium and had a deceptively straightforward, yet complicated personality. She was the ideal person for this sort of assignment-what was basically a new diplomatic contact deep in region of space that the Federation had ignored for the last seventy years, because the Neikwai had withdrawn to face a tenacious foe that had been nibbling away at their territory from deeper in the Beta Quadrant.
A few months earlier, the Neikwai extended an invitation to renew their long-lost trade agreement, and he'd been sent to look into its feasibility. Janeway was the perfect advisor, for no one could match her experience in dealing with what was essentially a first contact in a less than secure setting, and he'd learned to trust her instincts without hesitation.
Meeting the Neikwai was certainly similar to a first contact, in spite of their long dormant trade agreement, for there were few people still alive who had actually met one of the species in person. Brandt, who had been a twenty-year-old graduate student when the Neikwai pact had ended, had little recollection of them and had spent days looking into their history. The fact was that Neikwai territory was adjacent to the Federation, and it was a likely area of future economic expansion now that the Dominion War was over and the Federation was slowly returning to normal.
"These Neikwai remind me of the Maquis," Janeway said, breaking their long, comfortable silence. "To get that disaster of a outpost up and running in such a short period of time would take the engineering genius of a B'Elanna Torres. They have done so much with so little, Elias, and not just here-on the battlefield, too."
He shut down his computer and joined her at the window, studying with greater care the facility that would be their focus for the next three days.
"It is a dump," he agreed with a small smile, "but it's also a diplomatic ploy. It tells us nothing about their current economy or the morale of their citizens. A crafty choice, having us come to a deserted space outpost. And the nebula shields the rest of their territory from our scanners. No chance to get tactical data that might be used against them. As if we would do something like that."
"Oh, they're crafty all right." She laughed and glanced at him out of the corner of her eye. He was just an inch taller than she, although he was probably twenty pounds heavier. At nearly ninety years of age, his hair had turned pure silver and his face was leathery and deeply lined. But his black eyes were lively and piercing, and his sense of humor was as sharp as a razor. He'd earned a reputation as one of the Federation's most trusted diplomats, nearly on the level of the Vulcan Sarek, and she had learned a great deal from him in the last six months. It was, she decided, a well-balanced partnership.
The ship shuddered slightly.
"What the hell was that?" she wondered out loud.
He was reaching to steady himself when the comm system activated. "Bridge to Janeway."
"Go ahead, Captain," she replied.
"I apologize for the rough approach. The Neikwai are attempting to bring the outpost's artificial gravity online. Apparently, a stray graviton wave disrupted our inertial dampeners. We've taken steps to preclude any further problems."
"Perfectly understandable, Captain. Thank you for the prompt explanation."
"You're welcome, Admiral. Silvius out."
Janeway groaned. "Damned antique equipment."
Brandt glanced at her. "What's your assessment of our captain?"
"I have no complaints so far."
"But? I sense that you're uncomfortable with him."
"Uncomfortable?" She frowned. "May I be perfectly honest?"
She leaned toward him in a conspirational manner and whispered, "No former captain is ever comfortable when someone else is in command of the ship."
"Are you saying that former captains are, in Tom Paris' words, 'control freaks'?"
"The worst kind of control freaks, Elias," she winked at him. "And it takes a special captain to tolerate having an admiral on board, breathing down his neck, second guessing his every decision. I actually feel sorry for Captain Silvius and think he's done a great job, all things considered."
"I like him, too, but then I've never met a Starfleet captain I didn't like." He clasped his hands behind his back. "I thought you'd be used to that. Don't captains routinely turn over their ships to their crews? I'm sure you left many of Voyager's crew in command, especially your first officer."
She stiffened, and he immediately regretted bringing up even a vague reference to Chakotay.
"It's not the same, at all." She relaxed slightly, and crossed her arms. "One's own crew is a different situation entirely. They have bridge duty but not command. Not only do they follow your particular style, they defer to your orders as soon as you arrive on the bridge." Janeway paused for a moment, her eyes downcast. "Chakotay was a full commander in Starfleet before he resigned his commission, and he was a captain in his own right with the Maquis. Our Starfleet command training was identical, and I found that he usually approached situations within the parameters I established."
"In other words, you trusted his judgment?"
She turned to look at him, her eyes unreadable, her voice clipped. "I trusted him with my ship, my crew, and my life, Ambassador. If he were put in command of the Santa Fe today, I would trust him to do the right thing without a moment's hesitation."
"I understand." He nodded, sensing that she would say nothing more about the subject. "How long before we can safely meet with the Neikwai representatives?"
"Safely? Hard to say. If they're still fiddling with the gravity plating, it might be a few hours yet. Luckily, we've invited them to Santa Fe for the preliminary meeting tomorrow. That gives them a whole day longer to get Caravanserai into shape."
"Then I'll have time to review your fascinating strategic analysis once again."
She turned to him and grinned, obviously relieved to have the conversation directed toward less personal issues. "If I'm guessing right, you'll have time to review it more than once, Ambassador. And in the meantime, I'll speak to Captain Sylvius about the security and engineering teams that we need to beam over there."
"Very well, Admiral. I'll want to make contact with the Neikwai as soon as possible."
"I'll remind the captain of that, as well." With a nod, she left his office.
Ambassador Brandt remained at the window after her departure, deep in thought. He wondered if Janeway was aware of how often she spoke of her Voyager crew. As she had become more comfortable in his presence, her references to them had increased in frequency and detail until he'd finally realized that they must be constantly on her mind.
Tom Paris and his entertaining holodeck diversions, his incredible piloting skill. Harry Kim's charming naïveté and dramatic personal growth. Tuvok's steady support and dry humor. B'Elanna Torres' frighteningly intuitive engineering brilliance and emotional fire. Seven of Nine's conflicted aspiration to reclaim the humanity she seemed to hold in complete contempt. Neelix's infectious good humor and terrible cooking. Kes's green thumb and gentle wisdom. A day didn't pass without Janeway referring to one or more of these people, or countless others of her crew-Naomi or Sam Wildman, Chell, Herron, the Delaney twins, Mike Ayala-the list went on and on.
There was only one person's name she never mentioned, and Brandt had come to realize that the omission of his name was significant-Chakotay, her first officer and closest friend. He suspected that in spite of her silence, her thoughts dwelled on Chakotay more than on anyone else-the sole living person from Voyager who was no longer in contact with rest the crew. He wondered how much Janeway knew about Chakotay's reasons for leaving the Federation and whether she knew where he had gone.
Brandt heard of Chakotay's resignation from Starfleet and ensuing flight to deep space at the time it had happened, but had paid little attention to the details surrounding it. He knew that Starfleet had refused to restore Chakotay's commission, even though Janeway had been unwavering in her defense of him, and that there had been a failed love affair with the former Borg drone at about the same time, but whether either or both of those events brought on his disillusionment, Brandt didn't know.
He'd thought about asking Janeway for more information, but she was guarded in what she said about Chakotay, often becoming monosyllabic when his name was mentioned. He had detected, in her tone of voice, an emotional attachment that extended far beyond that of captain and first officer, but he had dismissed it as a natural result of serving together for seven years in dozens of life-and-death calamities.
Brandt first met Janeway while he'd been entangled in the reconstruction of Cardassia. She had arrived unannounced at his office for what she described as a "personal" conversation. He smiled at that description, because no Starfleet admiral would travel halfway across a quadrant for an impromptu meeting without having some ulterior motive in mind.
Janeway arrived in his Cardassian office after hours and in civilian clothing, but her casual dress did little to blunt the impact of her vibrant and vigorous personality. She was a Starfleet captain, Brandt realized, who had perfected her leadership style in the red-hot furnace of command, and she was not only inscrutable but highly manipulative in the most oblique and innocuous way. Although he was used to the powerful personalities of military leaders and political bigwigs, Janeway had the distinction of being an exceptionally beautiful and charming woman, as well, and she knew exactly how to distract the concentration of a human male, even one as old and as world-weary as Elias Brandt.
As he took the hand she offered in greeting, he was nearly overwhelmed by her striking blue eyes and the blinding smile she gave him. His diplomatic alarms went off and he put his considerable skills into a higher gear lest he found himself agreeing to something that he'd later regret.
He replicated a pot of coffee, and they started their friendship with a discussion of the relative merits of the beverage. He enjoyed the usual getting-to-know-you chatter, which ranged from individuals they had in common, locations they recommended for assignments, to other official trivia and unofficial rumors. They discussed his lengthy assignment to Cardassia, the unique qualities of the planet's climate, the distinctive cultural difficulties the reptilian species posed, and then touched briefly on her journey through the Delta Quadrant and her own long and complex career.
Inevitably, the conversation wound down, and Janeway sat studying him over the edge of her third cup of coffee. He allowed the tension in the room to build as she quietly measured him. The real purpose behind her meeting was about to be revealed, and he found himself taking pleasure in the mystery of it. He also wished he were forty years younger and about six inches taller, for Janeway was an appealing and accomplished flirt.
"I'm flattered to be visited by such a beautiful and fascinating woman," he said, giving her his most disarming smile, "but I don't believe that your interest in this ninety-year-old ambassador is 'personal,' Admiral." She relaxed and smiled, so he said, "What is it that I can do for you?"
She leaned toward him, suddenly all business, and he caught his breath at her instant transformation from a vulnerable woman to an unyielding Starfleet officer. "Rumor has it that you are about to be assigned to Neikwai space."
He schooled his features. He'd expected her request to be personal in nature, perhaps a posting for a member of her crew or even an interview for some article she was writing, but this unofficial request for details about his upcoming assignment was disquieting. She had a personal interest in his posting, or she would have approached him through Starfleet channels. He took a deep breath, "Admiral, I'm sure you realize that such information is highly classified."
"Of course I do." She sat back and templed her fingers, her blue piercing. "I want you to consider me for appointment as your military attaché."
He narrowed his eyes. "I've always used Admiral Altmann in that position."
"He just announced his retirement." She gave him a knowing smile. "I think you'll find me more than qualified to replace him."
"Admiral Altmann has promised to recommend a replacement." He frowned, trying to imagine why an admiral with Janeway's standing would give up a corner office in San Francisco for a backwater job on the fringes of Federation space. "I can't imagine why you'd want to leave headquarters for such a remote and routine assignment."
"I miss being in control, I guess, and this is a wonderful opportunity to operate independently, don't you think?"
"You'd be working for me," he reminded her. Later, he realized that he should have ended the meeting at that moment and threatened to report her impropriety to the authorities, but the edginess in her body made him curious. She wasn't the type to break protocol without a good reason for doing so. "Have you found the limitations of the Alpha Quadrant intolerable?"
She blushed slightly and shook head. "I admit that there are some benefits to being out from under the constant eye of the admiralty. They aren't yet convinced that they can trust me, so I'm thinking that they might feel better if I serve awhile with an seasoned and level-headed person like you."
"Flattery, too?" He shook his head. "Now I'm curious about what it is in Neikwai space that has caught your attention."
She didn't flinch. "How long has it been, Ambassador, since you lived in near headquarters?"
He laughed. "Oh, I remember how limiting headquarters can be. But I wonder why you haven't simply pursued this assignment through official channels."
"Oh, I have." She smiled her repentance. "Admiral Altmann said the choice is up to you, so I decided to take matters into my own hands."
He nodded, realizing that he had underestimated this small woman's determination. "You're very good at this, Admiral Janeway."
She didn't crack a smile, and her blue eyes were icy cold. "I have a vested interest in my next assignment. I need to show my superiors that I'm trustworthy, and I need to do it somewhere that will catch their attention."
Suspecting that there was another reason that she wasn't revealing, he drawled, "I'll consider what you've said, Admiral. My first impression is that we'd made a very good diplomatic team."
She rewarded him with a brilliant smile, the charming woman back in full force, and he nearly gasped out loud at the impact of her magnetic personality. He realized that he wanted to see that smile again. And again. "I think so, too."
Brandt sighed and picked up the tentative schedule for his meeting with the Neikwai officials. He hadn't expected to choose her for the job, but just a few weeks later, after he'd been appointed to the new position, he'd gotten a call from his old pal Charlie Altmann.
"I'm convinced that this Janeway is the best choice, Elias," Charlie had said. "In fact, I wouldn't mind coming back on active duty just to work with her myself."
He hadn't regretted his decision, but he couldn't help but believe that she'd had ulterior motives for serving in deep space, whatever those motives might be. His gut told him it had something to do with her former first officer's disappearance. He'd made a few discrete inquiries about the former Maquis, but all he'd heard were a few rumors that the man had found employment somewhere outside Federation
Could he be somewhere near Neikwai space? Was he watching Santa Fe's dignified approach from the deck of Caravanserai? Had she insinuated her way onto his staff so that she could seek him out?
Time will tell, he reminded himself. Be patient.
When Janeway left Brandt's quarters, she decided against a visit to Santa Fe's bridge. Captain Sylvius and his crew might think she was checking up on his approach to Caravanserai if she appeared in person, and those few moments of turbulence weren't significant enough to warrant a personal review of his command skills. She was learning to ignore the routine problems of running the ship and focus instead on the larger mission, even though she still missed the day-to-day business and "busy-ness" of commanding a ship. There were times when she longed for something to occupy her mind totally the way Voyager had done.
She walked into her office, replicated a fresh cup of coffee, and opened a comm line to the captain, who retreated to his ready room to discuss with her the scope and detail she required from his security and engineering teams. She could see the relief in his face that she hadn't come to the bridge, and she gave him a reassuring smile as she signed off.
The coffee was hot and soothed her anxious mood as she stared blindly out the window at the deserted outpost. Her personal task during the next few days was to find out a crucial piece of information without endangering the ambassador's mission. How she would obtain this data and from whom she would obtain it was something that she would have to play by ear, trusting in her considerable experience at judging character to lead her to the best source. The prospect of misleading her boss made her nervous, and she was sure that Brandt had noticed that tension.
Even after six months as his attaché, she felt the ambassador's questioning eyes upon her. She knew he trusted her, but she also knew that there were questions he wanted to ask about her real motives for taking this job, and she knew that sooner or later, she would have to give him an answer.
When she had heard of his posting, she had been thrilled to have been provided the chance to go to Neikwai space at just the right moment. When she volunteered for the job-one that Brandt warned her was a death knell to any up-and-coming promotions-she had assured him that it was exactly the kind of work she would like.
She chuckled and put her feet up on her desk, glancing at the wall that separated her office and his. What would he think if she told him that she'd contacted him because of a dinosaur?
Three weeks had passed since Janeway had returned from her annual vacation, and yet she found it impossible to concentrate on her work. The word "voyage" kept popping up in random places-news reports, briefings, conversations, even her reading-and the lullaby Samantha had sung to Naomi, a song that she discovered had originally been an English folk song, echoed relentlessly in her head. She finally found a recording of it that she liked and played it every day as she dressed for work and then as she prepared for bed. The words had great meaning to her, and she wanted very much to believe in the promise they held-the promise of love and of future togetherness.
Her family recognized the signs of her mania and looked for the usual activities to get her feet back on the ground. In the months since Voyager's return, she had periodically withdrawn from them and her career as she grieved the loss of her ship and wrestled with the relative calm of the Alpha Quadrant. Her nephew, Patrick Magee, was a sure-fire antidote to her morose attitude.
"Could you do me a favor and take care of Pat Saturday?" her sister Phoebe asked one Thursday night. "John and I are supposed to attend a faculty in-service all day. Mom would keep him, but she's having the living room carpeted and doesn't think a six-year-old would be much help."
"I'd love to spend the day with Pat," she replied, giving her sister a wink. "He's my favorite nephew." The thought of Pat's dark red hair, sparkling blue eyes, and freckled, turned-up nose never failed to bring a smile to her face, and she'd yet to find a better audience for silly Delta Quadrant stories that no one else wanted to hear.
They spent Saturday morning in the Natural History Museum in Indianapolis where Patrick bypassed the geology and astronomy sections in favor of the huge reconstructed fossils of the dinosaur skeletons. She was impressed with his encyclopedic knowledge of the huge beasts and listened with growing awe as he rattled off the dinosaur's size and weight, historical era, and favorite food. By lunch time, when she'd convinced him to get a hot dog and lemonade at the snack bar, Janeway was sure that Patrick was destined for archeological research.
"Did you ever see a real, live dinosaur, Aunt Kathryn?" Patrick asked with a completely straight face. She had told him so many outlandish, yet true stories from her travels that he believed she had done and seen everything possible in the universe.
She smiled and started to ask him how old he thought she was when a memory caught her with her mouth half open. "Well-," she started, giving him a measured look, "I guess I have."
"Really?" He laid down his hot dog and listened with his eyes shining as she told him about the Voth, the Sauran space travelers that had shared forty-seven genetic markers with humans and were possible descendants of Earth's dinosaurs. His voice was reverent when he asked, "You actually met them in person?"
"Yes, I did. And Voyager was taken into the hold of one of their huge city ships."
"How did you find them?"
"Actually, they found us." She smiled as she remembered. "They sneaked onto Voyager and were walking around studying us when we detected them."
"They were walking around right in front of you? Were they invisible or something?"
"They were cloaked."
"Like a Romulan ship?"
"Like that, except it was a phased cloak just small enough to hide one person."
"That could be fun." He'd picked up the hot dog again. "Were they big?"
She answered his questions without thinking, her mind a million miles away. "About your dad's size."
"They were invisible, but could still see you?" He giggled. "I could sneak into a lot of places if I had a phased cloak like that."
She smiled to think that the tactical implications of phased cloaks were an obvious threat even to a six-year-old. Her eyes locked on his and she smiled. "Yeah. Pretty scary, hm?"
"The Gorn are dinosaurs, too, right?"
"They're reptilian. But we don't have much to do with them, you know. Our first contact wasn't the best, although they did fight the Dominion beside us."
"Somebody who likes dinosaurs might be able to make friends with them. Maybe you should talk to them, Aunt Kathy, since you've met real dinosaurs."
"The Gorn aren't related to the Voth, Pat."
"Are you sure?"
"We'll ask Chakotay." She blinked in complete surprise at her words. It was the first time she'd spoken his name in several months, and yet she'd mentioned him as if they still worked together every day, as if he was a natural part of her existence, like water or oxygen.
Patrick frowned. "Who's that?"
"He's the man who made friends with the Voth. What I meant was, the next time I see him, I'll ask if the Voth and the Gorn are related."
The child accepted her explanation, but her own composure was broken.
She was distracted for the rest of the day. Fortunately, Pat was oblivious to her mood, caught up, instead, by the planetarium they visited that afternoon. They reclined in comfortable chairs, their eyes trained on an artificial night sky projected onto the ceiling while the astrophysicist lectured them with details from an entertaining script.
Janeway didn't listen. Instead, she scanned the stars, trying to figure out where Chakotay might have gone and wondering how long it would take her to find him. When the projector displayed the far reaches of the Beta Quadrant and showed pictures of the Caravanserai of the Neikwai Republic, she had a revelation.
He would have gone to help the Neikwai.
And so, she set about to find him.
Janeway swallowed the last of her coffee and leaned back in her desk chair, staring blindly at the outpost that slowly grew larger in the window.
A call from the bridge interrupted her thoughts. "Go ahead, Captain."
"We've made initial contact with the Neikwai, Admiral."
"Patch the connection through to the ambassador, but allow me to listen in."
"Very well, Admiral."
And so, she thought to herself, the game begins.
Fourteen hours later, long after midnight, Janeway was finally able to speak privately with Brandt regarding their first brief meeting with the Neikwai representatives. She stepped into his darkened office and waited for her eyes to adjust to the light, soon noticing that the ambassador had taken a comfortable seat in the lounge area. She suspected he was even more exhausted than she was, but she also knew that she must confess her sins before he heard about them from someone else.
He glanced back at her. "There's a pot of coffee on the table, Kathryn. Help yourself."
"Thank God." She poured herself a mug and collapsed into the chair across from him to take the much-needed first sip. "You know me too well."
He regarded her with eyes that reflected his weariness. "On the contrary, Admiral. I sometimes wonder if I know you at all." He smiled reassuringly as he leaned forward and placed his empty teacup on the table. "I apologize for making you wait so long to see me. Heiji and I had much to discuss."
She nodded. Heiji, his chief of staff, was a shrewd political advisor who had served with Brandt for nearly thirty years. She imagined that the two of them had discussed every comment and gesture in great depth as they analyzed the crucial first contact with the Neikwai, just as she and Chakotay had done in dozens of similar circumstances. "Things went well?"
"About as I expected. The Neikwai minister is anxious to move quickly, but our job is to find out why he's in such a hurry." He sighed and rubbed his face. "You, however, are concerned about something else?"
"Yes, I am." She paused, assessing the older man's condition. He wasn't a young man, and she was about to make a stressful day even more stressful. "Perhaps it would be better to wait until morning?"
"Please, no. And be complete in what you tell me. I can't rest until I have all the facts." He paused to run his hand over his head. "You've waited a long time to tell me this, so it must be important."
She nodded. "You wanted me to take the measure of their military leader, the man they call the 'Alikii.'"
"Indeed. As you have so clearly illustrated, his rise to command coincided with the change in fortune for the Neikwai forces. It's this Alikii who's managed to force the Hantrat to the peace table, and now that the war seems to be winding down, the Neikwai seem frantic to form a trade agreement with us."
"'Peace rests in strength.'" She smiled. "Who said that?"
"I think you just did, Admiral." Brandt laughed softly. "So, what was your impression of this Alikii? Don't you trust him?"
"The man who was introduced as the minister's military attaché wasn't Alikii."
Brandt sat up slightly, suddenly very interested in her comments. "I thought they introduced him as Alikii."
"They called him Admiral, but never used his name."
Brandt sat back to think, realizing that she was right. "Explain why that is important."
"Because he isn't Alikii." She smiled at the ambassador's scowl and continued, "This strife between the Neikwai and the Hantrat has gone on for decades without resolution. The Hantrat's superior training and equipment put them in the winner's corner time and again, until Alikii appeared. Suddenly, the Neikwai began to fight with cunning and imagination that confused the Hantrat forces." She paused, her eyes unfocused. "In many ways, their tactics are not unlike those the Maquis used against Cardassia before the war."
"Guerilla warfare. You've said that this new man is a master of military tactics."
"And he must also be a leader of great power and charisma. This admiral that we met tonight has none of those qualities."
"But we specifically told the Neikwai that we wanted to meet the man they call Alikii. Are you saying that they've purposely tried to deceive us?"
"I hesitate to say they're lying to us. The soldier we met might be the military attaché or a military commander, but he's not their primary field commander."
"I hope you didn't come right out and accuse him of lying about his identity."
"Not in so many words. I talked to him about the tactics the Neikwai used in their most recent battle and asked some pointed questions about the movement of their fleet. His answers told me all I needed to know. He was blissfully unaware of the dynamics of that battle, Elias. Clueless."
"Perhaps he didn't understand the point of your questions? Or perhaps he didn't wish to reveal a military secret to you?"
"Ambassador, I assure you that I wasn't prying into Neikwai military secrets. I don't think he knows the first thing about the guerilla tactics they've been using recently." She paused, staring into her empty coffee cup before she looked Brandt in the eye. "As the meeting was breaking up, I told him that I expected to meet the man they call the Alikii first thing in the morning or I would cancel our luncheon plans."
The ambassador's eyes flashed with anger. "So, you did call him a liar, Admiral. Do you realize what you've done here?"
"He could have simply corrected me and said that he was Alikii."
Brandt forced himself to relax. "So, what did he say in reply?"
"He said that Alikii was delayed by his duties, but that he was scheduled to arrive early tomorrow."
"He admitted that he wasn't Alikii?" He looked at Janeway with amazement. "Kathryn, you took a chance with your confrontational question."
"Not really," she disagreed. "I reminded him that we specifically asked to meet Alikii. I told him that if I'm to advise you properly, I must meet and take the measure of their field commander."
His temper flared. "This was a delicate confrontation, Admiral, that could have ruined our mission."
She gave him a determined look, her chin held high. "Our mission is a failure, Ambassador, unless I meet Alikii and know whether or not the Neikwai account of the peace effort is exaggerated."
Brandt studied her with undisguised irritation. "You're not in the Delta Quadrant any more, Kathryn, and you don't have the authority to cancel meetings."
"The admiral didn't know that."
"He would've, if he'd taken your bluff."
She raised an eyebrow. "I knew he wouldn't."
"You knew no such thing." He glared at her until she lowered her eyes. "Do we need to review the parameters of your authority on this mission?"
"I cannot allow you to take risky unilateral actions without first consulting me."
"Understood, sir." While she knew he was right, she also knew that she'd done the right thing. "Permission to speak freely?"
He groaned. "Go ahead."
"You know how those crucial moments can just suddenly arrive, Ambassador, and how your instinct and experience tell you that you must take advantage before the chance is gone."
He scowled, but nodded reluctantly.
"It had to be done that moment or never. I didn't have time to talk to you first."
He sighed and threw up his hands in resignation. "So did he say who Alikii is?"
"No. He said that Alikii's identity is protected at all costs."
"And you'll meet with him in the morning? Before the luncheon?"
"The admiral said he would do his best to arrange a meeting."
Brandt nodded. "Very well. Your audacity worked out this time. But, Admiral, I will not tolerate this behavior on a routine basis."
"Understood." She looked away, sorry for having upset him.
"You'll brief me about this man before my luncheon meeting with the Neikwai minister."
"Yes, sir." She breathed a sigh of relief that the confrontation had ended. "I hope to see him bright and early."
"Then, unless there is something else, you should get some rest."
She said goodnight and retreated to her quarters. The door closed behind her and, for the first time since the meeting with the Neikwai, she was alone. For a moment, she simply leaned back against the door, as if her legs could no longer support her. Then, with a trembling breath, she stumbled across the room and collapsed onto a chair.
She'd taken a big chance and won, but she worried that Brandt would hold her bold actions against her. She had come close to asking the Neikwai admiral if the mysterious Alikii was a human being or if he had a tattoo over his left eye, but caution had won out.
She hadn't told a soul about her suspicions that Chakotay had followed the subtle suggestion so carefully planted by the future Kathryn Janeway months earlier in the Delta Quadrant.
"The poor exterminated Neikwai," she muttered under her breath.
Captain Janeway thought that she could diffuse the growing animosity she and Admiral Janeway felt toward each other by inviting the older woman and Chakotay to her quarters for a relaxing meal. Her first officer was a master at handling aggravated Janeways, and she hoped he could in some way negotiate a cease fire before she served dessert.
That plan went right out the airlock before she'd even had time to serve the wine. The older woman swooped into the room, sat down on the sofa, and immediately threw down the gauntlet.
"Captain, I know you want to ask me about the species you meet and the problems you face between here and Federation space, but don't bother." She waved her hand in dismissal. "You have no need to know."
Janeway, who had just offered her a canapé, was so surprised by the older woman's statement that she froze in place while the admiral selected a toasted sandwich wedge and tasted it. She was about to dump the rest of the hors d'œuvres in the admiral's lap when Chakotay gently took the tray from her with a warning look.
"I'll just put this on the table," he said, selecting an item and then sitting down, as well.
Janeway stood up and glared down at her future self. "We may decide to forego your offer of an early return," the captain replied, struggling to keep her temper. "In which case, telling us what you know would be in your own best interest."
"I have no intention of traveling through that territory a second time, Captain, but if I must, I'll tell you what you need to know when and if the need arises."
"We can find a nice place to leave you, if you prefer," the captain snapped back, her eyes blazing.
"Ladies," Chakotay interrupted, "let's not start an argument over this. I thought we'd agreed to put these issues aside for tonight and enjoy each other's company."
The captain huffed in reply and collapsed into a chair.
The admiral gave the man a tender look. "Excellent suggestion, Commander. I don't want to do any more damage than necessary to the temporal prime directive."
"Give me a break, Admiral!" the captain growled, her hands itching to slap the admiral's smug smile off her face. "Your presence here has left the prime directive in tatters. I'm wondering when you learned to be a hypocrite."
"You should remember when, Captain."
Janeway erupted from her chair, only to find that Chakotay had positioned himself in front of the admiral. "Kathryn, she's deliberately baiting you."
"She'll find herself sitting on a deserted moon if she isn't careful."
"I'm sorry if what I said upset you, Captain," the woman said, leaning around Chakotay to catch her eye. "It's just that I decided to stop deluding myself years ago. You should try it."
"That's enough!" Chakotay cried, turning to face the older woman. "I won't have you punishing the captain for decisions that she hasn't even made yet!" The admiral blinked in surprise and seemed to shrink into the sofa. "Now, either we treat each other with respect, or I think this is my cue to leave."
"No, don't leave." Janeway took a deep breath and brushed her hair back from her face with a trembling hand. "We can do this. Just give me a minute to gather my wits about me."
The captain retreated to the bathroom where she slid to the floor, looped her arms over her knees, and closed her eyes, struggling to find her calm center. After a few minutes, she returned to her living room with her temper under control.
Surprisingly, Chakotay seemed chastened and reserved. Later, he told her that during her absence, the admiral had asked him about his romance with Seven of Nine, which had surprised and alarmed him since the captain was totally unaware of the budding relationship. However, the admiral was gracious and no longer taunted the captain, and the meal, while not relaxed, progressed without any other incidents.
It was as she was leaving that the admiral paused and gave them a long thoughtful look.
"Looking forward at my 'past,'" she said, pausing on her way out of the room. "I would love to change one or two of the big disasters that should never have happened in any universe."
"Big disasters?" Chakotay asked. "You mean diplomatic mistakes?"
"Exactly. It would have taken so little for the Neikwai to have avoided their genocide at the hands of the Hantrat, for example. When we get home, I hope to take care of that."
"The Neikwai?" Janeway turned to Chakotay. "Beta Quadrant, right? Didn't they withdraw from Federation contact a few decades ago?"
"More like sixty or seventy years ago," he replied. "The circumstances behind their withdrawal were never really understood, but it's suspected that there was a civil war."
"A disastrous civil war that was followed by an invasion by a technologically superior species from deeper in the quadrant," the admiral finished with the conviction of a historian. "They needed a better military leader, someone to unify their efforts and make the best of the weapons they had available to them. Someone with a creative approach to tactics could have easily done it, but none came along. Too bad. I always regretted that."
"It does sound unfair," Chakotay agreed, obviously intrigued by the situation.
The admiral smiled and gave him a wink. "Maybe we could help them together? I'd like that."
Janeway had wondered, at the time, why the admiral would reveal such an unusual historical incident to them when she refused to tell them anything about the Federation. It wasn't until later, after Chakotay disappeared, that she wondered if the admiral was telling them about a mission that would be a worthy crusade for him to pursue.
She could still remember the odd gleam in Chakotay's eye and the determined set of his jaw as he considered the plight of the Neikwai underdogs.
Janeway rubbed her temples in fatigue. She had little doubt that Chakotay was somewhere in Neikwai space, probably helping the Neikwai military adapt guerilla tactics into their strategy. In fact, she'd gambled her career on the belief that when she earned the trust of the Neikwai and discovered the source of their Maquis-like tactics, she would find herself face-to-face with her former first officer.
The Neikwai admiral was insistent. "Alikii refuses to come to your ship. If you want to meet with him, you must come to Caravanserai in a Neikwai vessel."
Janeway stared at the computer screen and then checked the time. "It's four o'clock in the morning."
"For Alikii, it's mid-afternoon. His trip through the nebula was difficult, and he can only remain for one of your days."
"All right." Janeway sighed. "I'll speak to the ambassador and then let you know when to pick me up."
"I'll be waiting for your call."
Brandt was even less pleased than Janeway had been to have his sleep interrupted. "Are you sure you need to do this, Kathryn? Can't you wait and meet him at the luncheon?"
"I don't think so. He's only going to be here a short while, and, anyway, I want to see him before we open the next stage of negotiations."
"I'm not convinced that you need to meet this man, at all, nor am I impressed by his 'you come to me' attitude. It's arrogant and egotistical."
"He has a right to be arrogant, Ambassador. He's brought the Hantrat forces to their knees with the equivalent of sticks and rocks. His troops consider him a gift of their gods. I can't blame him for being a little eccentric, or for being more than a little paranoid about his safety. I know you're skeptical, but it's imperative that I meet him."
"Very well. Meet him, but take a security detail along with you. You'll contact me in plenty of time if there's anything I need to know?"
"I'll be in touch."
Janeway boarded the Neikwai ship with a little apprehension, even though she knew that traveling on an alien ship and spending time on an alien outpost could reveal more about the species than almost any other activity. The Neikwai ship was exactly what she'd expected it to be-an ancient, refurbished bucket of bolts with many of its flaws covered by paint until proper repairs could be done. It was significant that they had assigned such marginal ships to this summit, especially since they claimed that the war was essentially over. It was also interesting that Alikii could only be away from the battle zone for such a brief period of time.
The Neikwai guide was waiting for them at the bottom of the ship's exit ramp. Like all men of his race, he towered over Janeway and looked down on her with eyes that were as dark and mysterious as any Betazoid's. His skin was pale white with tiny blue capillaries so near the surface of his cheeks that they created a tattoo-like pattern that was as distinctive and unique as a fingerprint. He wore a heavy robe and hood against the cold of the expansive dock, hiding the pale yellow hair that all of his people seemed to share.
"Welcome to Caravanserai, Admiral Janeway. I am Sjan Bolai," he bowed low, sweeping a long thin arm to his side to help keep his balance. "It is my pleasure to take you to your meeting with Alikii."
Janeway gave him a slight bow, introduced her two security escorts, and then walked beside him as he led them through the busy dock. They skirted supply ships with their holds gaping open and dodged forklifts that busily unloaded equipment and materiel for the outpost's reactivation. By the time they entered the inhabited area of the outer ring, Janeway was freezing cold in spite of the heavy Starfleet uniform she wore.
Even the interior passageways were littered with piles of boxes and dozens of workers busy restocking the rooms and quarters scheduled to be used by the diplomats and eventually by Caravanserai personnel.
"I thought this process would be further along than it is," Janeway commented as she stepped over packing material from a huge box of paper supplies.
"Caravanserai is almost as remote for us as it is for the Federation" Borai explained. "We arrived only a cycle or two before your ship was picked up on sensors, and we have worked around the clock ever since."
"Well, you've certainly assigned enough people to the task. That docking bay reminds me of a beehive the way everyone is buzzing around getting things done."
"The most industrious insect on my home planet."
"Then you are correct. We are busy bees hoping to be ready when your first transport ships arrive, Admiral, in the very near future."
They arrived in the office area of the outpost where their guide left them alone as he notified the Alikii of her arrival.
"I'd call this place pretty bare bones," Lt. Howard commented as they waited. "DS9 is luxurious compared to this place."
Janeway agreed. "Caravanserai is an Earth word for enclosures where camel trains rested on long trade routes through the desert. They weren't a station or a trading post as much as a rest area on a particularly challenging section of the route, and that's pretty much what this place is designed for."
"I'd say you'd have to be desperate to find this place a haven."
"I'm guessing Caravanserai would look like a spa to a ship that had made it through the nebula," Janeway answered. "Especially sixty or seventy years ago."
"Admiral, if you'll follow me." Bolai stood just inside the door to an inner chamber. "Alikii will see you now."
The security officers took their position at a one-way mirror while Janeway entered the conference room alone. The room was half the size of Voyager's conference area, although the mirrors on the two facing walls made it seem larger and brighter than it was. She sat down at the oval table and pushed back the irrational hope that Alikii might actually be Chakotay, or, failing that, that he might arrive with Chakotay in tow.
She heard a crash as a door opened and a single, robed Neikwai entered the room. He was at least a foot taller than she was, and the veins in his face had an even more elaborate pattern than Bolai's, perhaps because of Alikii's advanced age.
"I'm Kathryn Janeway," she said, standing to greet him. "You are the one they call Alikii, correct?"
He was surprised at her vague reference to the 'imposter' she had met the day before. "I am the one called Alikii."
"A name which means 'timely guest' in your language?"
He smiled with delight. "You've studied our language? Even though your translators make it unnecessary to do so?"
"It's become a habit," she admitted. "Chakotay, my former first officer, believed that a species' language influences the way they perceive the world. Thanks to his advice, I always include a review of language in my preparation for first contact."
Alikii didn't respond to the name she had carefully "dropped," although he did acknowledge her words with a smile. "I think your habit is a good one, Admiral, and that your subordinate gave you good advice." He gestured at the table. "Please take a seat." Once she was seated, he folded his large frame into a chair across from her. "Your translation was close, but missed the subtleties. 'Ali' means opportune or timely, but 'kii' has a range of meanings, from guest, as you noted, to companion or advisor. Together, they create a meaning that is better described as 'shrewd leader.'"
"I see. You prefer this title over your rank or your given name?"
"I don't use my name for security reasons, and the title has much more power than any military rank. It implies that I have military experience as well as background in philosophy and theology."
"A powerful combination." She decided to get down to the issue at hand. "I've noticed that your success has depended on guerilla warfare. This is a change for your people, isn't it?"
"Indeed. My people have always preferred a direct attack, considering anything else underhanded and without honor. I have spent much time and effort convincing to get them to accept to this indirect approach. Luckily, success brings approval."
"Where did you learn these tactics," she wondered, stopping short of comparing them to those she'd seen used by the Maquis.
"I studied how small groups had found success over stronger, better armed foes, including battles in the recent Dominion War."
"I wondered about that." She drummed her fingers on the table. If they had been alone, she would have brought up the Maquis, but she was mindful of the security team advising her from the next room and decided to wait a little longer before resorting to such obvious questions. "We're concerned that your people's resolve will weaken before you manage to force the Hantrat to the table for a real, lasting peace settlement."
"As am I. It's for that reason that I'm returning quickly to the battlefield, to insure that our final mopping-up action is done properly."
She nodded, watching his eyes for any hint that he might be stretching the truth. "Then you and the Hantrat aren't discussing terms?"
"We will be very soon. Reopening trade with the Federation would be a big help in ending the war."
"You are aware of the fact that the Federation has a non-interference policy. Our leaders will hesitate to reestablish any agreement that would influence the normal progression of events in this region of space."
He stared at her, the silence between them becoming uncomfortable. "Are you saying that we would be unable to procure from you the parts and supplies we need to bring peace to our people?"
"To supply either side with weaponry would be against our most basic tenets of non-interference."
Alikii, obviously disappointed, sat back and his seat and frowned at her. "Your Federation is unfair."
"I'm sorry if you're disappointed, but this directive has been in place for over a century, even before our previous trade pact ended."
"We can only hope to sway your superiors to make an exception."
Janeway gave him a non-committal nod.
Moving on to a less contentious subject, he said, "Yesterday, you were asking for details about our most recent victory."
"Yes, I was. The admiral's complete ignorance of tactics is what convinced me that he wasn't Alikii, as I had been led to believe."
"An unfortunate misunderstanding. The admiral is not a line officer, but a specialist in protocol. Perhaps you should ask me what you want to know."
She repeated her questions and received answers that were not only exquisitely detailed, but included a philosophical reasoning that caught her imagination. She was so fascinated with their discussion that Bolai's interruption took her by surprise.
"Forgive me," Bolai apologized, "but we must leave now if Admiral Janeway is to attend the luncheon on the ship."
"I regret that I will not be attending the meal," Alikii responded. "I have duties elsewhere that require my immediate attention. However, I have enjoyed our meeting and hope that we can soon become allies."
"I'm sure we will be, when the time is right," she replied.
As they walked back to the dock, Janeway thought about what had transpired. The meeting had been productive in many ways. She liked Alikii and respected his skill as a leader, but she also had reservations about forming an alliance unless the war was truly over. She composed her report for Brandt during the trip back to Santa Fe and tried not to think about her disappointment at not seeing or hearing about Chakotay. She assured herself that there was still time to pursue the matter before they left Caravanserai; all she really needed to do was take a more direct approach.
Janeway drifted through the day in a fog, making her report to Brandt and then attending the luncheon on autopilot. Since her presence wasn't required during the afternoon session, she excused herself from the tour of the ship and retired to her quarters for nap. She put on some soft music to drown out the noise of the day shift and crawled into bed, only to find it impossible to sleep. Her mind fixated on the events of the last two days, looking for some signal that she might have missed, only to come up with nothing.
If Chakotay was here, why hadn't she received some kind of signal from him? Had she guessed wrong about his whereabouts? Had she exiled herself to this job in deep space only to find out that he was nowhere near Neikwai territory?
With only a day left in their visit, her window of opportunity was quickly shrinking. She would have one last chance the next day, when she and the ambassador toured the outpost, and yet she wondered how he could contact her if she was constantly surrounded by people in a public locale.
Finally, she drifted into a restless sleep, but even her dreams were focused on recent events. She dreamt that she was watching outpost grow larger from a tiny dot in the blackness of space, and then found herself staring into a mirror in the outpost's conference room. Then she dreamt that she was waiting in Santa Fe's conference room for their introduction to the Neikwai representatives, only to blink and see her face looking back at her while she sat alone on Caravanserai waiting for Alikii's arrival. She dreamt of her return to the Santa Fe in the Neikwai transport vessel, wondering if it would hold together, only to find herself nervous about the Starfleet officers who were watching her from the other side of the Neikwai mirror.
Her alarm woke her, and she sat up in bed to find the ship in a close orbit over Caravanserai. She studied the familiar shape of the outpost, recalling her dreams of the small conference room with its odd mirrors. It was strange to sit there and know that her meeting was under observation. No wonder it had been the one recurring image of her dreams, the tense meeting with Alikii in the mirrored conference room.
Her eyes widened. If her men had been watching them through a mirror on her side of the room, surely Alikii had someone doing the same thing from the mirror that was on his side of the room. Why hadn't she thought of that possibility before? She'd even heard someone make a noise and Alikii had entered the room. Was it possible that Chakotay had been there, waiting for her to give him a sign?
Suddenly, she knew exactly what she needed to do.
When she met with Ambassador Brandt a few minutes later, he was surprised that she wanted to spend the night on the outpost. "Weren't you just there this morning? Don't you trust Captain Silvius and his crew to make sure it's in good shape?"
"Of course I do. But I can learn a lot about the Neikwai by being there through the night. There's nothing for me to do here, after all."
He studied her a few moments and then nodded. "Take a security detail with you," he ordered. "And don't make any decisions without consulting me first."
"Thanks, Elias." She left his office in a rush.
He sighed and turned to stare blindly at the outpost, once again wondering what her real motivation might be. She was a private person who held her cards close to the chest, but he was a patient man. He would figure her out sooner or later, and, in the meantime, she was doing an excellent job as his military advisor. What more could he ask for?
Bolai met her when she materialized in the still-bustling docking bay.
"Welcome back, Admiral. After a tour of the work areas, I'll take you to your quarters."
"Good. Let's get going."
She spent the next several hours crawling through access tunnels and taking reports from several of Santa Fe's engineering and security teams. She discovered how the outpost had been designed and how it was being maintained, amazed that some of the antique equipment would still work after so many years of neglect. Once she was satisfied that the outpost was in good working order, she turned to Bolai and gave him an appreciative smile.
"I'd say you're people have worked a miracle here."
The Neikwai beamed. "After I visited Santa Fe today, I was afraid that you'd found Caravanserai too primitive for your ships' use."
"It's not primitive, really. And, anyway, I prefer to see it as a step into the past, Bolai, a chance to see what our parents and grandparents might have experienced when they came out here nearly a century ago."
"I assure you that we will work hard to bring it up to current specs." He led her toward the habitat ring. "I've arranged for your security team to occupy the quarters across the hall from yours. That way they can monitor your safety and still give you some privacy."
"I appreciate your thoughtfulness. I'm getting quarters that would typically be assigned to transport personnel, right?"
"Yes, ma'am. These are the quarters that would be assigned to visiting crew members."
"Good. This will give me an accurate feel for what life would be like here."
The quarters consisted of a single room with a bed on her left, a tiny sofa under the windows in front of her, and a combination desk and table under a replicator on her right. Beside the table was a narrow doorway that led to a miniscule closet and efficient bathroom that was shared with the adjoining set of quarters. She'd seen worse on some of the older Starship vessels. "It's small, Kathryn, but not really too bad. Cozy."
Thirty minutes later, she was ready for bed. Music played softly as she sipped the day's last cup of coffee and gazed out the window at the Starfleet ship hanging motionless beside the outpost. Staying on the outpost had been a gamble that she hoped would pay off, her last, best chance to find out about Chakotay. She was here. Alone. If anyone wanted to approach her with information, this was the best possible time for them to do so.
The living conditions on Caravanserai were about what she expected. The air handlers screamed like Banshees and delivered sour, stale air that would probably seep permanently into her clothing. The heating system, on the other hand, worked too well. In spite of the fact that she was wearing only a sheer silk robe, her skin was damp with perspiration and loose tendrils of hair curled around her face. At least the replicator produced decent coffee.
Tired and disheartened, she decided that she would feel better after a good night's sleep. She was halfway to her bed on the other side of the room when she stopped in alarm, every nerve in her body suddenly tingling with apprehension. Whether she had sensed a noise, a smell, or quiet movement, she knew that she was no longer alone. Someone had gained access to her quarters without making a sound, and her experience told her that such a stealthy approach could only mean that she was in danger.
Her options were not plentiful. She had nothing within reach to use as a weapon, not even a house slipper. Her communicator lay all the way across the room on the bedside table, the comm panel was six feet behind her by the door, and the noisy air handlers made shouting for help pointless. All that remained was her self-defense training and the element of surprise.
"Who's there?" she demanded, crouching slightly in anticipation of an assault. "I'm warning you that taking me hostage will do you no good whatsoever." When she heard a quiet sigh, she ducked to the left and turned around quickly, swinging her fist with the hope that she'd connect with his or her jaw. She nearly lost her balance when her assailant caught her wrist and held it firmly in his grip.
The sound of his familiar voice sent an electric shock through her body. She peered at his face in the darkness, seeing only his silhouette against the windows, and then she leaned into him, wrapping her free arm around his waist and resting her head on his chest.
"Chakotay?" she whispered, her voice choked with emotion. "Is it really you?"
"It's really me." He pulled her closer briefly before he released her arm and stepped away. "I didn't mean to frighten you, but I wanted to see you without alerting those security men across the hall of my presence. Kathryn, what are you doing here?"
"Looking for you. I thought you might be expecting me to show up."
"Looking for me?" He shook his head. "Why?"
"Why? WHY?" Her eyes flashed with fury. "You left without telling anyone goodbye. You didn't bother to leave a forwarding address, not even with your own sister. Is that any way to treat your friends and family? Just go off and let them wonder whether you're dead or alive?"
"I told my sister I'd be gone for awhile. I told her not to worry if she didn't hear from me."
"Chakotay, it's been a year!"
He shook his head in disbelief. "I guess it has."
"I'm going to tell her and a few others from Voyager that I've heard from you, okay?"
"Okay." He took a deep breath. "So you came out here looking for me."
"Of course I did." She huffed and turned away from him, moving toward the windows. "Why wouldn't I? I worried about you for seven years, and I guess I just didn't know when to stop."
He rubbed his face in disbelief. "You gave up your job at Starfleet Command to work out here in the middle of nowhere?"
"Have you gone deaf?" she snapped, and then, taking a calming breath, added softly, "I'm sorry. I heard the admiral's story about the Neikwai at the same time you did, and I knew she mentioned it in case you needed a cause to fight for once Voyager was home."
He glared at her for a moment before he looked away. "Even she knew that I'd be left with nothing."
"She knew no such thing."
"She knew I'd lose my Starfleet commission. Seven of Nine. She knew I'd be miserable."
"You had plenty of friends and family pulling for you, Chakotay, and plenty of job prospects."
"Friends and family who were laughing at the poor dolt who'd been played the fool in a classic mid-life crisis?"
"Is that what you thought?" She stepped to his side. "You left because your male ego had been hurt?"
"I left because I had nothing to keep me there."
"That, Chakotay, is a load of crap." When he said nothing in his own defense, she continued, "You had people who loved and cared for you, and nothing to be ashamed of, not about Starfleet and not about Seven."
"I was embarrassed."
"And that's why you're hiding?"
"That's part of it. My effectiveness in helping Alikii and the Neikwai depends on my remaining behind the scenes." The starlight let her see his wide smile. "I had no idea you were part of the Federation team until you sat down in the conference room this morning."
"You were behind the other mirror."
"When I saw you walk into the room, I stood up and knocked my chair over."
"That's what I heard."
"Alikii asked me to observe the meeting and tell him what I thought of this belligerent Starfleet admiral who demanded to meet him in person." He laughed and gave her an appreciative grin. "You made quite an impression on him today, Kathryn."
"I'm flattered." She frowned. "You said you have to stay behind the scenes. Why? Alikii can't acknowledge you as a tactical advisor?"
"Alikii told you that the Neikwai aren't receptive to alien leadership. He's walking a delicate line, using fairly standard guerilla tactics and yet making it look like he came up with them on his own." He walked past her to the window and studied the Starfleet ship. "The Neikwai are a challenging anthropological puzzle, Kathryn. Their most effective military leaders are a blend of a philosopher, theologian, and tactician, and their battle plans are supposedly inspired by their gods."
"Well," she grinned, joining him at the window, "you're handsome, but I wouldn't call you a god."
"No, I'm hardly a god." He glanced over at her and shrugged. "Look, I'm sorry I left so quickly and without saying goodbye, but I'd received word from Alikii to come at once and in complete secrecy."
"I know what I did was both selfish and unfair, no matter what my reasons were," he interrupted her. "I apologize. I didn't mean to worry you or anyone else."
She relaxed and put a hand on his arm. "Apology accepted. Now, come sit with me and talk. I'll get us a hot drink."
He collapsed on the sofa. "No coffee for me."
"No, I was planning to order tea." She picked up the mugs and joined him on the sofa. "So here we are."
"I can't believe you're here."
She snorted. "Why not? I'd much rather be out here doing something important than sitting behind a desk watching someone else do it. Besides, I like Elias Brandt a lot. He's a good man."
"Elias? You're on a first-name basis?"
"What? Are you jealous? Of a ninety-year-old man?"
"Forgive me. I just find it hard to believe that you came out here looking for me."
"Well, that was my biggest motivation, although, like you, I remembered Admiral Janeway's story about the Neikwai." She leaned back and smiled at him. "I think some of your Maquis altruism must have rubbed off on me."
"They were in desperate need of help." He glanced around at the tiny room. "You've seen Caravanserai. What do you think of it?"
"Outdated. Substandard. Unimpressive. Frankly, I'm surprised that the Neikwai didn't put a lot more work into the outpost before we arrived, especially if they hoped to lay the groundwork for a new trade alliance."
He shook his head. "That's what I tried to tell Alikii. The Neikwai senate thinks their recent success is more a matter of luck than skill, or maybe because the Hantrat were too distracted to put up an adequate defense. They don't want to waste the chance to gain the Federation's support."
"I think Alikii is a good military leader who's likely to prevail with time, but I have reservations about it being too early for the Federation to open trade with them."
"I think you might be right." He put down his mug and shifted to face her. "They're hoping the Federation will take sides and provide technology and military support as if the Neikwai were officially part of the Federation."
"I'm afraid they're setting themselves up for disappointment."
"You're referring to the Federation policy of non-interference?" At her nod, he frowned. "Let's just mentally review each other's position on that issue and move on."
Janeway laughed at his joke, even though she also gave him a withering glare. "You know, I've missed your sense of humor-a little." Studying the inside of her mug, she sighed. "Brandt won't budge on the prime directive, Chakotay, and I'm not going to ask him to do so. You might as well give up."
"Actually, it might be better that way. Letting the Neikwai succeed on their own and without outside help will restore much of their self-confidence. In the meantime, there are ways that help can be provided without breaking the Federation's precious prime directive."
"There are things that we can do, quietly, to help out. We could assist in the renovation of this outpost, for example."
"True, and I can work from the inside to orchestrate the process." Chakotay smiled. "We always seem to find consensus, don't we?"
"About most things," she smirked, putting her empty mug on the table beside his. "You never learned to love coffee, and I still think your favorite tea smells like rotten peaches."
"Point taken." He grinned at her. "Tell me about the crew."
She launched into an account of their Voyager "family," soon having him laughing about their many foibles and challenges. They spent a delightful hour talking before Janeway found herself fighting a yawn.
"You're tired," he said, standing up. "And tomorrow will be another stressful day."
"Don't go," she insisted, pulling him back down onto the sofa. "I've missed you, and our time together is limited. I'd rather be with you now and catch up on my sleep later. If you don't mind."
"All right." He studied her face. "I've missed you, too. I wanted to see you before I left the Federation, but I figured that my relationship with Seven had put an end to our friendship."
"I thought we were better friends than that."
"You distanced yourself from both Seven and me after we started seeing each other. We thought we'd hurt you."
She looked past his shoulder, her eyes unfocused and glittering with tears. "I had no right to be hurt, Chakotay, but it wasn't easy to watch you walk away with someone else."
"I didn't think you cared."
"Didn't you?" She gave him a sad smile, glad to have the chance to talk the situation through with him at last. "I couldn't be the person you needed me to be on Voyager, so I was in no position to stop you from finding what you needed in someone else."
He looked confused for a moment, and then shook his head. "I think I might have given Seven of Nine that same exact speech when she told me she was leaving me for Axum."
"They were star-crossed lovers."
"Star-crossed?" He grew thoughtful, remembering the idiom's meaning. "Fated to be together?"
"And fighting against that fate every step of the way."
"Sounds more like you and me." When she caught her breath in surprise, he blushed and looked away in embarrassment. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said that."
"Is that what you truly believe?"
"It is the truth, isn't it?" He looked up and brushed a tear from her cheek. "You're crying."
Her voice was a whisper, "It's the truth. And I'm so tired of fighting it."
"You know," he said, hope blossoming in his chest, "you're just as beautiful as I remembered."
"It must be the dim starlight," she answered, burying her face in her hands. "But thanks for the compliment."
"On Voyager, I turned to Seven of Nine because I'd finally given up on there ever being an 'us.'"
She looked up at him and nodded. "There could never have been an 'us' as long as I was your captain."
He smiled and glanced down at her silk robe. "Talking with you tonight, seeing you like this, only serves to remind me that you aren't my captain any more."
For a moment, Janeway couldn't breathe. She had completely forgotten that she was wearing a flimsy robe that revealed as much as it covered, and she was totally in shock by the love and devotion she saw in his eyes. Finally, she stammered, "N-no, I don't guess I am."
"I wonder if it isn't time to redefine the parameters of our relationship." His warm hand covered her shoulder and upper arm, sliding beneath the silk to caress her skin.
"I suppose we should," she answered, her heart pounding, "but we'd have to be discrete."
"I can be discrete." He took her hand and slid closer. "I can finally tell you all the things I've thought but never said aloud. How I love the way the light gleams on your hair. The way your eyes change color with your mood. Your crooked grin. The way your hide your face from me by letting your hair fall forward. The way you narrow your eyes just when you're going to crack a joke." He lifted her hand, kissing the palm and smiling when she gasped in response. "Now I can touch you in ways I never could before."
"I don't see why not." She sensed her body's response to his proximity and felt the warm blush that was crawling up her chest and into her cheeks.
"I need to know whether there's someone special in your life."
She shook her head, mesmerized by his eyes.
"Is there someone you love, Kathryn? Another Mark?"
"No one new," she whispered, feeling his breath warm against her face as he leaned forward to kiss her. "No one since you."
"I love you, too." His lips were soft and chased every cogent thought out of her head. "We're going to have very different parameters this time, Kathryn."
"I'm glad." She felt her silk robe fall open. "I've waited a long time for this."
"We both have."
Kathryn Janeway stood in front of the ambassador's desk and watched his face darken with anger as he read her final report from Caravanserai. He looked up at her with a scowl and then read it a second time while Janeway gripped her hands behind her back and waited.
They had returned from the final meeting with the Neikwai less than six hours earlier and were well on their way back to Federation space, but the tension of that last confrontation had left them all unsettled. When the Neikwai realized that Brandt was not going to go ahead with a renewed trade agreement, the Federation officials had been summarily asked to leave. Brandt was concerned about their future relations with this entire region of space, and Janeway cursed her bad luck for being the first person to cross him since the meeting had ended.
"Ahmal?" He looked up at her and tossed the PADD onto his desk in disgust. "You have established an inside contact with the Neikwai military that you call Ahmal?"
"And you've waited to mention this fact to me until after the meetings ended?"
"Sir, if you recall the details of the report, I didn't meet him until last night, when I stayed on the outpost."
"I recall the details of the report perfectly, Admiral. I just finished reading them for the second time!" He slammed his hand on the desk. "Explain yourself."
Janeway frowned. "Explain what, sir?"
"Explain why your security detail failed to detect this midnight visitor when he mysteriously 'appeared' in your quarters."
"I assume he masked his biosigns, sir. It isn't that difficult to do."
"And then explain why you didn't contact me, or them, as soon as he left."
She paused, unwilling to admit to Brandt that her midnight visitor hadn't left at all. She'd awakened in Chakotay's arms the next morning, and he'd stayed with her until she'd joined her security detail and welcomed Brandt and his boarding party when they beamed to the outpost. The truth was that at the time she hadn't once considered telling her boss about her new contact because she was busy enjoying his company for as long as she possibly could. It was only after Santa Fe left Caravansarai that she realized she should report at least a partial account of his visit to the ambassador.
She looked Brandt straight in the eye. "He would only talk to me if I agreed to keep his identity to myself."
Brandt wasn't swayed. "That didn't keep you from telling me that a person 'whose name must remain secret' had told you information about the Neikwai."
"I don't know what to say, sir. I simply didn't think to do it."
"So this person visits you, tells you the truth about the Neikwai's military status, and you do what? Go to bed?"
"If you recall, sir, my sleep had been interrupted the night before and I was tired. Nothing that Ahmal had told me would have changed your decision to delay the trade agreement."
"That was your opinion, Admiral." His voice was ice. "In your opinion, his revelation wouldn't have made a difference, but I'm telling you that it would have made a difference to me if I'd known for sure that the Neikwai were exaggerating about their 'victory' over the Hantrat." He stood up and circled the desk. "Doesn't that sound significant to you?"
Janeway stiffened. "Yes, sir, I suppose it does."
"Damned straight." He began to pace. "Didn't you wonder why this person was undermining his government's effort to improve their standing with the Federation?"
"I assumed he was aware of the fact that we were being misled and that he wanted us to make our decisions on the truth."
"Wasn't he, in fact, committing an act of treason by telling you these things? Are you sure he didn't have ulterior motives?"
She frowned. "I know he was telling me the truth, sir, but to explain why would require me to reveal details about his background that I've sworn to protect."
"Then how can I trust the data he gives us?"
"I guess you have to trust me, sir."
He snorted. "Oh, I trust you. But, twice during this mission, you took actions that were beyond your authority, and I'm not going to tolerate any more of it." She could see his reflection in the glass partition behind his desk as he walked back and forth behind her. "First you challenge a Neikwai admiral about his identity, putting the entire mission at risk, and then you wait nearly twenty-four hours before telling me the information given to you by a covert contact."
She swallowed, a sick feeling in her stomach. "I apologize for overstepping my authority, sir. I thought I was doing the right thing both times, but in the future, I'll keep you better apprised of my activities."
"Next time?" He was standing at her side, so close that his mouth was just inches away from her ear. "What makes you think there will be a next time?"
She closed her eyes for a moment, waiting to regain control of her voice, hoping he wouldn't hear the panic she felt about his threat. "Sir, if you're asking for my resignation, I'll submit it at once."
"I'm not letting you off the hook that easily." He sighed in satisfaction at her submission to his authority and resumed his pacing, muttering under his breath about her having a hidden agenda and using him and her position to further her private interests.
"I beg your pardon, sir," she said, turning to face him, her own temper flaring at his veiled accusation. "I have done nothing to undermine this mission or to abuse my position as your attaché. In fact, I managed to make establish a dialogue with a member of the Neikwai military that will be of inestimable value in the future."
Brandt narrowed his eyes at her passionate self-defense. He had an idea who this Amahl really was, but had decided not to confront her with his suspicions. Yet. He returned to his desk where he collapsed in his chair and shoved the PADD toward her.
"Maintain your contact with Ahmal and keep me posted on anything that seems even remotely important. In my opinion," he ordered. "Is that clear?"
"Yes, sir." She picked up the PADD in relief. "Is there anything else?"
"One more thing." He swiveled his chair away from her and looked out the view port at the stars streaming by. "Your suggestion that we continue to provide assistance to the Neikwai as they restore and upgrade Caravanserai has considerable merit and may help repair the damage our refusal has done. I'm putting you in charge of that effort and expect you to make regular on-site inspections of the progress." He glanced at her. "While you're pursuing your duties, if you happen to run into your friend, Amahl, he can keep us informed on their progress in the war."
"Yes, sir." She was nearly overcome with excitement at the assignment. "Is that all, sir?"
"That's all." He gestured at the door. "Dismissed."
After she was gone, Brandt opened a desk drawer and pulled out a PADD that held the telemetry of some special scans done during Janeway's overnight visit to the outpost. Heiji, the soul of secrecy, and run them covertly from Santa Fe's secondary bridge. This operative, Ahmal, had been careful to mask his biosigns from Janeway's security detail and the Federation ship, but he hadn't considered the possibility of a more subtle scan, one that was a simple matter of temperature.
The natural temperature of the human body was several degrees higher than that of the Neikwai, and so looking for life signs that were at 37 degrees Celsius or above was an elegantly simple, and accurate, task.
Brandt looked at the data that had been picked up from Janeway's visitor's quarters and saw that two individuals had been present, as she claimed. He could also tell that they were both human and that her visitor had remained in her quarters through the night and even after she and her security detail left the habitat ring.
He put the PADD back in the drawer and closed it, his mind sorting through a dozen possible explanations. This human who had met with her was in all likelihood the same man who was helping Alikii with the guerilla tactics that were turning the tide in the Neikwai war with the Hantrat. Brandt assumed that the man was aware of the Federation's non-interference policy; most citizens were.
A soldier. A gifted tactician. An idealist. A rebel. A free thinker.
Brandt smiled. If Janeway hadn't come forward about this covert contact, he would have doubted her loyalty and her usefulness to him would have ended. But, she'd told him as much as she could about this person, as much as he needed to know. After all, once Amahl had told her the truth about the Neikwai, the rest of their evening was theirs to enjoy. His smile widened.
In the meantime, Janeway returned the PADD to her office, dictated a few notes for her staff, and then escaped to the privacy of her quarters. She'd gotten very little sleep the last two nights and was dead on her feet, and so she kicked off her boots, peeled off the top layer of her clothes, and sank gratefully onto her bed.
Elias knows, she told herself as she snuggled into her pillow. But he's letting it go.
Nearly sick with exhaustion, she managed to pull the bedspread over her legs before her eyes drifted shut. She'd already made arrangements for her first inspection of the work being done on Caravanserai, the first of what would be monthly visits to the decrepit outpost. It wasn't much time, but it would have to do. For now.
With a sigh of contentment, she fell into a dreamless sleep.
The end-or beginning?