DISCLAIMER: See prologue.
Back aboard Voyager:
Shuttlebay, 1827 hours:
Janeway paced impatiently in the shuttlebay, waiting for the away team to emerge from the Delta Flyer, which had just set down. Chakotay came through the hatch first, followed by Tuvok and the rest of the away team except for Tom Paris, who was busy with the Flyer's shutdown sequence.
"Captain!" exclaimed Chakotay. "Taking a break from fuel consumption reports?"
"Actually, yes," answered Janeway. "They do make truly fascinating reading, but I managed to tear myself away. What do you have for me?"
At hearing Janeway's question, Tuvok reached into his pack and pulled out the paper-encrusted quadlet.
"Just where did you find it, and do I even want to know?" asked the Captain.
"Under multiple layers of paper plastered on a wall at the end of an unremarkable corridor in the abandoned section of the station," Tuvok answered.
"Tuvok, if you'll let me have that, I have some industrial solvent that should get rid of the paper so you can use the quadlet to meditate," said Torres.
"Won't that ruin it?" asked Neelix.
"It's indestructible, Neelix. Remember?" said Torres. "The map survived the antimatter wormhole. A little solvent won't hurt it."
"B'Elanna, why don't you and Vorik take everything to Engineering while I debrief the map team," said Janeway. "You can report on what you found in the technology shops at tomorrow's briefing."
"Thanks, Captain," said Torres. "It shouldn't take me too long to clean up the quadlet. I could drop it off for Tuvok in about 45 minutes, if you don't mind me interrupting the debrief."
"That'll be fine, B'Elanna," said Janeway. "The sooner we can put the entire map together, the happier I'll be. We'll be in the briefing room."
Tom Paris had emerged from the Flyer by this point and joined the group. Janeway and the map team left the shuttlebay for deck 1. They had barely left when Paris teased, "Tired of playing treasure hunt, Captain?"
"You could say that, Tom," said Janeway. "We've been at it for over two weeks. At this point in Second Portal space, we were already through the wormhole. I know there's no set timetable for this, but somehow I feel like we've fallen behind."
"Yeah, I get why you might feel that way," said Paris. "Maybe we'll make it up with one of the other Portals."
"One can only hope, Mr. Paris," said Tuvok in a stern voice, since he did not quite approve of Paris's manner of addressing the Captain.
Janeway suppressed a smile at Tuvok's tone and said, "His instincts could be right about that, Tuvok. We're flying by the seat of our pants here, so to speak, and he is the helmsman."
"C'mon, Tuvok," said Paris. "Even you must be a little frustrated that the map isn't giving up as much information as you'd like."
"Vulcans do not experience frustration, Mr. Paris," said Tuvok, "a fact of which you are well aware, despite your attempts to goad me."
"Of course they don't," snickered an amused Neelix.
Janeway and Chakotay just looked at one another with faint smiles, remembering their earlier conversation about Tuvok and the map. It's going to be an interesting debriefing thought Janeway.
Third Portal space, Day 16:
Saturday, February 19, 2377
Briefing Room, 1107 hours:
"That's great news, B'Elanna," said Janeway. "Is it worth authorizing another away mission to the technology merchants?"
"I don't think so, Captain," said Torres. "We got pretty much everything worth having."
"All right then. Good work." Janeway turned to her left and said, "Tuvok?"
"Removing the paper from the newly acquired quadlet has not facilitated the fusion process," he replied.
Tuvok placed the fused quadlets collected to date, the fused portion of the Third Portal map, and the newly recovered quadlet from the Ontarian Supply Depot on the briefing room table, which prompted a loud guffaw from Tom Paris.
"Three pieces now, Tuvok? This just keeps getting better and better," he snickered.
Janeway, Chakotay, and Tuvok all focused glares on Paris, but it was not enough to dampen the helmsman's merriment.
Tuvok said, "You may find this amusing, Mr. Paris, but despite appearances, the new quadlet alone has yielded up an encrypted file as a result of my meditation. Once Seven decrypted it, the file produced coordinates and a text message."
"Well, don't keep us in suspense, Tuvok," said Harry Kim. "What did the message say?"
Tuvok fixed Kim with a penetrating stare for a moment, and then recited, "In the sacred place from whence sprang the five become one, where the stone daughters keep watch, there shall the right turning path yield the upward way to the gates of Arka."
"A riddle," said Neelix. "What do you think it means?"
"Obviously, it is a clue meant to lead us to the final quadlet of this set, Mr. Neelix," said the Vulcan. "As to the specific meaning, that as yet remains unclear."
"What about those coordinates, Tuvok? I'd like to see a star chart," said Paris
"Seven, would you assist?" said Tuvok.
Seven stood and went to the System Operations wall monitor, where she entered several commands to bring up a starchart she had created from the information Tuvok had discovered in the newest quadlet. When Neelix saw the starchart, he gasped. Every head turned in his direction.
"Neelix?" asked Janeway.
"Captain," he replied, "Are any of the Tarkada aboard Voyager right now?"
"Dinsar and Dursat are working with Vorik in engineering," said Torres, answering for the captain.
"What is this about, Neelix?" asked Janeway.
"It's just a hunch, Captain, but I think the Tarkada might be able to help us with our riddle. I'll need to retrieve a few things from my quarters that I bought at Barzeran's map shop while I was on the Ontarian Supply Depot. Mr. Barzeran told me about a planet called Sarkad that had a renowned temple. May I be excused for a few minutes to go get them?"
Before Janeway could reply, Chakotay said, "I think Neelix may be onto something, Captain. The riddle mentions 'five become one,' which brought to mind the conversation with Dinsar and Dursat when they first came aboard with Imot. They told us that the Tarkada had originally been five races."
"I concur with the Commander and Mr. Neelix," said Seven. "Jerat mentioned Arkad and five daughters while we were working together in Astrometrics. The reference to a place name 'Arka' does not seem coincidental. It may be wise to include Mr. Jerat, as the riddle mentions a turning path, which may be a navigation reference."
"Don't forget the planet Sarkad and the species name 'Tarkada'," said Kim. "That's really an awful lot of similar-sounding words."
"Agreed," said Janeway. "Mr. Neelix, you're excused to retrieve your items while I contact Helar and ask him to join us and bring Jerat with him to this briefing. Stop by the transporter room on your way back to meet them and bring them with you."
"Will do, Captain. I won't be long," said Neelix as he hurried from the room.
The captain tapped her combadge. "Janeway to Vorik."
"Mr. Vorik, would you please escort Dinsar and Dursat to the briefing room. We need their assistance to decipher some information."
"On our way, Captain. Vorik out."
The senior staff settled in to wait for Neelix to return with Helar and Jerat, and Vorik's arrival with the two brothers.
Briefing room, about twenty minutes later:
"The name "Tarkada" means 'children of Arkad'," said Dinsar. "And your officers were very perceptive, Captain Janeway, to notice all the similar pronunciations."
"You can thank Neelix for that, Dinsar," said Janeway. "He had a hunch, and then Seven, Chakotay, and Mr. Kim all chimed in with similar-sounding words they had noticed. I thought it would be a good idea to ask the two of you about it."
"I am certain that your riddle refers back to our ancient days," said Dinsar. "Captain Helar has also made an extensive study of our history and will undoubtedly confirm that for you."
The briefing room door opened at that moment to admit Neelix, Helar and Jerat.
Dursat could scarcely contain his excitement, saying, "Captain Helar, the Voyagers have discovered the location of ancestral Sarkad and Arkad's sacred temple of legend."
The band of spotted markings above Helar's eyes rose in surprise. "Indeed! How has this happened?"
"Captain Janeway?" said Dinsar.
Nerelix stepped forward and said, "If I may..." Janeway gestured for him to continue. He turned to address Helar. "Captain Helar, I went to the Ontarian Supply Depot on a reconnaissance mission for Captain Janeway to see if there were any possible locations for another piece of the Third Portal map. While I was there, I went into Barzeran's map shop, even though it seemed to me like too obvious a place to hide a quadlet. I found several starcharts for the course ahead of us, and then I came across this." Neelix laid the hand-inked map on the briefing room table in front of Helar and Jerat.
Jerat said, "Yes, those are the same patterns I saw in your star mapping laboratory. They are the ones that resemble the stars around Tarkada."
"And you did not bring this map to our attention, Mr. Neelix, because...," said Tuvok.
"I bought this for myself because it was so beautifully done. Why, it's like a piece of art," said Neelix, somewhat defensively. "Those same patterns are on the quadlets you already showed us, Mr. Vulcan. Take another look."
Seven and Jerat walked over to study the quadlets sitting on the briefing room table in front of Tuvok. Jerat spoke, saying, "The markings on the map itself are faint, but these are indeed the same patterns I saw in the star mapping laboratory. They are identical to the map your Officer Neelix purchased."
"Captain, I remembered that Mr. Barzaran had mentioned Sarkad," said Neelix. "I went to my quarters for the map because we were talking about all the words that sounded alike. I honestly didn't think anyone else would find it useful, since you already had the constellations on part of the Third Portal map."
Out of the corner of her eye, Janeway saw Chakotay shift uneasily in his seat, and she realized he was feeling Neelix's consternation and remorse across their Tasnixia bond. She hastened to reassure the Talaxian, saying, "It's all right, Neelix. You wouldn't have known about your map's significance before you heard the riddle Tuvok found in the new quadlet. What else did you bring to show us?"
"Commander Chakotay's Prixin gift, I'm afraid," said Neelix. "It will ruin the surprise, but the riddle talked about a sacred place, so I thought you should see it."
"Riddle?" asked Helar.
"Tuvok," said Janeway as she glanced over at her tactical officer.
"In the sacred place from whence sprang the five become one, where the stone daughters keep watch, there shall the right turning path yield the upward way to the gates of Arka," Tuvok intoned.
By this time, Neelix had extracted the watercolor of the temple on Sarkad from its protective envelope and laid it on the table. It immediately drew the attention of the four Tarkada.
"Look, Captain Helar," said Dursat as he pointed to a cluster of stone figures supporting the four corners of a detached portico. "Rakid, Dakid, Kadis, Padis, with Ardas on the apex of the roof." The Voyager senior staff stood and clustered around the painting.
"So it is," said Helar. He turned to Janeway and said, "This is indeed the planet of ancient legend among the Tarkada. 'Sarkad' means 'birthplace' in the old Kad language. No member of our race has seen the place of our origin for many hundreds of cycles."
"If I may be so bold to ask, Captain Helar," said Neelix, "who are Rakid, Dakid, Kadis... uh..."
"Padis and Ardas. They are the daughters of our principal diety, Arkad," Helar replied. "Rakid and Dakid are twins, as are Kadis and Padis," said Helar. "Ardas is a singlet and the oldest. She keeps watch over the younger daughters in their endeavors."
Dinsar explained further. "They were also our inspiration in the ancient times because each daughter served as guide and protector to one of the five races the Tarkada once were in those days. Each one exemplified a virtue which all members of the race protected by that goddess strove to emulate. As the five races intermarried, the virtues became a shared cultural heritage that civilized the Tarkada into the one people we are today."
"How is it that the Tarkada no longer live on Sarkad?" asked Janeway.
"Misfortune, Captain Janeway," said Helar, "misfortune and predators who saw an opportunity to expand their empire. The five races were struck down with a plague, and those who envied our ancestors for their many advancements took advantage of their weakened state. You see, the five races had the technological skills to easily construct Arkad's temple, but their medical arts lagged far behind. Our ancestors had already developed space flight, so many who were not infected chose to set off in convoy ships to find a new home where they would be able to rebuild their civilization."
Dursat continued the narrative. "Those who were unwilling to leave family and friends behind stayed to care for the ones who were ill, knowing full well that they themselves would in all likelihood contract the plague. Those remaining were also charged with the responsibility for concealing all technological information with the temple priests in such a way that the predators would be unable to find it to use for furthering their agenda of conquest. All other evidence of the five races' technology was destroyed. Only the temple was left standing by our ancestors, remaining unharmed as a reminder of what we once were."
"It is a great blessing from Arkad herself that your Icheb brought us together, Captain Janeway," said Helar. "The longing to once again see the ancient temple of Arkad has been a persistent thread running through Tarkada culture for uncounted cycles."
"Then you and your crew shall have that longing fulfilled," said Tuvok. "Logically, I would surmise that the final quadlet of the Third Portal map is located somewhere on the grounds of the temple. We must devise a plan which will allow you and your people to visit the temple while our away team searches for the final portion of the map."
Neelix said, "Mr. Barzeran told me that the people on the planet don't like open displays of technology, so his friend had to hide his holoimager so he could take pictures of the temple to use for his paintings once he returned home. Barzeran also advised me that it would be best to appear as a pilgrim from a remote region of Sarkad or one of the nearby colony worlds if we wanted to visit the temple grounds. "
"Posing as pilgrims would be the most logical way for you and your entire crew to visit the temple, Helar," said Janeway. "We'll do reconnaissance on Sarkad and the surrounding worlds so that your people can blend in with the other visitors to the site."
Tom Paris, who had been largely silent up to this point, said, "Well, the Flyer has a cloak now, so it should be pretty easy for us to scan around the planet before anybody sets foot on it, not to mention being able to land somewhere near the temple with the away team. And then there's those personal stealth cloaks," he said, looking directly at Captain Helar.
"They are at your disposal," said Helar with a nod.
"We may need to use them, Helar, depending on what the mission turns up," said Janeway.
"May I offer the assistance of several of our pilots and stealth shuttles in gathering information on the surrounding colony worlds? I assume that you would prefer for your people to conduct the reconnaissance on Sarkad, since Voyager's away team will be retrieving the map."
"You assume correctly, Helar," said Janeway, "and yes, your assistance would be greatly appreciated. It will save us time if both our crews need to disguise themselves as pilgrims from these worlds."
"I'm afraid the Tarkada will not be so easy to disguise," said Helar with a chuckle.
"You just leave that to me," said the EMH. "I can perform cosmetic surgery to change your appearance so that your own mother wouldn't recognize you."
Helar turned a lighter shade of blue. "Doctor...," Janeway warned as she glared at the EMH for his bluntness. She turned back to Helar and said, "He can restore your original appearance just as skillfully, Helar. Members of my crew have undergone cosmetic procedures when a mission required it."
"There's something else to consider, Captain Helar," said Chakotay. "Your people's migration happened a very long time ago. A dramatic change in appearance may not be necessary if some of those who stayed behind managed to survive the plague. Until we've done some reconnaissance, there's no way of knowing for certain how their appearance might have changed over the many cycles since the original convoy left. They may have evolved over time to resemble you and your crew more closely."
"I suppose that is possible," said Helar.
"Helar, let's concern ourselves with that when we have more information on the appearance of Sarkad natives," said Janeway. "I think our first priority at the moment should be determining the precise location of the planet so that we can set a course."
"Agreed," said Helar.
Janeway turned to her staff. "Neelix, we could use the small map you bought on the station. Between it and your starcharts, Seven should be able to pull together a starchart that will give us a better idea of exactly where Sarkad and its surrounding worlds are located than what's on the quadlets at this point."
"Of course, Captain. Anything I can do to help," said Neelix.
"Captain Helar, it would streamline the overall mission for us if your Officer Jerat could work with Seven and Mr. Paris to coordinate all your reconnaissance efforts with ours once we've established a definite course for Sarkad," said Janeway. "Since your people will be surveying the nearby worlds, it would save wasted effort if Mr. Jerat could be in from the beginning to facilitate the sharing of any information your teams find."
"Of course, Captain Janeway," replied Helar.
"There's nothing further to be discussed until we have more information, so I would suggest we reconvene once our surveys are complete," said Janeway. "Agreed?"
Helar inclined his head in agreement amid the chorus of ayes from Voyager's senior staff. On that note, the briefing adjourned.
Third Portal space, Day 18:
Monday, February 21, 2377
En route to Sarkad
The Ready Room, 1614 hours:
"Tom got back a little while ago," said Janeway to Chakotay as she handed him a cup of tea, "and I've already commed Helar and arranged a briefing for 1630." She walked around the desk to sit down and pull up some information on her monitor.
"And you've had enough time to get everything organized enough to hold a briefing?"
"I'm nearly finished with Voyager's analysis, Chakotay. Tom sent all of his data and scans back hours ago once he was in communications range, and Helar's people have already transmitted all of what his teams found to Seven as well. She's working with Jerat on making sense of it while I've spent the better part of this afternoon going over Tom's data. Tuvok's looked at it too, so I just need Seven's analysis to finalize the away mission. We should have that for the briefing. She's finishing up as we speak."
Janeway turned her monitor to face Chakotay as she got up and walked around the desk to sit in the chair next to him. She reached over and tapped in a few commands to bring up a visual scan of the temple complex. "Take a look."
After several moments of study, Chakotay said, "It's magnificent. I just wish I knew where to start looking."
"The beacon locator will certainly make it easier," said Janeway. "I suspect we won't get too much help from the map on this, so I've already decided that the away team will also pose as pilgrims to scout out the temple grounds and interior. The last quadlet could be anywhere in the complex, but Tuvok thinks that it's probably hidden somewhere in the main temple building itself. The last piece you found was well concealed, but the location made sense logically speaking, or so he said."
"True. The temple's pretty big. We could find an area that's not used anymore or with restricted access. I doubt one of the clerics is going to just walk up and hand us a quadlet, unless it happens to be Icheb."
They both chuckled over that thought briefly before Janeway said, "It's reassuring to know that Icheb has been our guiding angel when it came to finding the first two quadlets. I know Seven would prefer that he was still aboard Voyager, but I've finally accepted that his leaving was the right decision for him." Janeway sighed and said, "I'm sorry I gave you such a hard time over it when we were at Abras."
"No need to apologize, Kathryn. You've always taken losing a crewmember very much to heart, but this time one of your chicks has left the nest and is going on to soar."
"There's that," she replied.
"And speaking of chicks, isn't it about time for our meeting with Helar and his people?"
"Chakotay!" Janeway didn't bother with hiding the grin on her face.
"There's quite an avian resemblance with those feathers, isn't there? Did I tell you what Naomi said about them?"
"Oh, go ahead. Get it all out of your system before we have to go meet with them," said Janeway.
"Did you see her painting of the bird she saw in the zoo?"
"Yes. What a beautiful creature."
"Well, Naomi brought it to my office to show me, and asked if I thought the Tarkada looked a little bit like her painting."
Janeway remembered the scene in Astrometrics with Jerat and Naomi several days ago, and burst out with a belly laugh.
"She came to Astrometrics to show me the painting when we were still on Sirana," said Janeway, still chuckling. "Seven and Jerat were working together to see if they could locate the Tarkada homeworld when Tuvok and I joined them because we wanted to check out a few changes in the map. Naomi stopped by to visit with Seven, and when I introduced her to Jerat, she looked back and forth between him and the painting a few times before she finally shook his hand."
Janeway grinned at the loud guffaw from Chakotay. "To her credit, she didn't make the comparison out loud. I just wish our dear Doctor could be as diplomatic."
"No argument there," said Chakotay. "Do you think it's going to take much cosmetic work for the Tarkada to pass as pilgrims?"
"Obviously, I haven't seen the results of their reconnaissance yet, but judging from Tom's scans, I don't think so. There appears to be a good number of blue-skinned natives with varying shades of complexion, so the skin tone shouldn't pose too much of a problem."
"Does this mean that the map team needs to appear cyanotic too? I can't quite picture Tuvok in blue."
Janeway rolled her eyes and snickered, saying, "I haven't decided yet." Becoming serious, she said, "Tom's visuals showed quite a few humanoid species entering the temple. The Tarkada surveys should also give us a better idea about any additional changes that might be useful. I'm sure Helar and his crew would enjoy their visit to the temple a lot more if they didn't have to use their stealth cloaks. I'll see if I can prevail upon the Doctor to rein in his ego a bit when suggesting cosmetic alterations."
"I don't envy you that task," said Chakotay, "although if you manage to do it, I'm sure we'll all be grateful." Janeway just rolled her eyes again. "Ready?" he asked as he rose from his seat. "It's time."
The Briefing Room, 1638 hours:
The meeting between the senior staff and the Tarkada had barely gotten started when the door opened to admit Neelix and a large rolling cart containing a wide variety of food.
When Tuvok started to object, Janeway raised her hand and said, "I authorized it, Tuvok. We're going to be in here for a while, and I agreed with Neelix when he told me there was no point in trying to work on an empty stomach if we didn't have to."
"Thank you, Captain," said Neelix. He turned to the Tarkada and said, "Captain Helar, I've prepared several delicacies with fineek for you and your people, along with some of our crew's usual fare." Seeing puzzled faces aound the table, Neelix hastened to explain. "That's leola root to the rest of you, and it's a staple of the Tarkada diet." He looked to Janeway and said, "I shared some of my extra crop with the Tarkada, since they haven't been able to grow their own native variety on the Prosperous Journey. They haven't had leola root in a very long time, and I wanted to do something to help out our new friends. I know should have asked you first, but when I told the Commander what I'd done, he said it was okay."
"It's not a problem, Neelix," said Janeway. "Leola root grows like the proverbial weed in our airponics bay, so I'm sure there won't be a shortage any time soon."
"Oh, no chance of that," said Neelix. He was too focused on the captain to notice a few pained expressions and rolled eyes at the thought of plentiful leola root.
Everyone then proceeded to fill a plate for themselves and eat, making pleasant small talk as they enjoyed their meal. After about a half hour, Janeway said, "All right, people, let's get down to business. Captain Helar, you were about to show us the results of your reconnaissance."
"We completed our analysis shortly after you contacted us about this meeting, and I had Jerat transmit the information to your star mapping laboratory," said Helar. "I believe Officer Seven has already uploaded the relevant images to your databanks," said Helar.
Seven rose from her place at the table and walked over to the wall monitor. She looked to Janeway for permission to proceed, and the captain nodded. The display slowly scrolled through a series of still and animated shots of a dozen or so individuals from each of several different species living on the five worlds closest to Sarkad. All were humanoid in appearance, with a wide range of skin tones: fair-skinned, shades of brown ranging from tan to dark chestnut, and varying shades of blue, the majority lighter and with fainter markings than Captain Helar and his crew members present in the briefing room. In addition, a good number of individuals among all the species represented had ridges and protuberances that gave them somewhat of a reptilian appearance, with a coarser skin texture and distinct patches of color defining their features. It was obvious to everyone in the briefing room that some of the orginal five Tarkada races had indeed survived and intermarried, both among themselves and the neighboring worlds.
"Mr. Paris's scans were quite similar, Helar," said Janeway, "although from what I've seen, there are more individuals on Sarkad itself with skin coloring and markings closer to that of you and your crew." She walked over to the wall monitor and punched in several commands to bring up the video scans that Paris had taken.
Everyone watched as the scenes in the temple complex and nearby temple city unfolded. The inhabitants of Sarkad did indeed closely resemble the Tarkada with the exception of markedly smaller feather crests, and facial markings and skin tone which appeared slightly faded in comparison with the more robust appearance of Helar and his crew.
Janeway turned to the EMH and said, "Doctor, it appears that any cosmetic changes will be minimal, wouldn't you agree?"
"That's essentially correct, Captain, with the exception of the feather crests."
Chakotay stepped in before the EMH could wax grandiose about his abilities as a cosmetic artiste. "I don't think that will present a problem, Doctor." Chakotay got up and walked over to the wall monitor, where he punched in a few commands to replay an earlier portion of Paris's video scan of the temple exterior. "If you'll pay close attention to the people entering and leaving the temple, you'll see that everyone is wearing a robe with a close–fitting hood. Essentially, all that is visible are their hands and faces."
"A keen observation, Commander," said Tuvok. "It appears to be the local custom for all pilgrims to wear this type of garment when visiting the temple complex. This presents us with an advantage that will allow us to easily conceal our technology when we visit the main temple for the initial reconnaissance. I would advise that the away team wear hidden miniaturized holorecorders to make a video record of our tour. It would be useful information for study purposes in determining the exact whereabouts of the final quadlet, should its location not be immediately apparent. Such a record would certainly aid in navigating the temple interior for its retrieval, should that prove necessary."
"That's an excellent suggestion, Tuvok," said Janeway. "I'll authorize it. B'Elanna, have your department take care of it."
"I'll get right on it myself once we're done here," Torres answered. "You'll have the holorecorders by the time the away team is ready to go, and I'll figure out a way to streamline the memory modules that everyone will be wearing under their robes so that the extra bulk won't show and give them away. They should be able to record the entire tour."
The Doctor piped up, saying, "Those robes will make my job easier too." Turning to Helar, the EMH said, "Since all that will be visible is face and hands, it won't be necessary to alter your natural coloration and markings very much beyond those areas, if at all. I would also suggest adding a few facial ridges and distinctive marking from some of the more common species that most closely resemble the Tarkada. I would vary the alterations, of course. Your crew would undoubtedly enjoy their visit to the temple much more peacefully if a sudden influx of identical-appearing people did not draw unwanted attention."
"A wise precaution, Doctor," said Tuvok, "and one that would prevent undue attention to the away team as well, since we will join up with the first group of Tarkada visitors for our initial recon of the temple interior."
"Just so that we're clear," said Tom Paris, "Voyager's away team doesn't have to go blue, do we? I mean, no offense, but just look at Neelix with that nice golden skin of his – blue and yellow make green. No offence, Neelix, but I don't think green is your color."
Just as Tuvok was about to harrumph, Chakotay said, "What's the matter, Paris? Afraid your wife won't find you attractive any more if your skin matches those pretty blue eyes of yours?"
"Oh, I think helmboy would be adorable with baby blue skin and spots, don't you agree, B'Elanna?" asked Kim.
"Leave me out of this, Harry," said Torres with a snicker and a poorly-concealed smirk.
Helar looked on with an amused smile as he watched the interactions among the Voyagers. He was secretly pleased that they were not the ruthless beings that Gunlag had made them out to be, but rather people not all that different from his own crew. He cleared his throat lightly, and everyone's attention turned to him.
"Doctor, what would be involved in this procedure of yours? Is it lengthy?"
"Not overly so," replied the EMH. "For all his feeble attempts at humor, Mr. Paris is actually a competent medic. He would assist me in first altering your crew's complexion slightly, after which I would perform plastic surgery to add a few minor details to allow your people to pass as members of the species we've just observed. I assure you that it will all be quite painless, and as Captain Janeway said earlier, I can easily restore your original appearance once we are underway again."
"Amazing," said Jerat.
"I am programmed with the experience of 47 physicians and over 2,000 medical references, Mr. Jerat. 'Amazing' is my stock in trade," said the EMH.
"Something for which we're very grateful, Doctor," said Janeway, hoping to curb any further boasting.
"That is quite reassuring to hear, Doctor," said Helar. "I have 53 aboard the Prosperous Journey, including myself. What kind of schedule would you prefer?"
"One that proceeds in two stages, Captain Helar," said the Doctor. "As I said, I would like to begin with the pigmentation changes. It's a very simple matter, and Mr. Paris will assist me. Once that stage is well underway, I will leave it in his hands so I can look over the reconnaissance data to decide which surgical enhancements will best serve your purpose. Once I begin those procedures, they will take longer than the initial alterations, of course, but as I understand it, we have another day or so before we reach Sarkad."
"And that will be sufficient time for you?" asked Helar.
"Yes, Captain Helar. As a hologram, I do not require rest, so if we begin the skin tone alterations immediately with any crew members that are not on duty or asleep, that will give me some leeway to do my study once Mr. Paris takes over. When I begin the surgeries with those of your crew with altered complexions, I will continue around the clock until everyone has been taken care of." He turned to Janeway, who nodded her approval.
"Then I request that you begin with the four of us that are already present on Voyager," said Helar. If you would be so kind as to take Dinsar and Dursat first, I will have them return to the Prosperous Journey to set up a rotation for the first stage. Perhaps you could use some of the time that process will take for your study once you have finished with Jerat and myself. I would not wish you to burden you with long hours."
"That is a better use of my time, Captain Helar," said the Doctor, "but as I said, I'm a hologram, and as such, I don't tire. No rest for the never weary, you know."
Helar chuckled and said, "I've never met a doctor quite like you. If I send my people in groups of four or five every one of your hours once we establish the rota for the first stage, would that be acceptable?"
"Perfectly," replied the Doctor. He turned to Janeway and said, "Captain, if I'm no longer needed for this briefing, I'd like to begin immediately."
"Fine, Doctor." She turned to Helar. "Helar, if you and your crew wish to accompany the Doctor to Sickbay to begin the process, I can brief you later on any other relevant discussion."
"That would be acceptable, Captain Janeway. I know you understand how eager we are to see our place of origin. The sooner we can take the necessary steps to make that a reality, the happier my crew and I will be."
"Then I will contact you later," said Janeway. With that, the Doctor and the four Tarkada left the briefing room for Sickbay.
Paris waited until the briefing room doors closed behind the Doctor and his party and then asked, "Seriously, Captain, are we going to go blue as well?"
"I haven't decided," said Janeway with a wicked twinkle in her eye.
"Don't push your luck, flyboy," said Torres.
"Both the Commander and I could pass for species with similar pigmentation from the more distant worlds," said Tuvok. "All that is necessary would be cosmetic changes to add texture to our faces and hands."
"That's true," said Chakotay. "I am concerned about Neelix, though," he said, with a glance at the Talaxian.
"So am I, Captain," said Neelix. "Tom may have made a bad joke at my expense, but we do need to ask the Doctor what he can do for me. I resemble the people in these scans the least of any of you, and I do want to contribute to this mission."
"Neelix, we'll discuss that with the Doctor after he finishes up with the Tarkada," said Janeway. "I want to keep the map team together, and your people skills are much too valuable for me not to use them during the initial survey of the temple. We'll need useful anecdotal information to narrow our search, and you have a way of winning people's trust so that they open up and talk to you. Don't worry. We'll figure something out."
"Thank you, Captain," said Neelix, obviously relieved.
"Captain, what about the robes?" asked Harry Kim. "We may need to replicate some for the Tarkada. I don't think they have that technology."
"Good point," said Chakotay.
"When I speak with Captain Helar later, I'll bring it up," said Janeway. "Neelix, you could help us with that. If the Tarkada do end up needing robes, I'll ask you to coordinate with one of his people on measurements. I expect he'll want to send his crew in small groups to the temple so that they don't draw too much attention. We could produce a dozen or so robes in generic sizes that should easily accommodate his people."
"I think that will be a definite possibility, Captain," said Neelix. "I didn't notice any replicators the last time I was over there."
"I'll let you know, Neelix," said Janeway. She turned her attention to the rest of the senior staff. "Tuvok, it's still a little early to bring this up, but what are your recommendations for the initial recon?"
"Mr. Barzeran informed Neelix that regular tours are given of the temple complex. I believe the probable location of the final quadlet will be somewhere within the main temple itself. Since the edifice is quite large, the visual record for later planning purposes will be most crucial. Given the robes we will all be wearing, concealing holorecorders on each team member will be a simple matter. I would advise using the transporter armbands, along with the usual technology we have had in the past to obtain pieces of the map. Since we will be gathering information only on this initial away mission, I do not see the necessity of an interlink connection for Commander Chakotay at this time."
Janeway saw that Seven of Nine was about to object about the lack of the connection. "I trust Tuvok's judgment on this, Seven, but I would like you to to send down surveillance microprobes to the temple complex and surrounding city. There's nothing in the data I've seen thus far to suggest that this society is anything but peaceful, but we've been wrong before. I'll reconsider Tuvok's recommendation if the surveillance proves otherwise.'
"I will comply," said Seven.
"Chakotay, I will ask that you use the interlink connection for the mission to retrieve the map, however. The temple complex appears to be as densely populated as the Nardonian marketplace. I'm still a little uneasy over the fact that Neelix was attacked on the Ontarian supply depot after he simply mentioned Abras. I have a hunch that some type of gossip about the map must be circulating in every Portal space, and I'd like to err on the side of caution in case it's following us around."
"Understood, Captain," said a resigned Chakotay.
"If there's nothing further?" Janeway looked around the briefing room. "Dismissed."
Third Portal space, Day 20:
Wednesday, February 23, 2377
On Sarkad, 0750 hours:
Tom Paris set the cloaked Delta Flyer down in a remote clearing in the forest near the temple complex. Thick early morning fog hung close to the ground and shrouded the surrounding trees, making visibility poor. Chakotay pulled out his hidden tricorder to get a fix on the direction in which they needed to walk to reach their destination, and the team set off to hike the kilometer or so to the nearest road which led to the Temple of Arkad.
As the away team approached the main building in the complex, Chakotay felt his beacon locator snap on while they were still some ten meters from the tour group gathered outside the temple gates. Chakotay quietly instructed the team, saying, "Look sharp, people. My beacon locator just turned itself on, so it's here someplace nearby. My money's on the temple."
They joined the people milling around in front of the gate and mingled in with the Tarkada, who held themselves slightly apart from the rest of the tour group. Neelix spoke a few words to Jerat, who was fortunate enough to be among the first from his ship to visit the temple, along with Dinsar and Dursat. The three Tarkada easily managed to recognize the away team, despite their altered appearance.
Both Tuvok and Chakotay had been surgically altered to resemble the more reptilian species on some of the more distant worlds in the vicinity of Sarkad. Their skin coloration remained essentially unchanged, but the Doctor had altered their complexion's texture to make it coarser and scaly. He had sculpted their noses to be more snoutlike, and added a set of three ridges of large scales that began at the underside of the nose. The central ridge rose straight up the nasal bridge and into the hairline, while the ridge on either side of the central one ran upward along the side of the nose and then arced across the forehead in place of eyebrows. In addition, the EMH had made Tuvok's and Chakotay's cheekbones more prominent and shelflike. It was no surprise that they both resembled a variant species of the Voth, who had originally migrated to the far reaches of the Delta Quadrant from Earth millions of years before. Judging by some of the local species the reconnaissance surveys had turned up, the Voth had evidently left some their DNA behind along the way as they traveled on their cityships.
Neelix's natural golden complexion had been darkened to a medium shade of tan, with the spotted body markings and the whiskers along his jawline removed. His face was thus very plain and unremarkable, easily forgettable without two of the distinguishing characteristics of his species. Neelix was initially distressed over the alterations, but then realized that his somewhat nondescript appearance would tend to make people preceive him as a harmless, even slow-witted individual. He felt that between the non-threatening appearance and his natural friendliness, people would underestimate him and open up to tell him things that they otherwise would not have disclosed.
Tom Paris, on the other hand, was just grateful that his skin tone hadn't been altered to any shade of blue. Its texture had been coarsened to have a grainy, froglike appearance with similar reptilian markings of that species. His hair had been darkened to a nondescript brown, and his nose made into a snout with a nostril on either side. In the final briefing before the mission, Harry Kim took one look at his friend and snickered, while Torres tried unsuccessfully to hide a smirk. Kim made certain to wish "Mr. Toad" good luck as he left the briefing room to pilot the Delta Flyer down to the planet.
The large wooden doors to the walled temple courtyard creaked open. An acolyte emerged and gestured for the assembled group to follow him. The dense fog made it impossible to see more than a few meters in any direction, but the courtyard could be more accurately described as a plaza, given its apparent size. Judging from the small area the away team could discern through the thick fog, at least a portion of it was planted as a formal meditation garden. An enormous column of native rock rose straight up from the center of the plaza, its top disappearing into the mist.
"I wonder how high up it goes," said Neelix.
"And I wonder why someone would leave it stuck in the middle of this courtyard to begin with," said Paris. "It's a dumb place to have a column of rock if you ask me," he muttered, sotto voce.
Neelix shushed him and stepped forward quickly to the acolyte guiding them. "Good sir," said Neelix, "my friends and I were wondering about this large pillar in the middle of the courtyard. Does it have a special significance?"
"To explain its purpose at this moment would mean ruining the temple experience for you," said the acolyte. "Trust that its place in the order of things will become clear later in our journey through the temple."
"All right, then, my good young man. I wouldn't want to get in the way of anything special you have planned for us," said Neelix. He remembered the watercolor he had bought at Barzeran's shop, but kept his hunch to himself as to what the column might actually be.
The acolyte nodded genially and said, "Trust me when I say that the wait for its significance to be revealed will be worthwhile." Neelix thanked the man and rejoined the away team.
"So?" asked an impatient Paris.
"They'll let us know later on in the tour," said Neelix. "The guide said it's worth waiting for." Paris just rolled his eyes and sighed.
When the away team entered the temple proper, Chakotay noticed that the vibrations from his beacon locator diminished, and continued to do so the deeper he walked into the interior. They remained at a low level as the group progressed through the various chambers of the temple in a circuitous route, viewing religious art in the form of sculpture, paintings, and elaborately decorated vestments and sacred objects that had been used by renowned clerics in ceremonies and services over the centuries since the temple had been erected.
When Tom Paris's boredom began to show at one point, Chakotay was forced to take him aside and speak to him about calling attention to the away team with his behavior. Realizing that a goal would keep the helmsman's attention focused, Chakotay said, "Paris, I don't think your obvious boredom will help us maintain our low profile as tourists."
"No offense, Chief, but temples just aren't my thing," said Paris.
"Why am I not surprised," said Chakotay with an obvious touch of sarcasm. "As long as we're recording this tour anyway, have you even considered making a holoprogram out of it for the people on Voyager who are never going to get a chance to see it, like, oh... say, the Captain? She loved your Crystal Palace program."
"That one was pretty straightforward,"
"Then think of this as a challenge to your holographic skills," he said. "There's a lot more detail here than in the Crystal Palace or Sandrine's. Think you're up to it?"
That got Paris's attention and competitive juices flowing, and there were no further lapses into boredom on his part.
The tour continued, with the group stopping at one point for several minutes to observe a Morning Prayer ritual. They then continued on to the temple's library, which over the centuries had become the focal point of a noted center of learning. The tour lingered in the library as the acolyte showed them well preserved illuminated sacred texts, some of which dated back to the era of the temple's construction and before.
As the tour approached the front of the temple again, Chakotay felt the vibrations from his locator begin to intensify back up to near their previous level. The acolyte glanced out through the open entranceway, and commented that the morning fog had finally burned off. He led his charges over to one side, where there were two staircases, a typical one of stone and the other a filigree metalwork spiral staircase, both leading to the temple's upper levels, which the group had yet to see. Neelix was intrigued by the spiral staircase and already had his foot on the first rung when the acolyte stopped him.
"That path is for the artisan priests only," he said.
"My apologies, good sir," answered Neelix. "Where does it go? Living quarters, I presume?"
"If you will be so kind as to follow me, you will see for yourself," said the acolyte. That said, he turned and led the group up the stone staircase, which also followed much broader spiral in its upward direction. At the top of the staircase, they could see an open arch, and beyond the arch, a clay-tiled terrace onto which the acolyte led the group. As they stepped out into the open, Chakotay felt the vibrations from his beacon locator ramp up. He made eye contact with Tuvok and nodded slightly. Tuvok acknowledged Chakotay's nod with a barely perceptible one of his own.
The group walked further out onto the narrow terrace just past the arch, and found themselves looking out at the temple city, which was nestled in a small valley visible in the far distance below them. The acolyte called the group's attention to a wide natural stone bridge leading out from the center of the terrace to the stone column they had encountered in the middle of the courtyard as they had begun the tour. It had a small, square detached portico set on its flattened top. Upon closer observation, the column of rock turned out to actually be a small butte, freestanding at a distance from the base of the mountain range where the temple had been built, with the stone bridge attached to it being a natural phenomenon that had occurred when the softer underlying stone had eroded away. Both the away team and the Tarkada recognized the detached portico sitting atop the pillar from the watercolor Neelix had bought at Barzeran's.
The acolyte said, "The structure you see at the end of the bridge has been a favorite place for meditation since the temple was erected. The carved figures supporting the roof at the corners represent four ancient sister goddesses that are guardians of the four cardinal directions. If you study them more closely, you'll see that they are paired north-south and east-west. That is because the sisters are two sets of twins. The figure you see at the apex of the roof is another sister, the oldest of the five. She is guardian over her younger siblings. All five are the daughters of the temple's namesake, our principal goddess, Arkad."
Chakotay cast a glance over at the Tarkada, knowing how much this visit meant to them. Dursat was almost beside himself with joy at the realization that part of his ancient past had come down virtually unchanged to the present day, while Dinsar smiled indulgently at his twin's excitement.
The acolyte led the group across the stone bridge to the portico, saying, "The fog you saw when you arrived for the tour is an unusual natural phenomenon not usually present at this elevation. As a rule, fog banks as heavy as this morning's are found in lower-lying areas, such as the valley. The temple mist is usually gone by mid-morning, which affords visitors in the initial tour group of the day a highly dramatic first sighting of Sarkad's most precious spiritual treasure."
With that, the acolyte asked the group to turn back and face the temple. They let out a collective gasp at the sight that greeted them. An enormous, vividly colored fresco covered the entire central portion of the temple façade, reaching from the bottom of the terrace to the top of the temple.
"Neelix's painting didn't do this justice," said Chakotay.
"Indeed," responded Tuvok.
"This work of art was created millennia ago by the original inhabitants of Sarkad just prior to the Great Migration," said the acolyte. "As you can see now that the fog has lifted, Arkad's temple was hewn into the rockface of this mountainside with the façade arcing around this column in a broad semicircle, following the natural curvature of the peak. The surface of the central portion of the arc was planed flat to provide a base for the plaster material laid down to create this fresco."
"You spoke of a Great Migration," said Jerat.
"Yes," said the acolyte. "This most revered work of art is our one remaining link to the ancient past. Before the Great Plague struck millennia ago, Sarkad was a world of five peaceful races with a rich and diverse culture. In order to preserve at least a part of their civilization, those untouched by the plague set out in colony ships to find a new world to settle on where the sickness had not reached. They painted this fresco as a farewell gift to those who chose to remain behind, so that their accomplishments and history would never be forgotten. Generations of our artisan priests have devoted their lives to maintaining this last remnant of our ancestors."
Tuvok said, "That must be an all-consuming task, given that this fresco is outdoors."
"It is well protected from the elements by a polarization field," said the acolyte, "and also from those extremists with agendas who would seek to make a political statement by climbing up the facade to deface it. However, the field does not protect the fresco from the natural aging process of the materials used to create it, nor does it prevent the colors from fading in the sunlight. Our artisan priests maintain and restore the fresco on a regular basis, along with their usual duties to care for the various religious objects within the temple precincts and create new ones as required."
"And that spiral staircase leads to the polarization field controls," said Neelix.
"Yes, and to the workshop devoted to the maintenance and restoration of the fresco and all artwork and religious objects within the temple," said the acolyte. "Only the most senior artisan priests are allowed to access the controls that lower the polarization field, although all them use the room in their work. As an extra precaution against intruders, the stairwell is guarded at night."
"No doubt a wise policy," said Tuvok. The guide nodded.
"You were right, kind sir," said Neelix. "This was definitely worth the wait." The acolyte beamed.
Tuvok, meanwhile, had moved away to the left of the group and stood by himself, quietly studying the fresco from his vantage point at the waist-high wall surrounding the perimeter of the portico.
Chakotay moved over to him and began, "Tuvok..."
"Polarization frequency already recorded," said the Vulcan, low enough for only Chakotay's ears to hear. "Your device?"
"The vibrations are pretty steady," Chakotay replied in an equally soft tone. "They got stronger as I moved over here to the left, as we face the fresco. My guess would be that it's probably in this area," he said, gesturing as if he was pointing out a particular feature he wanted his crewmate to pay attention to.
"Agreed," said Tuvok. "Retrieval will pose a considerable degree of difficulty."
"You're right about that. B'Elanna's pretty ingenious, though," said Chakotay. "She'll figure something out."
The tour group remained on the portico for another twenty minutes to admire the fresco and their surroundings, after which the acolyte led them back inside to tour the temple's upper levels.
On the walk back to the Delta Flyer:
"So you think the map is in the temple somewhere?" asked Neelix, who had been not privy to the glances passing back and forth between Tuvok and Chakotay.
"Yes," answered Chakotay. "My beacon locator turned on the minute we got near the temple gates, and the vibrations got weaker the farther I walked into the temple. The minute we stepped out onto the terrace and walked over to the portico, that's when they were the strongest."
"Then obviously it's somewhere at the very front of the temple."
"My feeling is that it's probably somewhere on the fresco," said Chakotay. "Good thing you asked about that staircase, Neelix. We're probably going to need to shut down the polarization field to get at the quadlet. I'm pretty sure that's where it is."
"We'd have to go in after the temple closed for the day to avoid being seen, and the guide said the staircase to the polarization field is guarded at night," said Neelix.
"That does present a problem, but we have the Tarkada stealth cloaks. We'll work all that out once we figure out exactly where the quadlet is."
"Speaking of which," said Paris, "any chance you could be more specific? That's a pretty big area to search," said Paris.
"Tuvok and I think we know where it is," answered Chakotay. "The problem will be getting to it."
"What problem?" asked Paris. "I say we just drive a couple of pitons into the mountainside above the the temple façade and rappel down. If we're really careful, there shouldn't be too much damage for them to have to fix later."
"One more idea like that, Paris," said Chakotay, "and I'll bust you all the way back down to crewman before I shoot you out an airlock, and I won't even bother to get the Captain's authorization first. We're not going to damage a priceless spiritual treasure just because you want to play cowboy."
"Wanna borrow Captain Proton's jet pack?"
"Mr. Paris," said Tuvok, in icy tones.
"That's what I love about Vulcans," said Paris. "No sense of humor." He took a breath and was about to say something else when Chakotay decided he'd heard enough.
"You're awfully close to being put on report for your attitude," said Chakotay. "The next words out of your mouth had better be something more befitting a bridge officer."
"Hey, calm down, Big Guy," said Paris. "I was just going to suggest that I drop off the the rest of you guys on Voyager, and come back with Harry to do a deep level molecular scan of the fresco. We have that nice cloak on the Flyer. Might as well get some use out of it."
"Now that's an idea I can get behind," said Chakotay. "I'll run it past the Captain once we're back on the Flyer."
"So then you're not going to reassign me to deuterium maintenance when you make up the next duty roster?" asked Paris.
"Don't push it, Crewman."
After a few more minutes of uncomfortable conversation, the away team reached and boarded the Delta Flyer. Paris hurried to his seat and started the preflight check, glad for the reprieve from having to carry on a conversation with Chakotay, who had taken a seat at the ops console.
"Chakotay to Janeway."
"Janeway here. How'd the four of you do, Commander?"
"Tuvok and I think we know where the quadlet is. Apparently, it's part of a fresco on the temple façade, but it's protected by a polarization field. Since the Tarkada have so much experience with the technology, I think it would be a good idea for them to join us when we start planning how we're going to retrieve the quadlet."
"I'll speak to Helar," said Janeway. "Do you have any idea of its precise location?"
"No, Captain. The best Tuvok and I could do was make an educated guess. Paris suggested dropping off the rest of the team and coming right back down with Harry to do a deep molecular scan. They'd use the Flyer's cloak to get close enough and pinpoint the exact spot for us."
"Good idea. I'll have Harry meet you in the shuttlebay. Janeway out."
Third Portal space, Day 21:
Thursday, February 24, 2377
Briefing Room, 1059 hours:
Voyager's senior staff and their Tarkada allies Helar, Jerat, Dinsar and Dursat were gathered around the Systems Operations wall monitor, where Paris's scans from the previous day clearly showed that the last quadlet of the Third Portal map was located very high up on the temple fresco, inaccessible from either the terrace or above.
"Assuming the away team manages to shut off the polarization field, how are they going to get to the quadlet?" asked Janeway. "I need options, people."
"How do the artist priests make their repairs to the fresco?" asked Neelix. "They have to climb up there somehow. Maybe if we got into their workroom, we could find out."
"They probably use some kind of scaffolding, Neelix," said Kim. "It would take us too long to erect something like that. Even if we could, it would attract too much attention. The team needs to get in and out as quickly as possible."
"Harry's right," said Janeway. "Shutting down the polarization field is probably the least of our concerns at the moment."
"Still, seeing what's in that workroom might provide a clue to retrieving the quadlet," said Chakotay. "We have the stealth cloaks, so getting in for a quick look around after hours wouldn't present a major problem."
"The stairway leading up to the workroom is guarded. You'd have to get past one or more people," said Neelix.
"It would be risky, but we could use the cloaks to enter the temple during the day, and then wait someplace out of the way until they close down for the night," said Chakotay. "Tuvok, what do you think?"
"The entrance to the temple interior from the terrace is an open archway," said Tuvok. "It is conceivable that the away team could be transported onto the terrace when there was no tour group present and carefully make their way inside to the workroom."
"You would have to go during the day," said Kim. "When Tom and I scanned the fresco, we checked the entire temple façade area and found field emitters surrounding that archway. They use a forcefield to protect the interior either from bad weather or intruders after dark, I would guess. We stayed long enough to scan and get the frequency."
"Excuse me, Captain Janeway," said Dinsar, "but may I see the specifications for the fresco's polarization field?" Janeway nodded, and Kim entered several commands on the monitor's keypad to bring up the data. Dinsar studied it intently.
"It is as I thought," he said. "Brother, do you see this?" Dinsar asked, pointing out a particular data series to Dursat. He turned to Janeway and said, "Captain Janeway, this polarization shield bears remarkable similarities to our stealth cloaks. It would be possible to reconfigure a stealth cloak in such a manner that the wearer could reach through the field protecting the fresco and retrieve the map piece that way. There would be no need to enter the temple and risk detection by setting off an alarm or inadvertently alerting a guard to your presence."
"We didn't even consider the possibility that the polarization field or the temple might have an alarm," said Chakotay. "Are you certain about this, Dinsar?"
"My brother is correct," said Dursat. "We use similar polarization fields on Tarkada for security purposes. They are generally configured so that if any portion of the field is shut down or tampered with, an alarm sounds. That would not be the case with the adjustments I am considering."
"Our guide did mention having to protect the painting from people who might want to damage it," said Neelix. "It makes sense there would be an alarm."
"All right," said Janeway. "That's a better idea than trying to get inside to shut off the field without being detected. Dinsar, can you teach my away team how to use the stealth cloaks?" Dinsar looked to Helar, who nodded.
"Easily," said Dinsar. "It would take approximately one of your hours."
"All right, then, thank you, Dinsar," said Janeway. She turned to Helar. "If we could do that after we finish up here?" He nodded his approval. She turned back to the rest of the group and asked, "Now, how does the team get up to where the quadlet is to retrieve it? Suggestions?"
Tom Paris cleared his throat and said, "Um... Captain?"
"Is this another one of your half-witted ideas, Paris?" interrupted Chakotay, still peeved at the helmsman for his suggestion that they rappel down the surface of the fresco.
"Chill, Commander," said Paris.
"Chill?" asked Neelix, completely puzzled.
"It's another one of Tom's quaint 20th century expressions, Neelix," said Kim. "I'll explain later."
"Just hear me out, Captain, that's all I ask," said Paris. "We know where the quadlet is, and we have the stealth cloaks, thanks to our friends the Tarkada."
"I'm listening," said Janeway.
"Dinsar said he can configure the stealth cloaks so that someone could reach through the polarization field without setting off any alarms, right?"
"Well, how about we put Tuvok in a harness and lower him from the cloaked Flyer?" Now that we know exactly where the quadlet is, I can hover the shuttle right above the spot, and Tuvok could just reach out and grab it."
"Or we could just transport it off the fresco," said Kim.
"Not a chance, Starfleet," said Torres. "I've already thought of that. The polarization field won't let us transport anything inside it."
"Tuvok?" asked Janeway.
"That is the most practical suggestion put forth thus far," said Tuvok. "The risk of detection would be minimal. I would ask, however, that Mr. Dinsar join the away team on the Delta Flyer to monitor the frequency of the stealth cloak I will be wearing. No insult intended to Lieutenant Torres, but this is technology with which the Tarkada have had experience for many years."
"No insult taken," said Torres. "It's a good suggestion."
"Dinsar?" asked Janeway.
"I would be pleased to join your mission with the permission of my captain," Dinsar said. Janeway looked over at Helar, who nodded his approval.
"Captain," said Torres, "I'd like to be included in this mission as well. Someone needs to keep a constant eye on the machinery we'd be using to lower Tuvok. Kahless forbid that anything would go wrong with the mission, but in case it did, we shouldn't have Tuvok left dangling in mid-air because he can't be brought back onboard with everyone else otherwise occupied. Being that close to the polarization field would make it tricky to use the transporter except in a dire emergency."
"Good idea, B'Elanna. Join the away team," said Janeway.
"Captain Janeway," said Helar, "I would advise that Officer Jerat be included as well. He could monitor the ship cloak and leave your Officer Paris free to concentrate on his piloting."
"Tom?" asked Janeway.
"I'd appreciate the help, Captain," said Paris "When Harry and I did the molecular scan, we found out that the air currents near the temple can be a little unpredictable."
"All right," said Janeway. "Thank you, Helar. Offer accepted." She addressed the entire group, saying, "We'll do this tonight at 1900." She turned to Helar and his crewmen and said, "That should give everyone on the Prosperous Journey that hasn't visited the temple yet enough time to do so before our mission. If something does go wrong, we may need to leave in a hurry."
"Let us hope that will not be the case," said Helar.
"No argument there, Helar," said Janeway. "Tuvok, after Dinsar has instructed the away team in the use of the stealth cloaks, I want you to sit down with him, the rest of the away team, B'Elanna, and Jerat to work out the specifics of the mission. Have your report on my desk as soon as possible."
"Acknowledged," said Tuvok.
"You'll have it, Captain," said Paris.
"All right, people," she said. "Let's get it done. Dismissed."
On the Delta Flyer, above the temple fresco, 1947 hours:
After much discussion and Paris's recommendations in light of the air currents he encountered near the temple façade, the team had decided that Tuvok would use a weighted chain link and metal bar ladder in addition to the harness for as much of his descent as possible to retrieve the remaining quadlet of the Third Portal map. He would let go of the ladder only if necessary to reach the quadlet.
"We're in position. You ready, Tuvok?" called out Tom Paris over the comm system.
"I am indeed," Tuvok replied. He stepped up to the Delta Flyer's open rear hatch. Torres double checked his harness for the last time, the cable attached to it, and the winch that she would use to lower him further should Tuvok need to step off the ladder to reach the quadlet. She made certain that the pouch he wore containing the two fused quadlets of the Third Portal map and the single unfused one recovered thus far was securely attached to the harness and within easy reach.
"You're good to go, Tuvok," said Torres. "Just climb down as you normally would, and the cable should play out smoothly. Let me know if you're going to step off the ladder, because I'll have to lock down the mechanism and run the cable out manually if you need more length. I've set up a monitor with an external feed to give me a visual on your progress."
"Acknowledged," said Tuvok. He activated a tricorder in a holster strapped to the harness, and then stepped through the polarization field Dinsar had set up across the open hatch to mask the interior of the Flyer from view. He began to make his way down the ladder. As he reached the level at which the quadlet was located, he could clearly see the slightly elevated rectangular area where it was hidden under the paint of the fresco. Although the portion of the artwork under which it was located was near the edge and consisted of nondescript background, Tuvok still regretted the damage to the fresco that removing the quadlet would cause.
He withdrew the two fused quadlets from the pouch and reached through the polarization field to hold them up against the fresco. Nothing happened. Tuvok's brow furrowed with thought for a few moments and then he tapped his combadge.
"Lieutenant, I will need to step off the ladder so that I may use both hands to retrieve the quadlet. Please lock down the cable, but keep me at this level."
"Locking cable... and done," said Torres. "You're safe to move."
"Acknowledged." He took his feet off the ladder and slowly let go of the rung he was holding so that momentum would not cause him to swing back and forth once he was hanging free. He switched the fused set of quadlets he was holding to his left hand and withdrew the single remaining quadlet from the pouch. Tuvok then reached through the polarization field again to hold it up to the fresco below the elevated area that concealed the final quadlet.
Tuvok watched in amazement as the hidden quadlet oozed up through the surface of the fresco, leaving the painted surface undamaged. It solidified and popped free of the fresco, sliding on top of the quadlet Tuvok held in his right hand and began to fuse itself to it. Tuvok managed to get his fingers out of the way of the fusion process and was able to maneuever the already fused portion into his other hand once the process had worked far enough from one edge and begun to move across the quadlets. He switched the fusing quadlets back to his right hand once there was enough area for him to grip solidly and watched the changing configuation on the surface as the process continued to its conclusion.
He next felt a strong magnetic pull between the sets of quadlets he held in each hand, and allowed the pull to draw them together. Once they were adjacent, an unseen force yanked the portion from his right hand so that it slid over the quadlets in his left. Tuvok watched as they began to fuse together starting at the edge furthest from where he maintained his grip on the second set. Again, he grabbed the portion that had already fused with his right hand and then let go with his left so that the process could complete itself without interruption. While he doubted that his hand would have remained caught between the layers of quadlets for any length of time, he did not know if the process could be restarted if it stopped itself because it had encountered an obstacle.
The skywall sprang up around Tuvok and the Delta Flyer. As he felt himself begin to dematerialize, Tuvok's last thought (illogical though it was) before the transport was complete was to wonder if he would end up under the shuttle once back aboard Voyager. He rematerialized inside the shuttlebay, several feet from the Flyer. Torres and Chakotay barreled out of the still open hatch, and stopped short when they saw him, Third Portal map still in hand.
"I tried an emergency transport the moment I realized something was happening, Tuvok," said Torres. "I knew there wasn't enough time to reel you in with the winch."
"In the past, the map has been known to transport the team back to its point of origin when it completes itself, Lieutenant," said Tuvok. "As you know, there is also a telepathic component to it, which would explain my safe arrival in Voyager's shuttlebay. My last conscious thought as I dematerialized was that I did not wish to be situated under the Delta Flyer when we both rematerialized."
"That was lucky for you, Mr. Vulcan," said Neelix, who had emerged from the shuttle just behind Torres and Chakotay.
"I doubt that luck had anything to do with it," said Tuvok. "I surmise that we have only begun to see the extent of the map's powers."
"No wonder so many people are after it," said Torres.
"Janeway to away team."
"Mr. Kim tells me that the Flyer just materialized in the shuttlebay."
"Yes, Captain," answered Chakotay. "We're all fine, and Tuvok recovered the last quadlet. We have the entire Third Portal map now."
"That's good news," said Janeway. "Take a few minutes for yourselves, and then we'll meet in a half hour to debrief. Janeway out."
Janeway kept the debriefing short so that the away team could get some much needed rest before their next duty shift. Despite its clandestine nature, the mission itself had been a fairly routine one, with the major points of interest being the manner in which the hidden quadlet had oozed up through the fresco, and the map's ability to act upon Tuvok's desire not to be crushed under the Delta Flyer. Since both phenomena would require further analysis before there were any definitive explanations, Torres had insisted on taking the quadlet and Tuvok's tricorder to Engineering for analysis. Janeway had allowed it, asking only that Torres return the quadlet to Tuvok for his meditation when she was finished. Torres agreed, and with that, the debriefing was over.
Tuvok's quarters, 2258 hours.
Tuvok stared at the fused map gathered thus far and the Third Portal map lying beside it on the floor of his quarters as if doing so would cause them to fuse and divulge the information needed to set a course for the Third Portal. He had meditated over them for more than an hour, and the complete lack of any productive result had tried his patience to its limit. The vague annoyance he sensed within himself was disturbing, so he closed his eyes and took several deep breaths to restore his equanimity before tapping his combadge.
"Tuvok to Janeway."
"Janeway. What is it, Tuvok?"
"Captain, I have had no success in fusing the Third Portal quadlets to the rest of the map, nor have I discerned any useful information as yet."
"Tuvok, why don't you get some rest and try again in the morning? Take your shift time before the briefing at 1100 for your meditation. I'll have Ayala cover Tactical."
"That would be acceptable, Captain," Tuvok answered. "I found the rematerialization process under the influence of the map to be unsettling. Perhaps rest would be beneficial."
"It probably will be, old friend," said Janeway. "We'll discuss whatever results you might get at the briefing. I'm going to ask the Tarkada to join us. They may have a few things to contribute."
"Perhaps, Captain," said Tuvok. "I will bid you good night, then."
"Good night, Tuvok. Rest well."
Third Portal space, Day 22:
Friday, February 25, 2377
Briefing Room, 1131 hours:
"The Third Portal quadlets refused to merge with the rest of the map, but my meditation produced several unexpected results," said Tuvok.
"Explain," said Janeway.
Tuvok passed the map around the table. "As you can clearly observe, the transparent portion of the map with the markings designating the location of the Tarkada homeworld has disappeared." Tuvok turned to Helar and his crew, saying, "My apologies to you, Captain Helar, but this leads me to the conclusion that your home planet will not be found in the region we enter after passing though the Third Portal. I expect that Fourth Portal space will an an alternate reality, if experience to date is any guide, and there is nothing about your ship or crew thus far that would lead me to believe you come from another dimension or timeline."
"I know that must be very disappointing for you, Helar," said Janeway.
"Indeed it is," said Helar, "but I suspected this might be the case as well. We are very far from our home, and I estimate the two wormholes we have traversed thus far have brought us somewhat less than halfway to our homeworld."
"You are welcome to travel with us for however long it takes to reach Tarkada," said Janeway. Helar inclined his head in thanks. Janeway turned back to Tuvok and said, "Anything else?"
"A starmap has emerged along with coordinates," said Tuvok. "There is, however, no new beacon frequency."
"Maybe we won't need a password this time," said Kim.
"Maybe, Harry," said Janeway, "but I wouldn't count on it. Looks like we'll find out when we get there."
Torres spoke up. "Captain, it may be a similar phenomenon to when we were locating the transceivers, where one frequency kept leading us to the next one until we reached the quadlet on the Ontarian Supply Depot. They all had to be within range of each other for the relay to work properly. Maybe we need to be at these coordinates for the map to fuse or open the Portal for us."
"That makes sense as a possibility," said Janeway. "I don't think that the people who scattered the map would leave a Portal without some kind of puzzle or a password to protect it." She noticed that Paris had snagged the map and was studying it. "Ready to set a course, Tom?"
"Just about, ma'am," he replied. "I'll need a little time with the quadlets, and I'd like to check it against the new information we programmed into the database from Neelix's map. Looks like it's nearby, though."
"All right, Tom," said Janeway. "Once you have the course laid in, transmit the data to the Prosperous Journey." Seeing that no one else in the room had anything else they wished to discuss, she said, "Dismissed."
At the coordinates, both ships at all stop:
Voyager's Bridge, 1753 hours:
"There's nothing here," said Paris, who had remained at his post beyond the end of his shift, as had all of the senior bridge staff.
"Not quite, flyboy," said Torres from the secondary engineering station to her husband's right. "I'm reading a high concentration of verteron particles. I think what you want to say is 'there's nothing here right now'."
"Yeah, sure. Whatever." Torres glared at him.
Tuvok came down to the helm from his post at Tactical, tricorder in hand. The accumulated map and the Third Portal map were lying side by side on Paris's console, and Tuvok scanned both for a new beacon frequency and found none. He closed the tricorder and stood lost in thought for a few moments.
"Tuvok?" asked Janeway.
"There is no new beacon frequency in either set of quadlets," said Tuvok. "Evidently, proximity to this Portal is not a factor in generating a new one to use as a password. I am uncertain as to how to proceed." He returned to the Tactical station.
"Well, we've had to broadcast frequencies to get through every Portal in the past," said Paris, "and we've accumulated a whole bunch of them in this Portal space. Let's try one."
"Do it, Mr. Kim," said Janeway. Kim chose the most recent frequency that had led them to the Ontarian Supply Depot.
"No result, Captain," said Kim.
"Try broadcasting the combined signal we found in the original quadlet from the Tarkada."
Kim broadcast the signal, again with no result. "Nothing, Captain. What about broadcasting them one right after another in the order we found them? Maybe that'll work."
"All right, Harry. Let's try that," said Janeway. Again nothing.
"Captain, we found the transceivers out of order because that plasma storm knocked one out of place," said Torres. "Why don't we broadcast the signals in the order we were supposed to find them?"
"Good idea, B'Elanna. Do it, Harry."
The last frequency in the series had scarcely left Voyager when the Third Portal popped open before them. Motion on the helm console caught the bridge crew's attention, and they watched transfixed as the Third Portal map slid over the quadlets gathered previously and began to fuse itself to them.
"Bingo," said Paris just before the map fog sprang up around the helm console and hid him from sight. A fine mist began to rise around Tuvok's station as well.
"Harry, configure a signal with the frequencies in their proper order and set the series to broadcast continually," said Janeway.
Kim entered several commands and said, "Done."
"Open a channel to the Prosperous Journey and put it onscreen."
"You have found the wormhole, Captain Janeway," said Helar, before Janeway could address him. "Congratulations."
Janeway acknowledged him with a nod. "Helar, we're transmitting the frequencies we used to open the Portal." She turned to Ops and motioned to Kim, who sent the data to the Tarkada. "We'll be broadcasting them on a continuously repeating band as we enter and travel through the Portal. I would advise you to do the same, and keep an open audio link with us."
"Agreed, Captain Janeway." Helar glanced down at the fog-enshrouded helm station where images of stars and planets could be seen in the swirling mist. "What is that?"
"That fog is generated by the map once it is ready to guide the ship through the Portal, Helar. It completely takes over my helmsman's consciousness and insures that Voyager passes through the Portal safely."
"Ah, I see," said Helar. "We have no such phenomenon surrounding our pilot."
"It's probably only meant for the ship carrying the map," said Janeway. "If you follow closely behind Voyager and broadcast the frequencies in the same order as on the list we just sent you, then you should be safe."
"We will do so," said Helar.
Janeway felt the deckplates tremble under her feet as Voyager began to move slowly into the mouth of the Portal on thrusters. "Helar, we're underway. Match our course and speed."
"Acknowledged, Captain Janeway," said Helar.
Voyager continued to increase speed until it was moving through the Portal at full impulse. The trajectory of the wormhole began to curve upward, and Voyager and Prosperous Journey adjusted course to compensate.
The turbolift doors behind Janeway opened, and she turned in her command seat as Neelix emerged from the lift, surrounded by light mist. He paused next to the Tactical station, and a moment later, Janeway heard Tuvok, Neelix, and Chakotay say "the right turning path shall yield the upward way to the gates of Arka" all at the same time. She looked to her left and saw Chakotay surrounded by the same light mist as Neelix, and then turned back to the viewscreen in time to see that the Third Portal forked in the distance. Paris flew Voyager unerringly into the right fork.
"Hard to starboard, Helar," called out Janeway over the open comm link.
"We see it, Captain Janeway," said Helar. "Pilot Jerat is surrounded by the mist now. It seems that your map also wishes to insure our safety as we follow the right turning path."
"Good to hear it, Helar. Stay sharp."
Voyager and the Prosperous Journey continued upward through the Portal, following a long series of right forks until Janeway began to feel as though she was inside a gigantic corkscrew. The fog surrounding the helm expanded until it obscured the entire viewscreen. Janeway called for a running status report from Ops as they continued to fly through the Third Portal.
"Captain, we've finally emerged," said Kim. "I have unusual readings, but nothing threatening, and the course ahead of us reads as clear."
The mist surrounding all stations and personnel began to dissipate, until at last Fourth Portal space could be seen clearly on the viewscreen.
"Well, that's not quite what I expected," said Janeway.
"I guess the Mapkeepers wanted to give us something different for a little variety," said Chakotay.
"Or maybe Arkad and her five daughters have a sense of humor as twisted as yours, Chakotay," said Torres.
"Indeed," replied Tuvok.