DISCLAIMER: The Star Trek universe: theirs. This story: mine. Profit: I wish.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: "Gratitude" started life as a 90+ page story and notes, which morphed into a 65 page script once this author learned of Star Trek: Voyager's open admission script policy during the final seasons of the show. It's amazing how much has to be left out, and the economies of language that are necessary to meet format and page requirements. The script was never picked up, so it's a story again, with everything back where it was, and a bit more added.
SUMMARY: War is expensive, both in terms of lives and matériel, unless you have a weapon capable of exploiting an enemy's past history. Once the crisis is finally over, Voyager's crew reflects on their journey. Takes place between "Flesh and Blood" and "Shattered."
Captain Katherine Janeway was so completely absorbed in the report on her monitor that the ready room door's chime barely registered in her conscious awareness. A second chirp a few moments later finally interrupted her train of thought. She composed her face into command mode as she continued to work and called out, "Come in."
A cheery Neelix bustled into the room, carrying a tray containing a pot of coffee and an arrangement of lavender, pink, and white chyshara flowers. "Good morning, Captain," he said.
Janeway looked up from her report and answered his greeting with a smile. "It is now, Neelix," she said as she extended the empty mug. Her smile spread into a grin.
Neelix promptly set the tray down on the desk so he could pick up the coffeepot and fill her mug. He replaced the pot on the tray and then picked up the floral arrangement. He moved to his left to set it down next to Janeway's monitor.
Hoping to deflect an involved conversation so that she could continue studying her report, Janeway glanced up only long enough to motion for Neelix to leave the flowers in the sitting area. "Thank you, Neelix. Over there, please."
She focused her full attention back on her screen, hoping it would further discourage Neelix's ebullience, but to no avail. It only spurred him over to the other end of the desk, where he quietly set the flowers down to her left. Janeway sat back with a sigh and gave the Talaxian an exasperated glare, her concentration finally broken.
Neelix looked hurt. "But Captain," he said, "today would have been Kessie's eighth birthday. These were her favorites."
Janeway's facial expression immediately softened. She came around from behind the desk to rest a hand on his shoulder. "Neelix, they're beautiful. I'm so glad you insisted we move Hydroponics into its own dedicated space four years ago. We would have lost Kes's garden when Seven beamed all those drones over during the Borg alliance in the Northwest Passage." She reached over and touched a blossom. "Going without the fresh flowers you bring me every day would be very bad for my morale."
Neelix's face brightened as he smiled and said, "It's no trouble at all." He hesitated for a moment. "Captain..."
"What is it Neelix?"
"Do you ever wish that Kes had never come back? When she first told me that her people only lived for nine years, I accepted the fact that I would probably outlive her. Maybe this is selfish, but after she left us the first time, I was comforted by the thought that I would never have to watch her grow old and die." He sighed. "We all thought she'd gone on to a better life."
"I know," said Janeway. "And I don't think you're being selfish, Neelix. No one wants to watch a loved one fade away. I know the years since Voyager haven't been very kind to Kes, but we have to hope she made her way home. She told us she could."
"You're right, Captain," he said. "Well..."
Neelix reached over and picked up the flowers to bring them over to the sitting area, but Janeway restrained him with a hand on his arm. She said, "Why don't you leave them on my desk just for today. The coffeepot can go in its usual place."
Neelix beamed and said, "Of course." Janeway returned his smile as she walked back around her desk and buried herself in her report again. She looked up when Neelix returned for the tray. "Now you just let me know the minute you want more coffee, or maybe a little something to go with it," he said. "You know the kitchen is always open for you, Captain."
"Thank you, Neelix. I will," she responded. Her thoughtful gaze lingered on him as he left to return to the Mess Hall. Janeway turned back to her report, but found she couldn't concentrate on it. A vivid memory sprang to mind of the day Neelix and Kes had come to her ready room to ask if they could join Voyager's crew on its journey, and she was soon lost in thoughts unrelated to any data on her monitor's screen.
She recalled Neelix's recent unguarded moments of withdrawal during staff meetings when he thought himself unobserved. Granted, his headstrong enthusiasm could be overwhelming and more than a little annoying at times, but this muted sadness that had gradually settled into the very core of his being after Kes returned and then departed for the second time six months ago was something that deeply concerned the Captain. Neelix took his duties as Voyager's self-appointed morale officer very seriously, and made a believable show of being his usual upbeat self, but Janeway would occasionally glimpse the intractable loneliness behind the mask.
It was bittersweet indeed for the entire Voyager family to have lost Kes to her own evolving growth into a higher level of being. It was such a joyous, uplifting transformation for her, but Janeway still remembered the bridge crew's stricken faces looking back at her after Kes's shuttlecraft diffused in a swelling flash of brilliant white light. Add to that the gift Kes had given them when she used her new mental powers to throw Voyager safely beyond Borg space, nearly 10 years closer to home. It was too much for any of them to take in all at once.
In the days and weeks that had followed, so many people shared stories with her about the different ways in which Kes had touched their lives. Her gentle nature had healed more than just the physical injuries sustained during away missions or conflicts with hostile races, or even from something as faintly embarrassing as a holodeck mishap. Kes had been a very special light that had gone out in all of their lives, and her loss in Voyager's family was keenly felt.
And Neelix... For a very long time, he had been inconsolable. As their time together on Voyager passed and Kes' mental abilities continued to grow, she and Neelix had drifted apart as lovers, but remained the truest of friends. Then Kes had gone ahead on her own journey in a way that no one could have ever predicted, moving on alone into an unknown future. Neelix was bereft. He had lost his entire family when Talax's moon Rinax had been destroyed in the Metreon Cascade, and now, Kes...
At least I am with others of my own kind, Janeway thought. Neelix has no one, nor is he ever likely to see another Talaxian for the rest of his life. As painful as her own loss was, at least her crew was mostly human. Neelix had left everything familiar behind when he and Kes had joined Voyager's crew. Although his species was found in other parts of the Delta Quadrant, he had encountered only one other Talaxian - his old friend Wixiban - years ago, near the Nekrit Expanse.
She could easily relate to the shock and numbing finality of unexpectedly losing a cherished thread that bound one to a shared past. When Starfleet had included personal letters in a signal sent back to Voyager across a Hirogen communications array some years ago, she had not expected her first message from home in over three years to be a "Dear John" letter from her fiancé Mark. As their first days in the Delta Quadrant had stretched out into years, Janeway knew that Starfleet would eventually declare Voyager lost with all hands after a very thorough search and a minimum of at least a year with no word from them. She knew it was unrealistic to expect Mark to wait for her return, and accepted that he would eventually mourn her and move on, but actually holding his message with the concrete reality of it in her hand was more painful than she could have imagined possible.
Janeway still grieved the lost sense of connection to Mark, even at such a great distance, and the end of her hope for the future she had imagined with him upon Voyager's speedy return to the Alpha Quadrant after the Badlands mission. She was grateful, however, that unlike Neelix, she had been spared the hurt of having to live in close proximity to a former love, and watch the one for whom she still cared deeply start to form new romantic attachments.
With the addition of Seven of Nine to the crew, Janeway had come to rely on the former Borg's superior knowledge of assimilated species when encountering races unfamiliar to her. Neelix continued to occasionally provide anecdotal information based upon rumors he heard on the Delta Quadrant grapevine wherever they stopped, but he had no practical first-hand knowledge of sectors beyond the known sphere of his travels as a trader.
The only original duty Neelix still retained from the time when he'd joined Voyager's crew was that of cook. He now largely assisted away teams rather than taking the lead in negotiating with various humanoid races for supplies and raw materials. He had long ago appointed himself ship's morale officer, and now also served as ambassador and liaison in first contact situations at Janeway's request. When they had been in the Void more than two years ago, he had even begun tactical training with Tuvok as a means of relieving monotony and expanding his usefulness to Voyager. It was enough to occupy him until an aged Kes's recent visit. Afterwards, even those new duties were no longer enough to distract him from the well-concealed ache under the outgoing cheeriness and good humor.
A sudden vivid memory of watching a dying Kes morph from youth into old age when she had time-traveled back to Voyager's early days in the quadrant broke into the Captain's ruminations. She had been forced to kill her former crewmember to save her own life, and would do it again, given the same circumstances, but Janeway could not help feeling a lingering deep regret that her action had been necessary in the first place. Like Neelix, she felt that Kes had left Voyager to fulfill her race's heritage of extraordinary mental powers, and Janeway was deeply saddened by the clear evidence that circumstances had been unkind to the unfortunate Ocampan.
The Captain shook off her distressing thoughts with a sigh and turned back to her report. The continuing emergence of new enemies such as the Hierarchy and Vaaduar, in addition to the occasional threat of old favorites such as the Borg, was a constant concern. She was also very aware of the potential threat from hostile members of Species 8472, despite an understanding she had reached with one particular group of them Voyager had encountered a few weeks after their time in the Void. Maintaining alertness and readiness on a lengthy voyage despite well-worn ship's routine was an ongoing challenge as well.
Her current priority was ensuring the ship's continued smooth operation by securing necessary materials for maintenance and repair. Retaking Voyager after the Hirogen seized the ship nearly three years ago had resulted in massive shipwide damage to all systems. B'Elanna Torres's engineering expertise kept them functional enough on a daily basis to continue their flight home and explore along the way; but without access to the repair facilities of a starbase, implementation of permanent repairs instead of stopgap measures was moving at a frustrating rate. Key systems were still being taken off-line for maintenance on a regular basis, and on several occasions, even crucial supplies as basic to ship's function as deuterium dropped so low that Voyager was forced to power down to run in grey mode until a new supply could be located. It kept her mind fully occupied during the times when there were no major crises.
Overseeing the task when they had been in the Void had forced her staff into devising extraordinary measures to deal the crisis caused by the fact that there would be no possibility of taking on fresh supplies of food, fuel, or material for the projected two-year journey across the empty expanse between galactic arms. Her priority at the moment was to bring all systems up to 'Fleet specs and keep them there, and then to stockpile enough supplies for the next time Voyager might find itself in a similar barren region of the quadrant once again.
The sweet fragrance of the chyshara flowers intruded upon her concentration. She glanced over at them, and for what felt like the thousandth time in recent days, her thoughts turned to Kes. Memories again flooded her mind, and her eyes misted over as she reached out to touch a blossom and whisper, "Oh, Kes..."
Janeway's door chimed, interrupting her reverie. "Come in."
Chakotay entered the ready room with two padds, prepared to give her a ship's status report. He began, "Some good news, Ca...," and stopped in mid-word when he noticed the unaccustomed presence of flowers on Janeway's desk. "What's this?"
She looked up from her screen in time to see his quick smile. She said, "No secret admirer among the crew, Chakotay. Neelix put them there when he brought me my morning coffee. It seems today would have been Kes's eighth birthday. When he told me they were her favorites, I didn't have the heart to ask him to move them."
"They're lovely, Captain."
Janeway took a moment to sniff a blossom and smile, and then shifted back to command mode. "What have you got for me, Commander?"
Chakotay handed her the padd and said, "As I started to say... some good news."
Janeway scrolled through the report as he summarized the most important points. "Impulse power is back on line, and we'll have warp in a few more hours." Shields and weapons are at 100%, and everything else checks out. Looks like we've pulled it back together yet again."
"This time," said Janeway. "I keep obsessing about what's going to happen to us if our luck runs out and we hit another void."
"Then you'll be happy to see this," Chakotay said as he handed her another padd. "Belanna's test data from the prototype coaxial drive after she factored in the latest hyper-subspace tech information Starfleet sent us in the last datastream. She told me she's gotten some pretty good readings from the last couple of firings. The tests have actually put us a couple of weeks closer to home."
"Really!" Janeway looked up from scrolling the padd and flashed a grin at him.
"It's still a little touch and go," he said, "but since we can't risk using slipstream drive again, she feels it's worth the effort. She said a coaxial interface will be easier for our systems to manage overall, and won't put undue stress on the hull."
"Not to mention keeping us all alive." Janeway called up another file on the monitor and scrolled through the second padd, comparing it against the data on her screen. She set it down and said, "Tell B'Elanna 'good work.' I'm glad she's taking another look at coaxial warp. It's the only thing we haven't tried." She went back to studying the first padd Chakotay had given her.
"I'll pass that along," said Chakotay.
"I still wish the overall news was better, though. We've come a long way back since the Hirogen turned Voyager into a flying holodeck, but there's too much basic repair work still to be done for us to hold to specs for any length of time. It's a credit to B'Elanna and her staff that we haven't flown ourselves apart yet."
True," said Chakotay, "but you have to admit, we've been building toward this for quite some time. There wasn't enough tritanium alloy to finalize repairs before we entered the Void and had to conserve resources. We took care of the most vital systems, but then there was that firefight with the Malon. The stress on the hull from chaotic space not so long afterward didn't help either."
"Right," said Janeway. "I suppose it's inevitable after nearly seven years and no Federation spacedock. "We're managing to stay pretty close to where we should be most of the time, but I'm still seeing too many extra shifts because of time spent on downed systems. What I wouldn't give for a fully equipped Federation starbase, not that stopping at the Markonian outpost last year wasn't a big help."
"No argument there." Chakotay's eyes were drawn to the chyshara flowers. He reached over to gently stroke the petals of one while he quietly gathered his thoughts and listened to Janeway with only half his attention.
Janeway picked up the second padd and began scrolling though it again. "As far as coaxial warp is concerned, I'll take any compatible alien geometry that won't cause new problems and will give us back the time we keep losing to system malfunctions."
Hearing no response to her comments, Janeway looked up from the padd. "Chakotay?"
Her voice startled him momentarily, and brought his wandering mind back into focus. Chakotay looked back at her and said with some intensity, "Kathryn, we have some unfinished business."
Janeway set down the padd and looked up at her first officer with concern.