The blue and green orb filled the view screen, patches of cloud dotted here and there. Chakotay turned slowly to Kathryn who stood beside him, trying to read her expression. He studied her for a moment until she felt his stare and turned to look at him.
"Are you sure you want to do this, Kathryn? You can still change your mind…"
Kathryn smiled sadly and shook her head. "No. I've…we've…made the right decision."
Chakotay returned her sad smile with one of his own. He nodded slowly and turned back to the view screen. He sighed heavily and shook his head. "It's a vision, isn't it?"
Kathryn nodded. "It's beautiful." She moved a little nearer, standing closer to him than she'd normally do. Things were different now though.
"You know, Chakotay…when I thought about this moment…about seeing home again and standing here on the bridge…" She shook her head. "In my mind the view of Earth grew larger as we got closer to it. I never thought the image would be receding as we left it behind." She laughed bitterly. "Mind you, I never believed Starfleet would betray us either."
Chakotay looked back at her then turned and took her hand in his. It felt so strange when she didn't pull away. He drew her to him and placed his hands on her shoulders. "Kathryn, I want you to be sure about this. I know we talked but…" He stared deeply into her eyes. "It mightn't be as bad… I mean for us it would but for you… I can't believe…"
Kathryn held his eyes then shook her head. "You saw the letter, Chakotay. Phoebe wouldn't have sent that unless she felt there was real danger. My sister is the most level headed person I know. She's not given to flights of fancy or seeing what isn't there. I know how hard it was for her to write that letter…" She looked towards Earth for a moment. "And she wasn't the only one as you well know…" She turned back to look at the man beside her. "I'm sure. Never doubt that."
Chakotay watched her carefully. "No regrets?"
Kathryn shook her head. "Oh, I have plenty of regrets…just none about this decision."
ONE WEEK EARLIER.
The wormhole wasn't supposed to be there and yet it was. Voyager's crew had scanned the area extensively as they approached this new sector of the Delta Quadrant. Even the star charts they'd traded for five weeks earlier showed nothing. And yet there it was.
Seven scanned it and reported back to her captain that the wormhole led to the Alpha Quadrant, an answer to all their prayers. Kathryn Janeway wasn't prepared to let herself get carried along on the excitement of their discovery though and ordered a further two days of scans and investigations. All came back with the same result. Eventually they launched a series of probes which confirmed all their hopes. The wormhole was there, it was stable and it led to the Alpha Quadrant.
Finally, Kathryn called a meeting of all the senior staff. Everyone spoke their piece, voicing their caution but not quite able to contain their excitement. Kathryn nodded as she dismissed them. She met Chakotay's eyes and he nodded, knowing she wanted him to remain behind. As the last senior staff member left and the door closed behind them, Chakotay moved over to where Kathryn stood at the view port, her back to him.
"So, what do you think? Is it all systems go?"
Kathryn turned slowly and gave him a tired smile. "It would seem so. I don't want the rest of the crew left out of this either though. I'd like their views. I'll ask all Department Heads to sound them out."
Chakotay thought about that and nodded. "That sounds fair." He watched Kathryn as she crossed back to the table and sat down. She looked tired and he knew she wasn't sleeping. "What's really bothering you, Kathryn?"
She smiled as she looked up at him. "Nothing…and that's what's bothering me. Strange, isn't it? I'm so used to worrying that when everything seems good, I can't relax and let it happen."
Chakotay smiled as he sat down beside her. "I guess it's a symptom of the Delta Quadrant. There's usually something hidden behind everything. No harm in being careful though."
Kathryn pursed her lips. "No. No harm at all." She sighed heavily. "I don't know, Chakotay. Home just doesn't seem to be what it once was. Voyager has become home…"
He smiled and reached for her hand, knowing that in private she wouldn't object. "It'll be hard for you…"
Kathryn's smile faded as she remembered the letters they'd received from home several months previously, letters received with the help of a relay station they'd come across. "I still find it hard to believe Mom is gone. Phoebe broke the news as gently as she could but it still felt like the hardest punch to the stomach."
Chakotay squeezed her hand. "She knew you were alive and well. She also knew you were on your way home. That would have been a great comfort to her."
Kathryn blinked away a few tears and nodded. "I know. And she had a long and happy life for the most part. I tell myself she's with my dad again…although I'm not sure how much I believe that. It's comforting though." She looked up at him tearfully. "I'd just love to have seen her one last time…"
Chakotay stroked his fingers over the back of her hand. "She's still with you, Kathryn, and always will be. She's a part of you."
Kathryn swallowed the lump she felt in her throat and nodded again. She made a valiant effort to pull herself together. "I wonder what else is waiting for us?"
Chakotay shook his head. "We sent Starfleet all our logs…reported everything to them. Our arrival would be the only surprise." Kathryn stared down at the table. She looked up when Chakotay shook her hand. "Are you worried?"
She shrugged. "It's hard not to be although with the war over for three years…" She shook her head. "I can't believe they'd have any problems with the former Maquis. Things have moved on…"
Chakotay interrupted her. "Some people have long memories, Kathryn."
She stood now, gently pulling her hand from his. "Starfleet is supposed to be above that, Chakotay. Besides, none of the communications from them gave any indication that we'd have problems. They even congratulated me on uniting the two crews. They know about the Equinox crew and Ransom." She paced a little. "They know everything. We held nothing back from them and they sounded quite happy with that."
Chakotay stood also. "Kathryn, I think you're worrying about nothing. They may huff and puff a little and rap a few knuckles at worst but I truly believe everything will be all right."
Kathryn turned and smiled weakly at him. "I'm the one who's supposed to be saying that to you…"
Chakotay squeezed her shoulder. "It'll be fine. I believe that."
Kathryn tried to share his confidence and nodded. "OK." She sighed. "Come on then. Let's go talk to the crew."
THREE DAYS LATER.
"Mr. Paris, take us in. Janeway to all crew…stand ready. We're entering the wormhole now." Kathryn sat rigidly in her command chair, her eyes riveted on the view screen. She glanced at Chakotay beside her and tried a reassuring smile.
He nodded and smiled back. "Next stop the Alpha Quadrant."
The journey through the worm hole was rough but they emerged on the other side mostly unscathed. The Doctor reported only minor injuries, a few sprains and bruises, all of which had already been treated. Kathryn thanked him for his report and looked over at Chakotay.
"So far, so good…"
Over the next two days, Voyager made her way towards Earth. Kathryn contacted Starfleet once she felt happy that the ship and her crew were all unharmed. She gave the crew as much time as she could to come to terms with their return before putting through her call.
Admiral Myers was the second person Kathryn spoke with, once the shocked and flustered young Ensign put her through.
"Welcome home, Captain Janeway. You certainly caught us by surprise. We received your transmissions several months ago containing all your logs. Is there anything else you need to transmit to us?" It wasn't exactly the welcome or homecoming Kathryn had anticipated but then she didn't know this man.
"Just the logs of the past few months. I'm sending those to you now."
He nodded. "That's fine. I'll go over them as soon as I receive them. In the meantime, maintain your present course. The USS Montana will liaise with you within the next two days. I'll contact you again later." He cut the transmission leaving Kathryn sitting in shock staring at the Starfleet Insignia. She shook herself.
"Commander Chakotay…please report to my ready room."
Chakotay listened as Kathryn reported on her conversation with Admiral Myers. He saw how unsettled she seemed.
"Kathryn, are you sure you're not just seeing something that isn't there? You said it yourself. You don't know this man. He was probably just acting the 'Official'…keeping it all above board."
Kathryn sighed. "Maybe. Perhaps I just have a bigger ego than I thought. I honestly expected a warmer welcome."
Chakotay smiled. "Your ticker tape parade?"
Kathryn made a face at him. "Very funny. I just expected a bit more warmth…"
Chakotay smiled as he stood up. "I think you just worry too much. You're tired and as usual you're surviving on nothing but coffee. Your nerves are on edge. Nothing more. It'll be fine."
Kathryn tried to accept his words as she smiled. "I hope so…"
The letters from family and friends came through the next day. Almost every crew member received one and Voyager buzzed with excitement. Chakotay watched Kathryn closely as Neelix handed her a padd.
"One for you too, Captain." She nodded her thanks. She looked up to see Chakotay watching her, holding a letter of his own. She smiled sadly as she walked over to him. "Third time lucky? This is my third personal communication from home. One from Mark telling me of his marriage. Phoebe's was the second to tell me about Mom."
Chakotay gripped her elbow and squeezed. "Do you want to read this one on your own or do you want some company?"
Kathryn thought about that then shook her head. "I'll be fine, but thank you…" She smiled softly at him. "You go read your own letter. I'll come and find you later." He watched as she made her way to her ready room and said a silent prayer that this time the news would be good or at least mundane.
It was three hours before Kathryn called Chakotay. He'd spent that time reading his own letter and talking with several of the former Maquis. He made his way now to her quarters where she'd asked to meet him. That fact worried him.
He stood outside her door and sighed heavily. He had news of his own.
He smiled at her as she let him in. He noticed she seemed tired but made no mention of it. She nodded towards the sofa.
"Sit down, Chakotay. Coffee or tea?"
He declined. "I'm fine. Thanks." His voice sounded strained and she noticed.
"Are you all right, Chakotay? Was there bad news in your letter?"
Chakotay watched her for several minutes and she allowed his scrutiny, sensing that he was struggling with a decision. Finally, he seemed to reach one. "Kathryn, you and I have been really good friends for many years now. I trust you with my life."
Kathryn was worried now and crossed to sit down beside him. She placed her cup down on the small coffee table. "What's wrong, Chakotay? Did you receive bad news?"
He sighed heavily and leaned back. "I'm trusting you here, Kathryn. I guess I'm asking you to put our friendship before everything else you believe in. I'm not sure I have a right to do that…"
Kathryn studied his face for a moment then reached up to her collar. Slowly she removed her pips, placing them on the table. She reached over and removed his rank bar, placing it beside her pips.
"OK, there's no rank here now. What you say to me at this moment will stay between us. I give you my word on that."
Chakotay closed his eyes a moment then opened them again to meet her eyes. "That means a great deal, Kathryn. Thank you." He sighed heavily and then sat forward. "Where to start…" Kathryn remained quiet, giving him all the time he needed.
"Kathryn, my letter… It was from my cousin. He said a lot…details of old friends and our childhood…family memories. Nothing in particular was said but there were a lot of hints and innuendos in there. I know what he was saying and I understood every word he didn't say if that makes sense." He watched her carefully as he spoke, trying to gauge her reaction. For a brief second he thought he saw a flicker of something but it was gone as quickly as it appeared.
"I've also spoken with several former members of the Maquis who also received letters from home. They appeared to be basic letters, details of friends and family, current affairs and events, the usual chatty letters. However, they also felt as I do that there was something else in there. No one else would have seen it but they knew." He smiled slightly in memory. "We all had a strange way of saying one thing and meaning another in the Maquis. We had many ways of passing on messages. What I've seen of their letters and my own…" He didn't finish that but just sighed.
"This isn't easy to say…" He licked at his lips. "You'll probably think I'm over reacting, that we all are, but there's something very important in those letters and I think, we all think, that it's a warning. There were coded messages in those letters. I'm sure of that. If one or two of them had just come to me or it had just been my own letter, I might have shrugged it off. When several of them came to me, I knew it was a warning. We still have a few well-placed friends in Starfleet who would feel we should be warned." He saw something in her eyes again but couldn't pin it down. He clasped his hands together.
"This is the hardest thing I've ever had to say to you, Kathryn…" He wanted to look away from her but couldn't. He took a deep breath.
"Kathryn, I came here to talk to you…to tell you that I'm not going back…several of us aren't."
Kathryn just stared at him. "You're leaving?" Her voice was a whisper.
He nodded. "I can't go back, Kathryn. I most certainly can't ask the others to go back. Some of them weren't sure about telling you this but they trusted my judgement of you." He stood quickly, unable to meet her eyes. "I could handle it for myself. If it was just me as a sacrificial lamb, I could say yes. I'd gladly go to prison if I knew everyone else would be free. What I can't do is let the others be punished…not after the way they've served Starfleet these last six years. They don't deserve that." He sat down again but still didn't meet her eyes. "When I came in here, I still didn't know if I'd tell you this, or if I did, how I was going to tell you…" He shook his head.
"A part of me still feels I'm seeing conspiracies where there aren't any and maybe had it just been my own letter I'd still believe that. When the others came to me and showed me their letters though…" He shook his head again. "It's too much coincidence and yet I still…" He jumped when he felt her hand on his arm. When he looked at her he saw a look of great sadness on her face.
"I do understand, you know…about you having to go…the others too…"
Chakotay reached for her shoulders and turned her to him. "I can't abandon them, Kathryn. I love you but I owe them too." It was the first time he'd admitted his feelings for her and he saw her eyes fill with tears.
"I love you too, Chakotay. And I do understand. It's just the thought that you'd have left…"
Chakotay shook his head. "I would have told you. That's what I came here to talk to you about." He smiled softly. "I might have kept some details from you for your own protection but I would have said goodbye…"
Kathryn turned away quickly. "And now…?" Her voice broke as Chakotay pulled her back to face him.
"I don't know, Kathryn. We'll have to talk about that. I just can't go back and neither can they."
Kathryn nodded. "What would you do? How would you leave? Where would you go even?"
He shrugged his shoulders. "I don't know. I just know we can't go home and face years in prison or even be handed over to the Cardassians. I can't let families be split up, kids never seeing their parents again…" He expected her to argue with him but she didn't. "Some suggested taking the Delta Flyer and trying to get back through the wormhole…" He spread his hands. "I don't know, Kathryn. I don't even know how many would want to come. I do know we have little time…"
Kathryn just smiled sadly at him. "I understand…"
He reached over and took her hands. "Kathryn, I'm probably hurting you very much with all this and if you asked me not to go, I probably wouldn't but I'd still help the others…"
Kathryn suddenly reached over and pressed a hand to his lips. "I'd never ask that of you…"
He nodded slowly. "I'd still…"
She smiled softly at him. "I have one question." He nodded for her to continue. Her next words shocked him to the core. "I want to know if you have room for one more with you when you go…"
Chakotay stared at her, his shock clearly evident. "Kathryn, what are you saying? Do you even know what you're saying? You can't throw away…"
She once again pressed her hand to his lips and smiled again. "You never asked me about my letter…"
Her half question threw him off guard. "Your…your letter? I…I'm sorry… How was it?"
Kathryn let her smile slip as she reached over and picked up a padd from the coffee table. "It was from my sister, Phoebe." She looked directly at him and held the padd out to him. "Here. Read it."
Chakotay looked surprised. "Kathryn, it's your private communication. I've no right…"
She didn't withdraw her hand. "Humour me. I want you to read it."
Chakotay nodded and took the padd from her hand. Before he began to read, Kathryn stood and walked over to the view port where she took up one of her favourite posts staring out at the stars. He watched her for a few seconds and then began to read.
I gave this letter to Admiral Paris to send on to you so I have trust that you'll get it.
I'm so sorry you had to hear the news about Mom as you did. You have my word that she passed peacefully in her sleep, knowing that you were alive and well and on your way back. She loved you and was so proud of you. Take comfort in that. You were with her every day.
The news of your imminent return has had me remembering our childhood. Remember how we'd sit in the old barn, padds in hand, making things up? Do you remember that, Kathryn? Do you remember the games we played?
John sends his love. He works very hard these days but he's a wonderful husband and father to the girls and a fine provider.
I learned a new style of painting lately and my art shows are taking off. My paintings, old style and new, are in great demand.
The girls and I are spending the summer days gardening and decorating the old house. I think Mom would like the colours we've picked out. I hope you like them too.
With your return confirmed, we've been so excited. The girls talk about nothing else. I attached a holovid with this letter so you'll see them for yourself.
I do hope that you have been taking care of yourself out there and that you've been eating well. Remember I know your habits too well.
I met Tilly from school and she sends her love to you. I know she was in my classes more than yours but she always liked you a lot.
I hope life there with the Maquis hasn't been too hard on you. Yes, I worry but I always did. I'll never change.
Do you know that next month you will be six years out there? I don't know if that time has gone quickly or slowly for you.
And at the end of this month we'll be married five years. Where did that time go?
I must tell you. Your old flame Cheb was arrested. Can you believe that? He went on some rally with a musical festival and they all got drunk. Things got out of hand and they all got a night with security. He's home now and very embarrassed.
Aunt May and Uncle Bill have asked me to send on their love to you.
Our crazy cousin Robert who was working in Mexico decided to return home at last. He met a girl down there and love followed. They plan to marry soon.
I meant to write to him more and now I feel some guilt that I didn't but he's forgiven me. He said a painting for their new home will make up for it.
Where and when this now famous wedding and reception will be has apparently already been worked out but he's not telling anyone yet. We'll have to wait and see.
Things are quiet otherwise with the girls and taking care of the house. I've decided I might have a larger studio built when the girls return to school but we'll have to see how things go.
I've kept some of Mom's old books for you. Do you still remember those old prison stories she loved to read? I also kept some news vids for you so you can catch up when you get home. If you have the time, of course.
We'll have to have a big family party when you get back. Now that is a certainty and I don't want to hear your old excuses about how you hate parties. This is for us as much as for you.
Most of the surrounding area here in Indiana has stayed pretty much the same as you remember. Do you remember Bill's old store? Well, he retired but his son runs it now so nothing has changed there either. It's still a great place to visit and shop.
There isn't much else to tell you. Things don't change much around here. Is that good or bad? What do you think? I know you always embraced change but things staying the same can be comforting. We'll see when you get home which is better for you after all those years out there.
A part of me can't believe you'll finally be home. I can't wait to hear all your stories which you always tell in such a wonderful way.
If you can write back to us or get a communication through to us, tell me if there's anything you need for when you get home here. I mean clothes or toiletries. It will save you thinking about the small stuff.
It won't be long now until you're home. I'll make sure your room is ready for you although I know you'll have debriefings first.
As you can see from this letter, I haven't changed my writing style. I still write in small paragraphs. I've always said our habits were very different but those habits never change.
I'll finish this now because each of these letters can only take up so much space so everyone can write. I'll send our blessing to you for a safe journey…well, rest of your journey. I've missed my sister but knowing that you're happy and well makes me happier. I do love you and I guess I've never said that to you before and if it embarrasses you now, well tough. I do love you. You've been the best sister to me. OK – the only sister but the best anyone could ever ask for.
Take care of yourself, Kathryn. Again, we all love you dearly. Your loving sister, Phoebe.
Chakotay smiled as he finished the letter, relieved that Kathryn hadn't received any bad news this time. He looked towards her and saw that she still had her back to him.
"That's a lovely letter, Kathryn. Your sister sounds lovely."
Kathryn turned slowly to look at him. "She is." She still didn't smile.
Chakotay watched as she walked back to the coffee table. "Kathryn, I get the feeling you're not just sharing your letter with me as your friend. What's wrong here? Is there some reason you're showing me this?"
Kathryn sat down on the table facing him. "Let me tell YOU a story for a change, Chakotay." He just nodded and sat back. "It's the story of two young girls…normal kids…playing their games…making things up… We played all kinds of games. Things like secret agents and spies saving the world…all of that…"
Chakotay smiled at the image. "My cousins and I used to imagine all kinds of mysteries in the woods when we were children…"
Kathryn nodded solemnly. "That letter…" She pointed to the padd he still held. "Does anything about that letter stand out to you? Does anything seem strange about it?"
Chakotay thought back to what he'd read and shook his head. "Nothing. It reads like an ordinary letter to me." His words suddenly caused a ripple of something inside him.
Kathryn nodded and smiled slightly for the first time. "Good."
Chakotay frowned now. "Kathryn, what are you trying to tell me here? What am I missing?"
Kathryn reached down beside her and picked up another padd. "When we were kids… As I said, we played all these games. See where she said at the beginning of the letter about the games we played in the barn, asking if I remembered them?" Chakotay nodded. "Well, we used to sit in that barn for hours on end and make up codes and so on. Oh, they were childish but effective, especially if you didn't know what to look for or didn't suspect anything."
Chakotay sat forward now. "You're saying this letter tells you more than it seems to on the surface?"
Kathryn nodded and sighed. "She made sure to mention those games. She also pointed out that she gave the letter to Admiral Paris to give to me, which makes me think he suspected something and still let the letter through. It tells me he approved. She wouldn't have mentioned him unless she wanted me to know that he approved."
She leaned forward. "At least you're not laughing at me or telling me I'm nuts and imagining things."
Chakotay licked at his lips. "After what I've just said? Go on. What does this letter really say to you?"
Kathryn handed him the other padd. "I've marked it out for you to make it easier to see…more clear." Chakotay nodded as he took the second padd from her.
Kathryn moved now to sit beside him. "We had this simple system. The cipher was the first word of the first sentence or paragraph and the second word of the second and so on. It worked better with paragraphs." She pointed to the second padd. "Read the letter now and see what stands out."
Chakotay looked at her a moment and then began to read, Kathryn reading over his shoulder this time.
I gave this letter to Admiral Paris to send on to you so I have trust that you'll get it.
I'm so sorry you had to hear the news about Mom as you did. You have my word that she passed peacefully in her sleep, knowing that you were alive and well and on your way back. She loved you and was so proud of you. Take comfort in that. You were with her every day.
The news of your imminent return has had me remembering our childhood. Remember how we'd sit in the old barn, padds in hand, making things up. Do you remember that, Kathryn? Do you remember the games we played?
Kathryn read with him, her finger pointing out some things to him. "Up to the word 'so' she's telling me that this is coded. She's emphatic about it. From that word on, the code comes into it. I've marked the words."
Chakotay nodded and read on.
JOHN sends his love. He works very hard these days but he's a wonderful husband and father to the girls and a fine provider.
I LEARNED a new style of painting lately and my art shows are taking off. My paintings, old style and new, are in great demand.
The girls AND I are spending the summer days gardening and decorating the old house. I think Mom would like the colours we've picked out. I hope you like them too.
With your return CONFIRMED, we've been so excited. The girls talk about nothing else. I attached a holovid with this letter so you'll see them for yourself.
I do hope that YOU have been taking care of yourself out there and that you've been eating well. Remember I know your habits too well.
I met Tilly from school AND she sends her love to you. I know she was in my classes more than yours but she always liked you a lot.
I hope life there with the MAQUIS hasn't been too hard on you. Yes, I worry but I always did. I'll never change.
Do you know that next month you WILL be six years out there? I don't know if that time has gone quickly or slowly for you.
And at the end of this month we'll BE married five years. Where did that time go?
I must tell you. Your old flame Cheb was ARRESTED. Can you believe that? He went on some rally with a musical festival and they all got drunk. Things got out of hand and they all got a night with security. He's home now and very embarrassed.
Aunt May and Uncle Bill have asked me to send ON their love to you.
Our crazy cousin Robert who was working in Mexico decided to RETURN home at last. He met a girl down there and love followed. They plan to marry soon.
I meant to write to him more and now I feel some GUILT that I didn't but he's forgiven me. He said a painting for their new home will make up for it.
Where and when this now famous wedding and reception will be has apparently ALREADY been worked out but he's not telling anyone yet. We'll have to wait and see.
Things are quiet otherwise with the girls and taking care of the house. I've DECIDED I might have a larger studio built when the girls return to school but we'll have to see how things go.
I've kept some of Mom's old books for you. Do you still remember those old PRISON stories she loved to read? I also kept some news vids for you so you can catch up when you get home. If you have the time, of course.
We'll have to have a big family party when you get back. Now that is a CERTAINTY and I don't want to hear your old excuses about how you hate parties. This is for us as much as for you.
Most of the surrounding area here in Indiana has stayed pretty much the same as you remember. DO you remember Bill's old store? Well, he retired but his son runs it now so nothing has changed there either. It's still a great place to visit and shop.
There isn't much else to tell you. Things don't change much around here. Is that good or bad? WHAT do you think? I know you always embraced change but things staying the same can be comforting. We'll see when you get home which is better for you after all those years out there.
A part of me can't believe you'll finally be home. I can't wait to hear all your stories which YOU always tell in such a wonderful way.
If you can write back to us or get a communication through to us, tell me if there's anything you NEED for when you get home here. I mean clothes or toiletries. It will save you thinking about the small stuff.
It won't be long now until you're home. I'll make sure your room is ready for you although I know you'll HAVE debriefings first.
As you can see from this letter, I haven't changed my writing style. I still write in small paragraphs. I've always said OUR habits were very different but those habits never change.
I'll finish this now because each of these letters can only take up so much space so everyone can write. I'll send our BLESSING to you for a safe journey…well, rest of your journey. I've missed my sister but knowing that you're happy and well makes me happier. I do love you and I guess I've never said that to you before and if it embarrasses you now, well tough. I do. You've been the best sister to me. OK – the only sister but the best anyone could ever ask for.
Take care of yourself, Kathryn. Again, we all love you dearly. Your loving sister, Phoebe.
Chakotay finished reading and stared at nothing for a moment until Kathryn's voice broke the spell.
"Do you see it now, Chakotay? Look…" She pointed to the end where she'd written out the message for him.
JOHN LEARNED AND CONFIRMED – YOU AND MAQUIS WILL BE ARRESTED ON RETURN – GUILT DECIDED – PRISON CERTAINTY – DO WHAT YOU NEED – HAVE OUR BLESSING.
"Chakotay, there's no way that message would be there by accident, if that's what you're thinking. This is deliberate and my sister sent it to me to warn me." She watched him carefully until he looked at her. "I'm not mad, Chakotay. I'm not imagining this."
Chakotay sighed deeply. He put the padds down and sat back. "Which means that I'm not imagining something more to my own letter…nor the others either…"
Kathryn laughed slightly. "And I thought I'd have to convince you that I wasn't losing my mind."
Chakotay shook his head. "I'd have believed you had you just told me this and not shown it to me."
Kathryn shook her head. "It's just that I was the one uneasy all along and you were the one telling me it was fine."
Chakotay laced his fingers together. "I was ninety nine percent certain when I came in here."
Kathryn watched him carefully. "And now?"
He shook his head. "Can you have five hundred percent?" He fell back into the sofa now. ""Dear God, I can understand them coming after us but…" He sat back up and looked at Kathryn, concern on his face. "They can't mean you too…"
Kathryn just shook her head sadly. "It seems they do. Let's face it. I've broken just about every rule out here. I played hard and loose with the Prime Directive…not to mention Ransom. I'm no longer the good little obedient Starfleet captain who left here six years ago. They want a 'golden girl' to come home, one they can parade out there and show off. With all this, they couldn't just ignore it. They'd have to be seen to punish me in some way or they'd be setting a bad precedent."
Chakotay shook his head angrily. "The public and media wouldn't stand for it…"
Kathryn laughed at that. "Exactly. They love a hero and Starfleet wouldn't like being dictated to in that way. Either they'd be seen as over lenient, with me bigger than them, or else they'd be seen as backing down to the public and media and no organization likes that. This way they'll make me out to be the bad girl and will publicly punish me…tarnish any reputation I ever had. I can bet that my sentence would be a very long one. I'd be put away until everyone forgot about me."
Chakotay felt deep anger rising inside him. He jumped up. Kathryn watched him. "Kathryn, you're sure about this? I mean, you're absolutely certain? I know what our letters say but I still can't believe they'd do this to you…"
Kathryn seemed very accepting. "I know it's true. I know Phoebe's husband, John. They were engaged before I left. He works within Starfleet. He was working there before they met. I imagine he's risen through the ranks since then. Besides, I trust him. Phoebe would have discussed this with him. He probably heard it somewhere and told her and she decided I needed to know. Remember she said 'have OUR blessing' not 'HER blessing'."
Chakotay sat down again and reached for her hand, his anger giving way to concern for her. "I'm sorry, Kathryn."
She shrugged as she looked at him sadly. "They've lied to me, Chakotay. They've betrayed everything I ever believed in…everything my father believed in. I want no part of their world now."
Chakotay squeezed her hand gently, his eyes kind. "You fought so hard to get us home."
Kathryn laughed cynically. "I kept my promise, I guess. It's just not the home I thought it would be." She shrugged. "I suppose it'll just take a little longer to get 'home' now…" She smiled sadly. "And we have to find that home first, of course…"
Chakotay raised a hand and stroked her face. "It'll still be very hard on you…"
Kathryn reached up and covered his hand with her own. "Yes, it will, but I'll get over it. For six years, this ship has been home and somewhere else can be too." She looked deeply into his eyes. "Chakotay, home is where you are…"
Chakotay pulled her into his arms. He held her to him for a long time.
Kathryn lay back against Chakotay and sighed deeply. They hadn't spoken for several minutes, content to just lie together.
"We haven't much time, Chakotay. We're going to have to make some plans."
He nodded against her. "I know." He sat up and looked down at her. "You're still our captain. What do you want to do?"
She sat up also. "I'm thinking about that." She licked at her lips. "Chakotay, do you trust our crew? I mean, do you trust every single one of them?"
He didn't need to think about that. "Yes, I do. I've trusted them with my life for the past six years."
Kathryn nodded. "Then I think it's time we shared all this with them…"
Kathryn searched the faces before her as she stood on a chair in Cargo Bay Two. She'd called a meeting of all the crew, leaving Voyager on autopilot. She saw their emotions clearly as they took in what their captain had just told them. Chief amongst those emotions was anger. Kathryn took a deep breath.
"I'm trusting each and every one of you here to keep this to yourselves. If you send a communication home, please don't talk of this. I know that's asking a lot, but the people involved and at risk here are your friends. They are people who have lived with you for the past six years. You've shared your lives with them. You've eaten with them, fought with them…" She sighed. "We haven't much time to come up with a plan…" She stopped suddenly when Tuvok stepped forward.
"If I may, Captain…" She nodded for him to speak. "We know that prison awaits the former Maquis and possibly the former Equinox crew." Kathryn nodded in confirmation. The Vulcan held her eyes. "May I ask, Captain, if you are also in danger?"
Before Kathryn could answer, Chakotay stepped forward. "The captain is also facing prison. That has been confirmed to us." Shocked gasps were heard from the gathered crew.
Tuvok merely nodded. "Then I see only one course of action." Silence descended over the cargo bay.
Kathryn nodded to her old friend. "Please, Tuvok…"
He looked out over the room. "We need to ascertain who will want to return and who will want to leave. That is first."
Kathryn nodded slowly at that. She looked out over the crew. "This is a time to do what's right for you." She swallowed quickly. "Can you please take some time to think about this and we'll meet back here in one hour. I know that isn't much time in which to make a decision of this magnitude but time is short here." Feeling emotion building in her, Kathryn quickly stepped down from the chair. "One hour people." She turned and left, Chakotay quickly following her.
Kathryn made straight for her ready room, Chakotay following right behind her. He watched her walk to the view port and stare out at the stars.
"Are you all right?"
She shook her head but didn't turn around. "No. It's hard when everything you believed in is exposed as a lie." She turned around, tears in her eyes. "You were right about them, Chakotay. I feel so betrayed and I hate them for putting me…putting us…in this position."
Chakotay sighed as he walked over to her. "There are still some good people there, Kathryn. Perhaps they'll prevail. Who knows what way things will be in time." He stopped when the door chime interrupted him. Kathryn called for entry.
Tuvok entered the room, followed by Tom, B'Elanna , Harry, Seven, Neelix and the Doctor. Kathryn moved towards them.
Tuvok spoke first. "Captain, I need to tell you that I will return to Earth."
Kathryn swallowed and nodded. "Your family will have missed you greatly, Tuvok, and I know you've missed them too. I understand."
Harry slowly came forward. "I'd like to return also, Captain…" His eyes pleaded for forgiveness. "I need to see my parents again and my letter was from Libby. She's still waiting for me and…"
Kathryn smiled and walked over to him. She placed a hand on his shoulder. "You don't need to explain anything, Harry. I wish you a happy life." She turned when Tom and B'Elanna stepped forward now. B'Elanna looked more mad than anything so Tom spoke for them.
"We're going with you, if that's all right…"
Kathryn smiled kindly. "Of course."
Tom shook his head angrily. "I've no wish to return to that and I'll be damned if I allow my wife to spend even one hour in prison…"
Chakotay stepped up behind Kathryn. "We'll be pleased to have you with us…"
Neelix coughed to get everyone's attention. "I'd also like to go with you. I can at least say I've been to the Alpha Quadrant. The Delta Quadrant is my home though and I'm happy to return there."
Kathryn nodded again as the Doctor caught her attention.
"I'll also go with you. I've no wish to have my program studied by idiots." He smiled softly. "Besides, you'll need a good medic with you."
Seven brushed aside the others and stepped forward. "I will also accompany you. You will require my expertise and knowledge. I also have no wish to see Earth. I have little memory of it."
Kathryn shook her head as she studied these people. Before she could say anything, Tuvok spoke again.
"Captain, I estimate about a third of the crew will wish to travel with you and perhaps more. It would be more logical for you to take Voyager. You should have enough crew to run her. Send the rest of us towards Earth in the escape pods. We'll be picked up in one day. You should take Voyager and the Delta Flyer, along with the remaining escape pods, and return to the Delta Quadrant through the wormhole. You could easily collapse this end of it as you enter and the other end as you exit. Any personal correspondence you wish passed to family and friends could be taken by us and passed to them privately in time."
B'Elanna nodded at that. "That planet where we stopped for supplies…the uninhabited one about two months back. It had everything we could want."
Seven interrupted her. "Mr Paris named it 'Tommyland'."
Tom laughed, a little embarrassed. "It was a joke, Seven. I'm sure we could pick a better name than that."
Kathryn looked from one to the other in amazement. "You worked all this out on your way here?"
B'Elanna shook her head. "We're good, Captain, but we're not that good." She smiled. "We've had a bit of time to think about this. We just weren't sure where you and the others stood on it." She smiled kindly. "I'm sorry we doubted you for even a moment. Thank you."
Kathryn sighed heavily and rubbed a hand over her face. Tuvok moved a little closer to her. "Captain, you really have no other choice here." Kathryn nodded at that. "And policies could change in time at Starfleet. I will never divulge your location and I believe none of the others would either. If, however, there was a change in these decisions at some future date and there was a way to reach you, I and others would know how to locate you."
B'Elanna laughed at that. "We could be so settled by that time that we may not want to return…" The others laughed at that.
Tom shook his head. "With people like my father in charge, it'll be our great great grandkids who'll get that news…"
Kathryn's smile faded. "Don't be so hard on him, Tom. I believe he knows of this. My warning came in a letter from my sister, passed to me by your father. I believe he knew exactly what she was telling me and still let it through."
Tom sobered at that. "I didn't realize. He wrote to me."
Kathryn frowned. "Did you find any warning in the letter?"
Tom blushed now. "I didn't read it."
Kathryn's face saddened. "Oh Tom, read the letter. If you want to answer it, you have little time."
Tom nodded slowly. "Yeah…maybe you're right."
Chakotay stood watching them all. "OK. I think it's best to find out about numbers as soon as possible and then we can make plans."
Kathryn shook herself and nodded in agreement. "The commander is right. We have a day at most to get all this sorted and be out of here. Go out there and be available to talk to whoever needs to talk to you." She held up a hand. "I want everyone to make the right decision for themselves. There's no guilt or betrayal here. This is about what's right for each individual." She nodded. "OK…dismissed."
When the door closed, Kathryn looked towards Chakotay. He instinctively seemed to know what she needed. He held open his arms and she went willingly to him. "God, I need this." She could hear his heart beat with her face pressed to his chest. She pulled back then and looked up into his face. "Chakotay, there was something I needed to tell you…"
He nodded and led her to the couch where he sat down beside her. "What is it?"
Kathryn took his hands between her own. "I just wanted you to know that I'd have gone with you even had I not received any warning from Phoebe. If I knew that promotion and honours were waiting for me on Earth…no arrest and prison… I'd still have gone with you."
Chakotay kissed the side of her face. "We haven't had the most romantic settings for our declarations of love and commitment, have we? So much has been happening." He looked down at her. "When all this is over and we get settled, I'll make it up to you."
Kathryn leaned into him. "I'll hold you to that…"
Tuvok's prediction was spot on. Just over a third of the crew elected to return to the Delta Quadrant. All the former Maquis and Equinox crew would travel with Kathryn and Chakotay, along with Tom, B'Elanna, Seven, Neelix and the Doctor.
Sam Wildman wanted to return to Earth so her daughter could meet her father. The Delaney sisters also wanted to return as did Joe Carey, desperate to see his sons again. Of those returning to Earth, there was only one reason given. They had families…children and parents they'd missed too badly. Kathryn understood and went to great pains to stress that to them. She saw their pain, felt it herself. Their loss would wound her deeply but their happiness meant more to her. She knew the loss of Tuvok and Harry would hit her the hardest though.
Chakotay watched her closely as everyone drifted into small groups, most saying their goodbyes. He came up beside her and slipped his arm around her shoulders. "They'll be all right, Kathryn. They miss their families so much and they'll be fine with Starfleet."
Kathryn swallowed her tears and nodded. "I know…I'll just miss them so much. We've become such a family." She turned to look at him. "When I walked in here, all I could think of was that time with the 37's. When they all stayed…" She shook her head. "And yet had we all returned to Earth as expected, where everything was normal and we were welcomed…" She sighed. "They'd all have gone their separate ways anyway. I hadn't thought how much I'd miss them. I'm only seeing that now. I'd no idea how much it would hurt."
Chakotay pulled her against him. "Just think of it this way. They're your chicks and they're leaving the nest. They're returning to their families because YOU got them home and kept your promise to them. That's something to be very proud of."
Kathryn's tears spilled over. "I know…but it still hurts so much…" She was struggling to control her emotions. Chakotay looked up and realized that several crew members were watching them. They slowly moved towards their captain. Kathryn looked up and saw them and it was her undoing. She broke down completely. Sam reached her first and simply hugged her.
Chakotay stood back and watched the scene before him, one he knew would stay with him for the rest of his life. He had tears in his own eyes as he watched Kathryn, the mask off and finally free of protocols, embrace her crew. It was a painful farewell, each knowing they may never see each other again but for Kathryn, it gave her a freedom she'd never otherwise have had. This way she could be Kathryn with these people who meant so much to her, rather than their captain, having to maintain a professional distance.
Early the next morning, several hours before the USS Montana was due to rendezvous with Voyager, the Earth-bound crew made their final goodbyes. Kathryn stood quietly with Tuvok and tried to hold back her tears, not wanting to embarrass her old friend. He rested his hand on her arm.
"All the letters for your families have been passed on. We have them safely stored within our personal logs. You can be assured they will be delivered with the greatest discretion. No one at Starfleet will ever know of them. We will, however, pass on your resignations." Kathryn nodded, almost afraid to speak. "Your destination will remain only in our minds. It is not written anywhere." Kathryn nodded again.
"Thank you, my friend."
Tuvok squeezed her arm. "We've overhauled all the systems we had time for. Voyager is in excellent condition."
Kathryn bit her lip. "There could well be trouble for you. They'll suspect you all of duplicity. You could well face charges of your own for aiding and abetting us in stealing their ship."
The Vulcan merely shrugged. "I will tell them the truth…as I know it. They will know you were warned. As to the rest…you returned to the Delta Quadrant once you had put those who did not wish to accompany you into the escape pods."
Kathryn sighed heavily. "I never thought it would all end like this."
Tuvok nodded slowly. "Nor did I. This Starfleet is not the one I joined. I intend to resign when I return. From what I have observed, every single crew member returning with me will do the same."
Kathryn shook her head at that. "At one time I would have tried to divert them from that course of action. With the way things are now, I understand completely."
Harry walked by them and stopped. "Captain…"
Kathryn smiled at him. "Be safe, Harry. Have a good life. Make them give you that promotion."
The young Ensign smiled sadly. "I'm not staying with Starfleet. I'll work with my dad and hopefully marry Libby."
Kathryn smiled at that and reached for him, hugging him to her. "I hope we meet again someday. You can let me meet your kids."
Harry blushed at that. "I will." He pulled back to look down at the woman who meant so much to him.
"I wish you a safe journey and a happy life, Captain. I hope you can finally have the life you deserve with time for yourself and your own plans. Serve yourself now."
Kathryn nodded tearfully. "I intend to Harry." She looked away when B'Elanna called to them.
"People…we have to get everyone moving."
Kathryn nodded her head and cleared her throat. She looked at her crew. "I'll miss you all so much. Your Gods go with you." They nodded and stared at each other for several moments then began to move towards the pods. Almost everyone was crying. Kathryn bit hard on the inside of her mouth as she watched them leave. She looked up into Tuvok's face now, the last to leave. He nodded at her.
"Live long and prosper, my friend. You will always remain with me. I shall offer Vulcan prayers for you all." He held his hand up in the familiar way.
Kathryn fought her tears and nodded. "You also, my dear friend." She couldn't help it and leaned forward, hugging him to her. He returned the embrace to her delight.
For almost two minutes after they'd all left, Kathryn stared at the empty space before her. Finally, she felt Chakotay's hand on her shoulder. She leaned back against him. "Thank you for allowing me that time. You always know what's right for me."
He turned her to face him. "I pray I always will…" He leaned forward and kissed her forehead. "Come on. Let's get to the bridge."
Kathryn took her seat on the bridge, Chakotay beside her where he had always been. They stared at the view screen watching Earth grow smaller. Chakotay smiled sadly over at her. "Our last look."
Kathryn nodded tearfully. Chakotay reached over and took her hand. "It's still home…"
Kathryn shook her head now. "No, Chakotay. It WAS home." She turned to smile at him. "Now it's time to make a new home. Besides, home isn't a place. It's who you're with." Chakotay squeezed her hand tightly. They shared a loving look for a moment until Kathryn nodded again. She looked away, her eyes scanning the bridge, B'Elanna and Seven on the bridge with them. They both nodded at her and she smiled at them. She turned and saw the Doctor and Neelix standing on the other side and exchanged reassuring smiles with them also. Finally, she looked forward, gazing at Earth for the last time. She cleared her throat.
"Mr. Paris, set a course…for home. Our new home."