By Seema

Disclaimer: Characters and places belong to Paramount. Some material created by the producers of Voyager Virtual Season Eight. The rest of the story belongs to me.

Note: This story originally 'aired' on August 24, 2001, as episode 7 of the Voyager Virtual Season Eight project. As a result, some of the material in this story is carried over from previous episodes and continues in other episodes. However, it's not necessary to have read the previous six episodes prior to this one to understand.


The planet loomed large on the viewscreen. It was an M-class planet; the first they had seen in weeks. More importantly, according to the scans that Seven of Nine had run, this particular planet was rich in dilithium.

A perfect opportunity for a brief, uneventful away mission, B'Elanna Torres mused, as she looked over the topographical maps of the planet

"The scans show a large deposit on the northern continent," B'Elanna said, "and lucky for us, close to the surface too. It should be easy to extract enough dilithium to last us for a few months."

Next to her, Harry Kim nodded.

"I see a clearing not too far from there," Harry said. He indicated a spot on the map. "That looks like a good place to put the Delta Flyer down."

"And the weather scans look good too. Sunny, blue skies, a light breeze from the west," B'Elanna said. She settled back in her chair, letting a smile spread across her face. "It feels really good to get out, Harry. As much as I love Voyager, the ship does get claustrophobic after a while. It has been so long..."

"Even a boring little mission like this?" Harry teased. "You sure you didn't want to wait for something more exciting?"

B'Elanna scowled and then good-naturedly, punched Harry in the arm.

"This is good enough for me. For now," she said. "I won't be away from Miral too long."

"This is your first away mission since before she was born, isn't it?" Harry asked.


"You seem like you're doing okay," Harry observed. "No anxiety at all?"

B'Elanna shook her head. "Samantha Wildman has promised to take her when Tom goes on duty." She paused, thinking how naturally Sam handled Miral, a skill that B'Elanna, occasionally overwhelmed by her new responsibilities, envied greatly. On occasion, B'Elanna felt more comfortable with a hypospanner than with her own baby, but she brushed away those feelings as best as she could. "I can't think of anyone I'd trust more with Miral, other than the Doctor and Tom. The Captain said she'd check in also."

"The Captain seems really taken with Miral," Harry said. He leaned over and flipped a few of the switches. "I'm beginning the descent."

"Reversing thrusters," B'Elanna muttered. "And yes, the Captain does enjoy spending time with Miral. All right. We're down to impulse power now."

"Entering the atmosphere."

"Shields are holding," B'Elanna said. Her fingers flew over the control panel expertly as she ran a variety of scans. "Looks like there might be a little turbulence in our future, but nothing serious."

As she spoke, the Delta Flyer shook, nearly knocking Harry out of his seat.

"A little turbulence?" he asked amusedly as he regained his balance.

B'Elanna grinned back. "Enjoy that, Harry. That's probably the most excitement you're going to experience on this particular away mission."

Harry shook his head as he focused on landing the Delta Flyer.

"You know," he said, "strange as it might sound, I could use a little less excitement in my life these days."

B'Elanna nodded. She knew exactly what he meant.


"Smooth landing," B'Elanna commented as she went through the post-landing procedures. She carefully cut power to all systems still operating. "Nice job, Harry."

"Thanks," Harry said. "Tom isn't the only decent pilot on Voyager, you know."

B'Elanna's lips turned upward. "Should I tell my husband you're bucking for his position?"

Harry stifled a grin as he opened a small locker in the rear of the Delta Flyer.

"Let's keep that between the two of us," Harry said, still in a teasing tone of voice. He pulled out a pair of phasers and quickly ran a check to make sure the power cells had not drained. The tricorder beeped green and Harry let out a sigh of relief.

"You really think we need phasers?" B'Elanna asked with a frown. "Scans didn't show anything unusual."

"You never know."

"Always prepared," B'Elanna said, shaking her head in amusement. "All right, I think we're done here. I've locked down all of the systems. Seven's new encryption code is a beauty, though it's a little like using a torpedo to swat a fly."

"You never can be too careful," Harry said sanctimoniously, causing B'Elanna to raise an eyebrow in amusement. Harry opened the Delta Flyer's hatch and he stepped out into the bright sunlight. B'Elanna, blinking, followed with her toolkit.

"Wow," she said, looking around. Knee-high grass, gently swaying in the breeze, covered the clearing, the wide expanse of green and yellow dotted with delicate orange and white flowers. Shadowy blue hills edged the horizon. "This is... lovely. Perfect, almost."

B'Elanna held out her arms as if trying to embrace the day, the scenery, all of it. She closed her eyes, inhaling the clean, sweet smells of the meadow and feeling the warmth of the sun soft against her face. It occurred to her then that she and Tom had never taken Miral outside. Sure, there had been family outings to the holodeck, trips to the beach or a drive down Route One, but never nature like this. With a pang, B'Elanna considered it might be months - she refused to think in terms of 'years' - before she and Tom would be able to introduce Miral to the great outdoors.

They had been so close, so damn close to Earth and now... B'Elanna opened her eyes.

Don't think like that, B'Elanna thought. We're going to get home. The Captain has promised us and she has never let us down. This is just another detour.

She glanced at Harry, who seemed to be more interested in his tricorder readings than his surroundings.

"Well?" B'Elanna asked. She peered over his shoulder to get an idea of what had captured Harry's interest.

Harry looked up from his tricorder. "The dilithium is that way. Two kilometers." He pointed towards the hills. "You up for a hike, Maquis?"

"If you are, Starfleet," B'Elanna answered, quickly banishing all thoughts of Earth from her mind. She started walking in the direction Harry had indicated. "You know, it might not be a bad idea to start a colony here." She said it casually, almost flippantly, an afterthought more than anything else.

"What?" Harry asked, shock evident in his voice. "You'd actually stay here?"

"Why not?" B'Elanna shrugged. She glanced down at her tricorder. "It's an M-class planet with a good climate and the resources we need. I'm detecting a river a kilometer to the east and it looks like there might be a forest not too far from here."

"So you don't think we're ever getting home."

B'Elanna glanced at her friend sideways. She heard the note of dismay in his voice and knew the feeling; many of the crew had been devastated when Voyager had ended up in what Tom referred to as the 'twilight zone'.

Truth be told, the idea of settling in one place was very appealing but then again, so was the idea of returning home to the Alpha Quadrant. And B'Elanna knew that she could not be selfish; she had her daughter, her husband. For the others on Voyager, their families were elsewhere; building a new life here in a static universe was not an option for them and never could be.

"No," B'Elanna said softly. She put her hand on Harry's arm. "I haven't given up. I was just joking. Not funny, I guess. I got carried away by the fresh air and the scenery."

"As long as you aren't serious," Harry said. "I'd hate to go back and have you propose to the Captain that we make our permanent home here. After all we've been through..."

"Not a chance," B'Elanna said. She unzipped her jacket and tied it around her waist. "You know, we ought to make the best of this opportunity and see if we can find some food staples to replace Neelix's leola root supply. Chell mentioned to me food supplies have been seriously depleted since Neelix's departure."

"Good idea," Harry answered. He paused walking for a moment. "I miss him, you know?"

"You're not the only one," B'Elanna said softly. She thought of all the times Neelix had managed to comfort her, to say the right thing. He had helped her through her self-destructive behavior years ago and she was grateful for Neelix's advice when her relationship with Tom was on the rocks. More importantly, Neelix had been her friend and B'Elanna sincerely hoped that Neelix was happy and content in his new life.

"Maybe settling down is the answer," Harry said. B'Elanna looked at him in surprise.

"Where did that come from? A few minutes ago you were jumping all over me for-" she paused as her tricorder starting beeping. "Harry, I'm picking up humanoid life signs."

Harry looked startled. "I didn't pick up any life signs in the Flyer, humanoid or otherwise."

"Looks like they are all around us," B'Elanna said. She whirled around, but saw nothing but endless prairie in every direction. "This is strange. They are everywhere." She showed the tricorder to Harry so he could verify the readings.

"How is that possible?" Harry asked. He gestured. "There is nothing here but grass."

"I know, but..." B'Elanna's voice drifted off as the grass evaporated and was replaced by cobblestones. She whirled around as a wall appeared about one hundred meters to the left of them, followed by a house and then another building. B'Elanna's gaze met Harry's in confusion as a village slowly materialized around them.


"Well, I guess we're not in the Delta Quadrant anymore," Harry joked lamely as he and B'Elanna stood in the middle of what appeared to be a town square. Buildings, no more than two stories high, rimmed the plaza. Humanoids, with strong ridges across their foreheads, and dressed in bright clothing were staring at the two Voyager crew members with fascination.

"Hello," B'Elanna ventured. She took a step towards one of the aliens. "I'm Lieutenant B'Elanna Torres of the starship Voyager. This is Ensign Harry Kim. We mean no harm."

"Welcome." One of the aliens - a female - stepped forward. She was taller than most of the others, with long silver hair which curled up at the ends. Her long, slender arms were adorned with bracelets which clinked musically as she moved. With the exception of her forehead ridges - shaped like a V over her nose - the alien looked almost completely human. Her slender body was swathed in a blue silky material edged with gold. She smiled at them. "I'm Azuma. We are the Caprijen."

"We're sorry for intruding," B'Elanna said. "We didn't realize there was anything or anyone here at all."

"It is all right," Azuma said. Her voice was calm, assuring, and B'Elanna liked the woman immediately. "We have cloaking technology which protects us from outsiders. We are a non-violent society and hiding ourselves in this manner is the only way we can protect ourselves. Unfortunately, sometimes our technology fails us, leaving us subject to discovery."

Azuma's words intrigued B'Elanna.

"Let me get this straight," she said. "Your technology allows you to cloak an entire village and mask life signs too?"

Azuma nodded. "Yes, but lately, our equipment has experienced some malfunctions and as a result, the cloak has been less than reliable. We have been unable to find the problem, but our engineers are working diligently to fix it."

B'Elanna turned to Harry, her eyes shining. He shook his head.

"The Captain won't like it, B'Elanna," he said in a warning tone. B'Elanna knew he was right, but the engineer in her couldn't pass up the opportunity to take a look at this technology. And she felt confident she could convince Harry to see her point of view.

"Could you give us a moment?" B'Elanna asked. Azuma nodded. B'Elanna put her hand on Harry's shoulder and steered him away from Azuma. "Think about it, Harry. Coupled with the ablative armor, this cloaking technology could make us almost invincible. I'm sure the Captain wouldn't object."

"I wouldn't be so sure of that."

"Look, I know technology trades have backfired in the past, but this is different. The Caprijen mean no harm; they just need a way to preserve their way of life. We can help them," B'Elanna said.

"Isn't that what we said about the Hirogen?"

"The Hirogen wanted to hunt us, Harry. It's not the same thing."

Harry heaved a sigh. "All right, but you explain it to the Captain. After all, you do outrank me."

B'Elanna heard the note of bitterness in Harry's voice. She knew the fact that her friend hadn't been promoted after over seven years of exemplary - well, mostly exemplary - service rankled at him, even though Harry had never directly said anything to B'Elanna. Some things B'Elanna just knew instinctively.

"I'll take the blame," B'Elanna assured him. "And Harry? Your turn will come."

"What about the dilithium?" Harry asked. B'Elanna sighed. He had a point; any repairs they undertook would severely cut into the time allocated to extracting the dilithium. And the dilithium was more important than the cloaking technology, even if the Captain did agree with the technology trade.

"Just a look then," B'Elanna said. "A quick look. And don't worry about the dilithium." She flashed a smile at Harry, who still looked uncertain. She squeezed his shoulder. "Don't worry about it, Starfleet. Leave it to me."

Harry followed B'Elanna back to Azuma, who was now clustered with several other Caprijens. Azuma quickly introduced B'Elanna and Harry to the other aliens, who all eyed the Voyager officers with obvious interest.

"Pleased to meet you," B'Elanna said briskly. "Azuma, I'd like to propose a trade. I'll take a look at your malfunctioning equipment, if you could assist us with locating dilithium. We need a six month supply, at the very least."

Azuma considered and then said, "One minute."

B'Elanna nodded as Azuma turned to huddle with the others. After a few minutes of discussion, some of it loud to carry over to where Harry and B'Elanna were standing, Azuma returned.

"Agreed. We will help you mine the dilithium in return for your help in repairing the Keeper," she said.

"The Keeper?" B'Elanna asked.

"It's..." Azuma hesitated. "It is difficult to explain, but if you help us, we will give you the specifications for the cloaking technology. However, the Keeper acts in conjunction with our cloak. One cannot function without the other."

"All right," B'Elanna said. "You have a deal."


Kathryn Janeway stood next to the windows of her Ready Room, staring out into the vast expanse of space, a mug of coffee in her hand. She pressed her other palm against the window, the glass cool beneath her fingers. Here, staring out at the view which rarely changed, it was so easy to lose all track of time.

Janeway appreciated this quiet time to herself; lately, she had found herself desiring a certain sense of serenity, and she knew that her crew, so recently disappointed by their failed attempt to return home, sought the same kind of solace. She recognized the signs of her crew withdrawing from her, even recognized it in her own first officer -

The door chimed, startling Janeway out of her thoughts. She blinked.


The doors slid open as Janeway turned around slowly and took a few steps in her visitor's direction.

"T'Pel," she said. She put her cup down on the desk and gestured toward an empty chair. "Thank you for coming."

T'Pel sat down, neatly folding her hands in her lap. Her intelligent and direct gaze slightly unnerved Janeway. Despite her long friendship with Tuvok, Janeway never really had the chance to get to know T'Pel well and Tuvok had not taken the time to share much about his wife other than the bare minimum information.

All of that will have to change now, Janeway thought as she settled behind her desk. The setting seemed oddly formal, but Janeway guessed T'Pel would not particularly care for a casual atmosphere.

And there was nothing casual about the reason why Janeway had summoned T'Pel.

"I hope you find Voyager comfortable," Janeway said, keeping her tone light, conversational. T'Pel, however, maintained her stiff posture. "Your quarters are comfortable?"

"I find the accommodations sufficient for my needs," T'Pel answered in the clipped, emotionless tones so characteristic of Vulcans. "I lack for nothing."

Except for your children, your friends, your home, Janeway thought, but of course T'Pel, a very private person, would be too proud to express sentiments such as these like this out-loud.

"I know Tuvok is glad to have you here," Janeway said. Of course, Tuvok had not said so to her in so many words, but Janeway had seen her old friend in the messhall with his wife, had seen the way he looked at her with a mixture of respect and if the emotion could be applied to Vulcans, love. "I know he missed you while we were in the Delta Quadrant."

"As I missed him," T'Pel replied and Janeway knew this was the closest to an admission of love she would ever get from a Vulcan. Janeway lifted her cup of coffee, sipped, and winced at the bitter cold brew.

"Would you like something?" Janeway asked, getting up from her chair and heading to the replicator. "My coffee is nothing less than toxic."

"No, thank you. I do not require food or drink at this time."

Still facing away from the Vulcan, Janeway grinned. The coffee cup materialized and Janeway took a sip.

"Ah, better," Janeway said. She smiled. "When we were in the Delta Quadrant, we would do anything, most anything that is, for a good cup of coffee. It seemed, at the time, good company and coffee could make most of our problems disappear."

"And now?" T'Pel questioned. Janeway shook her head as she settled into the chair next to T'Pel's.

"I'm concerned about the crew's morale," she said. "We were so close to home. Only one light year away and now..."

"I understand."

"When Neelix was on-board, he served as an unofficial sounding board for many of the crew. He could pick up on any mood and possessed a knack at peeling away the layers to get to the heart of the matter," Janeway said. She sighed. "He was a valuble member of the crew and while I wish him well, I do miss him, T'Pel."

T'Pel remained silent, but her dark eyes were alert with anticipation.

"I can't be everything to my crew," Janeway confessed. She glanced down into her coffee. "I would like to be, but there are some days..."

"I understand," T'Pel said. This time her voice was infused with warmth and for that, Janeway was grateful.

"My crew needs someone they can talk to," Janeway went on. "They know they are free to come to me at any time, but many of them don't. Some go to Chakotay, but more of them chose Neelix. Now that Neelix is gone, there's a void. I know it's a lot to ask, but would you be willing to serve as the ship's counselor?"

T'Pel tipped her head to the side as if considering the request. Janeway took another sip of coffee, feeling the warm liquid coat the inside of her throat. Her hands shook slightly as she put the mug down on the desk and she wondered when she had become so vulnerable.

I can't let this be like the last time, Janeway thought as she contemplated the mug on the corner of the desk. Her last descent into melancholy had occurred nearly two months ago when they had passed through an expanse of space completely devoid of life or scientific phenomena; she had cut herself off from the crew, choosing to dwell in self-pity and regret, even shutting out Chakotay, whom she counted among her closest friends. Janeway lifted her chin defiantly and turned to T'Pel, who was nodding slightly.

"I will do it," T'Pel said quietly. "It would be an appropriate position for me and I wish to be of service to the ship."

"Thank you," Janeway said. "We - I appreciate it."

"Chakotay to the Captain."

Janeway detected the note of urgency in Chakotay's voice, the first real sign of emotion she had heard from her first officer in days.

Well, you haven't been spending much time with him now, have you? she thought. But she pushed the thought away, knowing their relationship was already better than it had been since Voyager had ended up in this bubble of space. In time, Janeway thought, we'll be back to where we were. And she fervently hoped that they could repair the damage to their relationship sooner, rather than later.

"Janeway here. What is it?"

"We need you on the Bridge."

"On my way."

Janeway rose as did T'Pel.

"Thank you," Janeway said. "I'll let Chakotay know about our conversation and he'll inform the crew."

T'Pel nodded. Janeway headed for the door and then stepped aside so that T'Pel could exit first.

And then with a sharp intake of air, Janeway entered the Bridge.


"What is it?" Janeway demanded as she marched down the Bridge to where Chakotay was standing. He nodded at the viewscreen; a serene, cloud-covered M-class planet took up much of the screen. A planet, Janeway realized in shock, that looked very much like Earth, right down to the number of continents. She swallowed hard and turned her attention to her first officer.

"We're picking up a distress call," Chakotay said. He turned to Tuvok. "Tuvok has pinpointed it to this location."

"Any indication what it is?" Janeway asked, frowning; there was no sign of a ship or anything else out there.

"I am scanning all frequencies now," Tuvok said. "I'm detecting no vessel, only a ripple of energy, a continuous burst..." His voice drifted off as he leaned closer to examine the readings on his console.

"You sure there's someone out there?"

"This isn't usual phenomena," Chakotay said, an edge to his normally crisp tone. "And it's a moving energy wave, spiraling downward towards the planet. The fact that it's emitting a distress call of some kind-"

"You think it's a ship? Hail it," Janeway said sharply. "At least let whoever is out there know we heard them."

"There is no response," Tuvok said. Janeway took a step towards the viewscreen, eyeing the planet with a mixture of fascination and longing. "I am retrying on all frequencies. Still no response, but the distress signal is a continuous pulse."

"They're ignoring us?" Janeway asked in disbelief. "Keep trying, Tuvok." She looked over at Chakotay. "Isn't this the planet where scans indicated large reserves of dilithium?"

"It is," Seven of Nine said from her station directly behind the Captain. "This planet was among those Lieutenant Torres and Ensign Kim planned to visit."

"The energy wave has dissipated," Tuvok said. He tapped a few keys on his console. "However, I am picking up a life sign on the planet. Captain, it's Sernaix."

"Damn. Shields up and go to red alert. Tuvok, are you picking up any Sernaix ships in the vicinity?" Janeway asked.

"I am not picking up vessels of any kind, Sernaix or otherwise, on long range sensors," Tuvok said. His voice was calm, evenly modulated, but Janeway detected the note of unease in her security officer's tone. She knew exactly what he was concerned about; Sernaix ships were seemingly impenetrable to Voyager's scanning technology. The last time they had encountered the Sernaix, the attack had seemingly come out of nowhere and now they had detected a single Sernaix life sign with no indication of another alien ship anywhere in the vicinity. This particular circumstance didn't bode well, Janeway knew, and she shared Tuvok's anxiety.

"Continue the scan," Chakotay advised needlessly. "I doubt any of us are eager to see the Sernaix again. Let's try to avoid them if we can."

"Captain." Tom Paris whirled around from the helm. "If the Sernaix are down on that planet, B'Elanna and Harry are going to need us."

"I agree," Janeway said. She settled herself into her chair. "Set a synchronous orbit around the planet, Mr. Paris. When we're in range, hail the away team."


"When you said 'hiking', you weren't kidding," Harry said. He tried to keep his panting minimal; lately, he had been hard pressed to find time for exercise programs on the holodeck.

Occasionally, he had managed to indulge in a Captain Proton scenario or two, but without Tom Paris - who had embraced fatherhood wholeheartedly - the holodeck lacked its usual panache. As a result, Harry had begun spending his free time practicing his saxophone or playing various strategy games in the messhall with the Delaney sisters or anyone else who happened to be around at the time.

And neither hobby had particularly prepared him for the steep ascent into the cold and damp caves located just beyond the Caprijen village.

He was at least relieved to see that B'Elanna was slightly out of breath also as they followed Azuma up the rocky trail. Azuma, on the other hand, appeared to have no problems whatsoever as her breath remained even and controlled.

"We are not far from the Keeper," Azuma told them. The light from Azuma's lantern played off the walls of the cave, creating shadows that conjured up memories of imaginary monsters that hid in closets and beneath beds. Harry knew there was nothing to fear in these caves, but still, he kept one hand on his phaser.

The trio turned a corner and suddenly the narrow passageway widened into a large chamber, one illuminated by lanterns hanging every few meters. The walls here were of a beige hue, rather than the gray and black shades of the passageway.

"Look." Azuma pointed in the direction of a gray box. It was nondescript looking, to say the least, measuring about three meters wide and four meters tall. "That's the Keeper," Azuma went on proudly. "It has been a part of our people's heritage for almost a thousand years."

"That's a long time," B'Elanna said. She pulled out her tricorder. "No wonder it's been acting up. I'm picking irregular spikes in the power flow. Does anyone perform regular maintenance on it?"

"Our engineers routinely run diagnostics, however, the latest malfunctions have been difficult to repair."

B'Elanna crouched in front of it, examining her tricorder readings. She noted some unusual bursts of energy patterns, some of them powerful enough to burn out fuses, and others so weak, they barely registered on her tricorder.

"Anything?" Harry asked her.

"I'm noticing..." her voice drifted off as she stared at the gray box in fascination. B'Elanna reached out, touching the smooth metal delicately with the tips of her fingers. "It's unlike anything I've seen before. The technology, it's incredible..." her eyes closed as she swayed.

"B'Elanna!" Harry exclaimed as his friend fell back into his arms.


She was a little girl.

As she looked around, B'Elanna recognized the playground immediately. On Kessik, only two blocks from the house where she lived with her parents.

The sun was warm against her skin and the grass soft and cool beneath her bare feet. B'Elanna turned around slowly, facing up to the sunlight. And then, two strong hands, lifting her towards the sky.

B'Elanna laughed as she flew through the air.

Those same strong hands caught her and when she found herself on the ground, B'Elanna looked up.

Father. Mother. Both. Smiling down at her.

"Again, Daddy," B'Elanna said, clapping her hands together. "Do it again."


B'Elanna's eyes flew open and she saw Harry and Azuma staring at her.

"Are you all right?" Harry asked urgently. "What happened to you?"

B'Elanna shook her head, pressing her hand against her forehead. Her mouth felt dry, scratchy.

"Water?" she requested.

"One minute," Harry said. He rummaged through his pack to find the canteen. He poured some of the water into a glass and held it to B'Elanna's lips. "Careful, now."

B'Elanna gulped down the water, relishing the coolness running down her throat. She closed her eyes, licking her lips.

"Want more?" Harry asked.

"No, no, I'm fine now," B'Elanna said. She glanced at Azuma. "What the hell happened?"

"You experienced a vision," Azuma said.

"Yeah," B'Elanna said. She got to her feet and moved away from the box. "I guess you can call it that."

"Was it a... pleasant experience?"

B'Elanna considered. She had felt completely happy in her 'vision,' as Azuma called it. Free, light-hearted, wonderful, loved.

"Yes," B'Elanna said. She smiled. "I was at the playground, near my home on Kessik. My parents, both of them, were there and it... it was a good day. I was four years old again and that my father was swinging me up in his arms."

Harry crossed his arms against his chest.

"So?" he asked. "What is it?"

"The only way I can explain it is in this way," Azuma said. "Somehow, the Keeper manages to extricate memories from people and bring them back vividly. In that way, we have the ability to relive the happiest moments of our lives. However, it has never affected an outsider before."

"It's got some effect," B'Elanna said. "It was a pretty powerful experience."

"Look, I don't like this," Harry said nervously. "Let's figure out what's wrong with this thing and get on with our mission."

"Agreed," B'Elanna said, but she kept looking at the box. She wanted to touch it again, but knew that Harry would not like it. But still...


"Entering orbit now, Captain," Tom announced.

"Anything on sensors?" Janeway got up from her chair and stood directly behind her helm officer, her hand resting gently on his shoulder.

"Nothing," Tuvok answered. "However, I have pinpointed the Sernaix' location. It appears to be one individual; his life signs are weak. He is approximately one kilometer from the Delta Flyer."

"Voyager to B'Elanna, come in," Janeway said crisply, doing her best to keep the concern out of her voice. The bridge fell silent as everyone waited for a response. Janeway noted that her helm officer seemed especially interested, as he had turned away from the viewscreen and focused all of his attention on her. "Janeway to Harry, come in."

"Harry here." Harry's voice sound scratchy over the comlink. "Sorry about that, Captain. Looks like there's a little bit of interference with the comm signal."

Tom let out an audible sigh and turned back to his console, his shoulders visibly relaxing. Janeway stifled a smile; seven years ago, she would have never predicted that Tom Paris would settle down to a life of relative domesticity and stability. Paris' devotion to wife and daughter, the way he looked at them, and the utter peace on his face when he held Miral in his arms struck a nerve with Janeway.

Inadvertently, she glanced at Chakotay, and then quickly recovered her composure.

"Harry, there's a single Sernaix not too far from your location."

Another pause and then Harry, his voice still slightly fuzzy, answered, "Thanks for the warning, Captain. We'll be on the look out."

"As soon as you finish the dilithium extraction, return to Voyager," Janeway said. Her voice, steady and calm, belied her nervousness.

"Understood. Kim out."

Janeway glanced over her shoulder at Chakotay who had moved to stand just behind her.

"Do you think it's a coincidence?" she asked softly. "What do you think the Sernaix are up to?"

"Your guess is as good as mine," Chakotay answered. He glanced towards the viewscreen. "The Sernaix are nothing, if not unpredictable."

"Unpredictability's all part of their charm," Tom said. He flashed a quick smile at the Captain, a small reflection of the ladies' man he used to be. "Makes them irresistible."

"That must be it," Janeway said wryly, allowing herself to smile back at her helm officer. "Tuvok, beam the Sernaix directly to sickbay and notify the Doctor. Assign a security detail."

"Aye, Captain."

"Kathryn..." Chakotay's voice was deliberately low as he leaned close to the captain. She held up a hand, already anticipating his objection.

"I won't deny medical aid to anyone in need," she said in an equally quiet voice.

"It could be a trap."

"Objection noted," Janeway said. She glanced at Tuvok, who was standing near the turbolift. "Erect a forcefield around sickbay. I don't want to take any chances," she said, raising her voice so everyone could hear. She headed towards the door and then turned to face her bridge staff. "Chakotay, Tuvok, you're with me. Tom, you have the Bridge."


B'Elanna enjoyed quiet. She hadn't realized it until this moment when she was alone in the cavern, the door of the box open to reveal the intricate circuitry within. Harry and Azuma had left her to the delicate task of diagnosing the Keeper's problems, while they went to set up the dilithium retrieval operation.

The Captain's tone in their recent communication had indicated that there was no time to waste; the Sernaix were nearby, and B'Elanna had no desire to see those blue-skinned, horned creatures again.

Harry had been reluctant to leave, but B'Elanna had assured him that she would be fine.

"Go. You heard the Captain," she had said. "I can handle this, don't worry."

And now that they were gone, B'Elanna was able to examine the Keeper's technology to her heart's content. So rarely did she get the opportunity for exploration; most of the time she reacted to problems, coming up with quick fixes. The chances for in-depth research proved few and far between. Even when B'Elanna did find a free moment or two, she often spent the time helping the other engineers on her staff with their duties.

She pulled out a phase link coupler from her kit and squinted at the blinking circuits. A few of the circuits looked like they had fused together, creating lapses in the routing paths. Whoever had last repaired the Keeper had attempted to reroute some of the power flow, but B'Elanna could see that an overload was imminent.

She shuffled through the items in her toolkit before settling on a inverse flux capacitor. B'Elanna deftly removed several of the burned out circuits and replaced the wiring.

"Let's see if this makes a difference," she said. Her voice sounded unnaturally hollow and loud in the cavern and B'Elanna shivered. Maybe she shouldn't have persuaded Harry to leave...

She took a deep breath and resumed working.

Time seemed to slip away from B'Elanna as she fused wires together and cut away at the defunct equipment. Her vision blurred and she blinked a few times, trying to focus.

"Come on, B'Elanna," she muttered to herself. "Stick with it."

The phase link coupler slipped out of her hand and B'Elanna cursed under her breath. She reached for it, and her boot slipped. As she recovered her balance, she was aware of someone else in the room with her. She turned and gasped.


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