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Captain's Personal Log, Stardate 59081.2. Another sector of void space! How many more lie in our path? Three months now – far longer than the previous one. I get the feeling that my First Officer is watching me; however, I've felt no need to isolate myself again. My confidence in this ship and her crew is strong. I’m starting to believe we’re invincible.

No sign of the Malon; or of the curious night-creatures we previously encountered. Supplies and power are more than adequate. The crew is coping well, except for Neelix, who spends most of his time in sickbay. Still, the uncomfortable fact remains that no one knows what lies ahead...or how long this will last...

Annoyed, Captain Janeway paced back and forth in front of the command chairs, occasionally glancing toward the active but completely black viewscreen. She continued until Chakotay quietly called it to her attention. Grinning sheepishly, she resumed her seat. Tom Paris, in an attempt to stifle a yawn, emitted a softly choked sound then glanced around, guiltily wondering if he had been observed.

He had.

'At ease, Mr. Paris.' She couldn't fault him when she herself wanted to retire to her ready room to nap on her couch. She'd already done exactly that more times than was proper. What would I give to see normal space again? A month’s replicator rations? No, two months... Tuvok's voice broke into her reverie.

'Captain, long range sensors are detecting a massive obstruction directly ahead. It is blocking our current heading.'

Chakotay, seated next to her, whispered sotto voce, 'Something for your logbook!'

She couldn't help grinning. On their previous journey through void space, Voyager had rescued a curious night-alien, affected by theta radiation. She had excitedly confided to Chakotay, Finally! Something to put in my logbook! An obstruction, however, didn't sound quite so exciting.

'Does this perhaps indicate a return to normal space, Tuvok?'

'Negative, Captain.'

'Very well...let's have a look at it.'

The viewscreen remained featureless; the same vast field of black, empty space in which no stars or planetary systems existed; the same deep-cave, black-cotton sense of suffocation that had previously driven Neelix to install curtains in his quarters. This time, he had painted a lurid mural on his wall.

'Full magnification,' she ordered. Magnification of nothing is still nothing. Janeway, irritated, spoke aloud. 'Tuvok?'

'The obstruction is invisible to all but the sensors - which confirm its existence, Captain. However - sensors are unable to penetrate beyond it,' Tuvok commented.

'Data confirmed, Captain,' reported Harry.

Janeway frowned. 'Mr. Kim - can you ascertain the dimensions of this...obstruction?'

Harry Kim had never before taken so long to deliver an answer. He furiously tapped his controls, calculating, using the data from the sensors. Tuvok glanced at him, making him nervous as he attempted to comply with the Captain's order.

'Ensign?' Janeway prompted.

'Captain...' Harry began, then entered a few more computations and shook his head. Tuvok's brow shot up.

'Do you require assistance, Ensign?' asked the Vulcan.

'No - no sir, it's just...'

'Take your time, Harry,' Janeway replied, informally, patiently.

'Captain ... according to my calculations, the obstruction is...the dimensions are... Captain, this anomaly seems to be a thin disc of an unknown substance, facing us, over… 147 trillion kilometers wide.'

'147 trillion?!' Janeway repeated, aghast.

'Aye, Captain.'

‘How deep is thin?’

‘Unknown, Captain. Sensors can only detect an indistinct shape – something like a platter, suspended in space.

'Composition?'

'It registers, generically, as a gaseous anomaly – but sensors can't classify it. Other than that - unknown, Ma'am.'

Janeway digested this in silence for a moment. She glanced back at the screen, where a flicker of light off to the left of the field caught her attention. As she and the rest of the crew watched, the light wavered and coalesced into a recognizable form, much like a Klingon vessel de-cloaking.

'That looks like a space station!'

'Sensors agree with your assessment, Captain,' replied Tuvok. 'Furthermore, it apparently has cloaking technology, the first we've seen in this quadrant.' Tuvok paused. 'We are receiving a hail.'

A very humanoid and apparently female being appeared onscreen.

'Greetings to the vessel approaching the Hegémony Circles,' she said. 'We welcome you! I am transmitting to you the docking bay coordinates.'

'Sounds like they haven't had company in a while,' remarked Tom.

Janeway ignored the wisecrack and stepped forward, smiling. 'This is the Federa--'

'Docking bay coordinates have been transmitted. Please proceed to docking bay.'

Irked at being interrupted, Janeway nevertheless replied evenly. 'We don't care to dock, thank you. We simply want to ask you about the anomaly beyond your space station...can you tell us anything about it?'

The woman did not answer. Perhaps the Universal Translator isn't translating correctly, Janeway thought. She sought to clarify. 'Our sensors show an obstacle - a gaseous cloud of some kind - about 100 million kilometers from your station. Can you tell us what it is?' A pause. ‘Have you understood me?’

'Yes. You are referring to the Effluvium. Now, please dock at the specified coordinates. We look forward to your visit, and we hope you enjoy your stay.'

Janeway placed her hands on her hips; a sign that her patience was wearing thin. Chakotay had moved to stand behind the Captain in a supportive gesture and addressed the woman himself. 'We haven’t come for a visit. We’re travelers in this sector and this Effluvium, as you call it, is blocking our current heading. Can you give us any information?'

The woman smiled broadly. ‘Come and stay with us for a while at least; our Sovereign may address your concerns. Did you receive the coordinates?'

'They seem determined that we pay them a visit, Captain,' ventured Tom.

'If that's what it takes to get some answers, then I guess that's what we'll be doing, Mr. Paris.' Janeway turned to address the greeter. 'Very well. We have the coordinates, thank you. I would like to speak to your Sovereign - can that be arranged?'

'The greeters will take you for an audience if you so choose.'

'We so choose --' She was speaking to no one. The station had ceased transmitting.

'Somehow, I’ve got a bad feeling about this, Captain,' Chakotay commented, uneasily. ‘The very name of the place bodes ill.’

'If it’s the only way we’ll learn anything...let’s do it. Tom, take us in.'

~ ~ ~

Voyager glided smoothly into the docking bay and the extended landing struts touched down with a gentle clang on the metallic floorplates. With Chakotay in charge of the ship, Janeway descended the extended ramp, accompanied by Tuvok. They waited, visually inspecting the massive docking bay - a brightly lit cavern of metal which could have easily housed two Voyagers.

Presently a small vehicle approached, gliding soundlessly. As it drew near, Janeway counted four humanoids within, all of the same species. Their features were very human, even to the variations in hair texture and color.

'I assume these are the greeters,' Janeway remarked, and Tuvok nodded. First contact protocols were in order. Janeway stepped forward to offer her hand. She introduced Tuvok. The beings were a congenial lot; welcoming them warmly, complementing Janeway upon the beauty of her ship. They introduced themselves as the people of the Hegémony Circles, as the space station was called. The universal translator was barely needed, standard speech was understood here. The greeters seemed concerned that only two crewmembers were present, for they kept glancing at the ramp behind Janeway, as if expecting more to emerge.

'Surely, Captain, you two alone do not steer such a large and beautiful vessel!' said the spokesman for the group.

'Of course not. We are only the representing members of our crew,' Janeway replied. 'There are many more.' The greeters exchanged glances, nodding approval. 'We would like to know more about your people and this station,' Janeway continued, 'but we particularly need information about what you call the Effluvium.'

'All in good time, Captain,' replied the spokesman jovially. 'Let us take care of the preliminaries, shall we?' In the next few minutes, the two Starfleet officers learned the social structure of the station, but little else. A monarchy of sorts was in place and certain restrictions applied. The greeters politely but consistently turned aside Janeway's queries concerning the anomaly.

'With all due respect, if you can't give us the information we need, might we request an audience with your Sovereign, whom I understand might be able to do so?' Janeway asked courteously.

'Yes, you will be scheduled to speak with him,' said the spokesman. 'And now we are sure that you will want to enjoy our hospitality. Your entire crew is invited to visit our station. Some restrictions apply, of course, and a thorough indoctrination will be required for the members of your crew.'

‘What are the restrictions?’ asked Tuvok, suspiciously.

‘Certain areas of the station are off-limits. Surely you can understand that; I’m sure you restrict certain areas of your ship. There are dress requirements.’

'Regarding the latter; unusual, but acceptable,’ Tuvok replied. ‘Regarding the former, you are correct. Allowing the entire crew a visit might be an imposition, however. There are over one hundred...'

'Not a concern,' the spokesman interrupted congenially. 'Not a concern. Our station can accommodate ten times that number. Please. Have all of them disembark and enjoy our facilities.'

Janeway exchanged a quick glance with Tuvok, who nodded his reluctant approval. These people were too friendly for his taste. If the entire crew was to be granted shore leave, he intended to return to the ship and remain on board as soon as the necessary formalities were concluded.

'Very well. Tuvok - shore leave is approved!' exclaimed Janeway with a flourish.

'Please come with us,’ said the spokesman. ‘We will conduct you to the Sovereign.'

~ ~ ~

The aforementioned rules were indeed, most unusual. Janeway learned that uniforms or any type of professional clothing were prohibited. In the interest of diplomacy, Janeway and Tuvok had agreed, and Voyager’s crew willingly donned the garments provided by the greeters. As it was on board Voyager, transporting insitu was prohibited, so vehicles carried them to the public district to enjoy the restaurants and various entertainment establishments, for which complimentary credits had been issued. All, that is, except for Tuvok, who stubbornly remained on board. He did not think it wise to leave the ship completely unmanned, and had retired to his quarters to meditate.

He didn't see the work crews surrounding the ship, scanning, taking reading after reading.

~ ~ ~

Harry and Tom strolled the public district together, sightseeing. 'Doesn't this remind you of something, Harry?'

'Hm?' Harry replied absently, his eyes taking in everything at once.

'You can't tell me you don't remember Deep Space Nine!'

'Sure! But this place is ...'

'Yeah. Cleaner – brighter - and a lot bigger! I've never seen any space station this size. They have similar technology. Look!'

Inside the open-air restaurants they passed, rows of what seemed to be replicators hummed constantly along the back walls, providing food and drink to those issuing commands through some sort of audio system. One such bistro, from which delicious odors emanated, held a particular appeal. Upon entering, Harry examined the metallic wall units curiously. Inset compartments lined the walls; unintelligible graphics surrounded each compartment.

'What shall I order?' asked Harry. ‘How shall I order? I can’t read this.’

'I don't know – watch them,’ he said, indicating the other patrons. ‘They’re ordering, speaking Standard. Soup is sort of universal. Try hot, plain tomato soup and see if it's as good as Voyager's.' Tom’s sarcastic attempt at humor notwithstanding, Harry agreed, ordering soup for both of them. To their surprise, the dishes did not coalesce as in a replicator. Instead, doors in the sides of the compartment slid open, allowing a rather antiquated mechanical belt system to deposit curiously-shaped metallic bowls of dark green soup. No spoons accompanied the order, but after a quick glance at the seated patrons, tipping the bowls by the extended handles, Harry knew why.

Glancing at the strangely colored, iridescent liquid, Tom remarked, 'OK, so they don't know what a tomato is. Try it anyway.'

'They don't know what a spoon is, either.' Harry lifted the bowl to his lips. 'Well - tomato soup or not, it is good. Very good.' He and Tom carried their bowls, not to tables, but to comfortable loungers. They sipped the delicious soup and watched the world go by.

'I could get used to this, Harry!' Tom sighed in contentment.

~ ~ ~

The clothing provided for women by the Hegémony Circles was light, feminine and comfortable, if rather brief, while the male crewmembers were given plain jumpsuits. Janeway adjusted the frilly lace top of her outfit a little higher. The garment was becoming to her slight form, but she wasn’t used to baring quite so much skin. She wished the uniforms had not been prohibited. This was a formal first contact situation; a skimpy, frilly dress seemed rather unprofessional. The Sovereign, however, appeared very pleased with her appearance. Seated now with him in a luxuriously appointed vehicle, she allowed herself to relax and enjoy the sights as they wended their way down one vast corridor after another. Her polite request for an audience with the Sovereign had been scheduled more quickly than she expected; considering her previous difficulty; and for her alone, over Tuvok's protests. She had reassured him and he had returned to the ship. The Sovereign had received her warmly, with an enthusiastic and very courtly manner. His appearance, like all the others, seemed entirely human and, she had to admit, quite handsome. He had put her at ease, offered her a tour of the station, and had insisted upon accompanying her himself. As yet, however, he had not provided any information about the Effluvium. Each time she had broached the subject he had deftly, albeit politely, steered the conversation in other directions.

The more she saw of it, Janeway thought the space station an anomaly no less than the Effluvium. There had been evidence of only two other space stations in over four years of travel through the Delta Quadrant, but this one was dissimilar in configuration to that of the Caretaker's and Species 8472's Starfleet simulation. Their dealings with the latter had resulted in Janeway's peaceful negotiations with 8472 - so named after the Borg designation - but it still was not known how they had learned so much about Earth in order to recreate it. Janeway theorized that fluidic space could exist anywhere in the universe; 8472 was a telepathic species; perhaps they had managed to open a rift close enough to Sector 001 to monitor it. In any case, a truce, perhaps even an alliance, existed now between Voyager and 8472. One less enemy, she thought to herself with satisfaction.

As for this station, its mass was twice that of the other two. Built roughly in the configuration of ancient, spoked wagon wheels, spinning to create gravity, connected and multi-layered, it featured a large inner shaft which connected cross-passages with a bulbous center section - which, she was told, was the command center, reserved for governmental functions and station controls. Enlargement of the station was constantly in progress, a fact Janeway was aware of; for upon their arrival, extensive construction had been evident.

Inside were lush gardens, immaculately kept, alternating with structures built in simple but fine lines. Everything seemed to be composed of various metals, transparent aluminum, or some other such material, all in subtle shades of green. No other colors were evident except in the flowering gardens and the clothing of passers-by. The various businesses seemed to be conducted by a small contingent of workers, but the majority of the people appeared idle. Apparently very wealthy, they strolled casually, richly-clad, from one establishment to the next, or rode ingeniously designed moving pathways on longer excursions. Their sole purpose in life seemed to be the pursuit of pleasure of one kind or another. In this manner they were very like the people of Sikaris, whom Voyager had visited many light years ago.

'I am only showing you about ten percent of the station,' remarked the Sovereign. 'The outlying circles are used for manufacture of food, clothing, and other items, and are restricted to visitors. I trust you do not mind if we avoid those areas?' he entreated.

'Not at all, Sovereign. We don't necessarily show our visitors our entire ship. It's perfectly understandable.'

'Are you enjoying the tour? Would you care for refreshment? A meal, perhaps?'

'I'm enjoying this very much. Your space station is truly beautiful. Everything sparkles - and - yes, I would like something to eat,' she admitted.

He smiled benevolently and pressed a control. 'Very well; let us be on our way. As for the station, thank you for the compliment. We value our way of life as we have created it, peaceful and luxurious; which is why we requested all weapons be left on board your ship, and our dress code be followed.'

'Hence our indoctrination. I agree. However, our primary law would have prevented us from doing any harm or interfering any way. I would be interested, Sovereign, in learning how the Hegémony Circles came into being, and also a little about the Effluvium. Like I said, it's rather...in our way.'

'Ah, what interesting topics of conversation with which to tempt you to visit me again, Captain! Here we are.' The vehicle stopped at a structure made entirely of transparent aluminum and from which emanated delicious aromas. 'After dinner, might I request a tour of your fine ship?'

'Certainly, if you wish,' Janeway replied, albeit with growing impatience. How skillfully he avoids my questions. I've got to find out about that anomaly or we’ll waste a lot of time trying to find a way around it. Perhaps a visit to Voyager, on my own ground, will loosen his tongue...

~ ~ ~

There seemed to be only two distinct classes of people on the station and the wealthy seemed to far outnumber the working class. Chakotay also noticed several black-clad men wandering here and there; obviously law enforcement of some sort, for they carried a type of weapon. He was impressed with the pristine surroundings. Still, there was something about the place that made him uneasy.

Nonetheless, after the tedium of the indoctrination session and the work of organizing the crew for shore leave, he was glad to be at liberty to stroll through the passageways, to mingle with the people. He liked the loose, casual clothing he had been given, and the recycled air was fresher and sweeter than that on board Voyager, fed by the lush greenery of the gardens. He walked on, stopping now and then to sample the multi-colored, raw or crisply-cooked vegetables supplied by the few street cart proprietors scattered throughout the restaurant district. It was at one of these that he struck up a casual conversation with the aged owner, the only person of advanced years he had so far seen. The old man seemed to enjoy Chakotay's company; smiling at his lusty appetite; apparently grateful for the business. He didn't appear very prosperous.

‘Is this your barrow, old one?’ asked Chakotay.

‘No, no. It is not mine. I am used... I mean, I operate it for the owner.’

‘You do a good job; your food is delicious. This, for instance,’ Chakotay indicated, reaching for yet another of the delicious yellow items, whose kernels came away from the stalk much easier than the maize Chakotay remembered from his youth, ‘is very similar to a vegetable grown on my home planet.' He placed more of the complimentary credits in the old man's hand.

'You are one of those from the visiting ship, are you not?'

His mouth full, Chakotay nodded.

The old man's smile faded. 'And where is your home planet, young traveler?' he asked, quietly.

'Farther from here than you can imagine, old one. An accident brought us to this part of space. Our Captain has done everything she can to get us back home,' Chakotay sighed, 'but many more years remain in our journey. For now, we're held here by that massive cloud anomaly just beyond your station.'

The old man sighed. 'Ah, yes, the Effluvium stops you. As it does us all. And of course, you wish to continue on your journey.'

Chakotay looked at him curiously. 'That’s right. We're only visiting the station for a short while.'

The old man glanced around. Chakotay was his only customer. He surreptitiously pulled Chakotay closer to whisper in his ear. 'Do not stay for a short while. Leave. Leave immediately. Go around the Effluvium if you must, but get your ship away from here. Tell your Captain to leave before the negotiations begin!'

'Negotiations? You mean our indoctrination? We've already--'

'No, young traveler! The--' he broke off suddenly and handed Chakotay another crisp vegetable; at the same time hissing softly: 'Regulator!' The tone of his voice changed as he continued, speaking loudly, 'Yes, the larger groken are ten credits. These smaller are only three. I would recommend the smaller; they are sweeter to the taste.'

The black-clad regulator, one of those Chakotay had observed earlier, paused to scrutinize the old man and the tall stranger. Chakotay did not betray the ruse. The official frowned, but after a long pause, continued on his way. Several minutes passed before the old man relaxed, and Chakotay spoke in low tones. 'I don't understand what you're telling me. What’s wrong?'

The old man studied Chakotay for a moment and astonished him with an impromptu profile: 'You are in high position among your kind, but deep inside you struggle with a renegade heart. You have been known to handle things unofficially at times, haven’t you? On your own?'

'There is some truth in what you say, old man, but what has this to do with leaving? What is this negotiation of which you speak? Why are you so afraid?'

The old man scanned the street once again, loudly urging Chakotay to take yet another steaming, yellow stalk in thanks for patronizing his modest establishment. Then he reached into his robe, extracted a small metallic disc and surreptitiously closed Chakotay's fingers over it. 'I cannot explain now. The few of us who work are constantly monitored, as you can see. This token will give you access to a particular tavern – there you will find the answers for which you have skills to seek. All you need is a name and I can supply you with that: Jaerok. See Jaerok for your answers,' he said and spoke louder: 'Thank you for your business, young traveler!'

Nodding his thanks, Chakotay slipped fifty extra credits into the old man's hand. He walked away from the small establishment, casually glancing back to be certain that no regulator lurked to pounce on either of them. After years spent in the Maquis, Chakotay was sensitive to covert operations. Only when he was a far distance from the area did he stop to look at the disc, a puzzled frown on his dark features. The markings apparently signified the tavern's name and location, which he couldn't read. Two young men were approaching, and Chakotay politely asked them for directions, showing them the disc.

One of them indicated the moving pathway to the left, and was swiftly corrected by the other.

'No, Tahrok, it is to the right, and five sections down. You will have to search for it after that. It is not widely known.'

Chakotay thanked them. He stood, considering for a moment. He decisively stepped onto the pathway to the right, in the direction of the tavern.

~ ~ ~

Neelix guided Seven's hand as she stood before the console, awkwardly tossing small metal pieces into numbered slots. 'I do not understand the purpose of this game.'

'I explained it to you before, Seven. Look - your score is 7000!'

'And that means - ?'

'Well, it means that you've won! B'Elanna got 3000 and I got half that! You're a born gambler! See? The credits you put down on the number have won you twice as much as you had before!'

'But I am expected to spend the credits I have won on another game. At the end of my credits I will have gained only a series of numbers. It is pointless.'

B'Elanna, attired in the skimpy costume issued all the female crewmembers, and who had accompanied Neelix and Seven, slid off her chair. 'Seven, for once I agree with you. Come on - let's go somewhere else.'

'Neelix? Would you care to join us or do you prefer to remain here?' asked Seven politely, remembering what the doctor had taught her about manners.

'I'll - uh - I guess I'll just stay here. You girls go ahead. Enjoy yourselves. I haven't had a chance to gamble in years!' Neelix enthusiastically turned back to the gambling machine. B'Elanna watched him a moment then shrugged. If Neelix wanted to spend his entire shore leave and all his credits gambling, let him! She tugged at Seven's sleeve.

'Come on, Seven - let's see if they sell clothing - anything besides these ridiculous get-ups. I’m tired of all these men staring at my chest.’ She looked at Seven’s far more ample cleavage. ‘I bet you are, too.'

Seven allowed B’Elanna to guide her to the next adventure.

~ ~ ~

In stark contrast with the rest of the public establishments throughout this section, the tavern, located in a hidden alcove, was filthy, noisy and dark. As with all such places, the air resounded with the constant clink of glass and muted conversations. Heavy, multicolored smoke wafted through the air and played around the dim lights on the walls. Chakotay turned his disc over to the doorman and paused just inside, letting his eyes adjust before taking a seat at the bar. He smiled to himself. Travel a lifetime of light years, and a bar is still a bar.

He was accustomed to places like this, for in years past, an occasional Starfleet officer – skillfully plied with strong drink - would carelessly slip classified information to the Maquis Captain who amiably kept pouring – wisely maintaining his own sobriety. Sometimes Cardassian allies, once well-inebriated and lulled by Chakotay's smooth bar-talk, provided enough intelligence to enable him to evade capture - or, in one instance, to track down and destroy a Cardassian freighter loaded with weaponry. Kathryn would disapprove such clandestine operations, but he was determined to get to the bottom of the old man's cryptic remarks. An underground of some sort was unmistakably in place here. His initial unease seemed justified.

He ordered a drink, thinking of Captain Janeway. Brilliant, beautiful, obstinate; the most admirable woman he had ever known. The welfare of her crew came ahead of everything, save the Prime Directive. Her wants had largely been forfeited; her happiness had been set aside; her personal needs sacrificed. Backed by the infallibility of the Federation, she had brought nearly all of them, safely, a great deal closer to home, yet sometimes she couldn't see beyond the end of her nose. Once her mind was made up, she plunged ahead with the courage of her convictions. It didn't make much sense to him, believing as he did in living by your wits out here in the Delta Quadrant. Privately, he felt that Federation ideals had let them down all too often, an opinion he carefully kept to himself. His Captain deserved his loyalty.

Chakotay sat on at the bar, squinting against the smoke, patiently waiting; surreptitiously watching. Later in the day, as closing time approached, the crowd thinned out; only a few regular patrons, arguing over some sort of game in the rear, remained. He couldn’t help grinning as he listened. One of them was obviously already inebriated, complaining loudly as each winning ball rose into the air. 'Roknel, no one wins at jul-Juut with you! You charlatan! You --'

The man continued to protest, throwing a stack of credits on the table. The one called Roknel pocketed his substantial winnings and motioned for a companion to follow him out. Chakotay heard his muttered comments as he passed by: 'Jaerok would do well to remain sober; perhaps then he would be a worthy opponent!' His friend grinned and nodded as they left the tavern.

Jaerok. See Jaerok for your answers, young traveler!

Chakotay watched Jaerok stumble to the bar to order another drink. 'I couldn't help but notice - you played a good game, Jaerok,' he ventured.

Jaerok nodded vigorously. 'I would have won had it not been for fact that he cheats as easily as he breathes...' He took the glass from the bartender and drained it, then glanced blearily at Chakotay.

‘How did you know my name? And what is that?' he asked, reaching to touch the unfamiliar tattoo.

Chakotay caught his hand and placed a fresh drink in it. 'I heard your companion call your name. As for this, it's a new fashion for men. Here, have another - on me.'

Jaerok nodded his thanks and bolted the proffered drink. 'Fashion? I don’t think it’s catching on, stranger. Nobody here has anything like that.’ He tugged at Chakotay’s sleeve. ‘I’m going to my private room.’ He pointed to rear of the place. ‘Join me! I'm in high position; I have a table there after hours. Come!'

‘All right.’ Chakotay followed his staggering companion through the tavern to a private, coded entry in the rear. Jaerok spent many minutes, fumbling with the lock, before assigning Chakotay to decode it. He motioned unsteadily for Chakotay to take a lounge chair beside the table in a small, dimly lit room. As he did so, he took note that the room was like the rest of the station; composed of a greenish metal. Jaerok activated a control panel. A small alien being, of a species unknown to Chakotay entered, dressed in only a morsel of fabric and bearing a metal carafe. The being was obviously female; obviously a servant. What bothered Chakotay, as he studied the bipedaled, fuzzy-skinned, light brown creature, was the lack of expression in her eyes. Perhaps it was only a characteristic of her species...or not.

Something was wrong here.

'This one will keep us supplied and entertained. She’s mine,' Jaerok was saying, pointing at her. 'Ah! She and the others are the wealth of our society, are they not?'

What an odd remark, thought Chakotay. He played along, hoping to learn more. 'You hold high position, you said. Might I ask...?'

'Ah, yes, my friend, I am an assistant to the Sovereign! Only a few officials are appointed to govern the station. As such, we enjoy the finest there is to offer. And in my opinion,' he held the carafe high, 'this is the finest.' He poured himself a drink and Chakotay allowed him to refill his glass.

'What occupies you, friend? And what is your name?'

'I am Tahrok, and I have a small gambling establishment several streets from here. I had planned to meet a friend; he never showed up.'

'Fine, fine. There can never be enough gambling establishments. They are a greater draw than the restaurants. Do not worry about your friend. I'm happy you could join me; I hope you can stay the night. I usually do. I’m not allowed on the streets after I've been here... Watch this!' To the servant, Jaerok barked an unintelligible command.

The female alien began a slow, erotic dance; her slightly simian face void of expression. Jaerok stared blearily while Chakotay studied him. The man was disgusting but became, as did some, extremely talkative under the influence. The old man had been uncannily accurate in his characterization of Jaerok; the perfect candidate for a subtle interrogation. It was time to get some answers about this strange place. Chakotay took the carafe and refilled Jaerok's glass, dragging his attention away from the object of his lustful desire.

'I'm sorry you did not win your game. I too, have an acquaintance who consistently wins at whatever game is being played at my own establishment.'

'Oh? Tell me his name.'

'You wouldn’t know him. He simply enjoys winning too much to play fair at times. He’s a bother.'

'If that is the case, Tahrok, my friend, if you wish, I shall have him enslaved along with the rest of them on the new ship. I have the power, and that’s the usual punishment. You know of course, of the new ship.'

'Of course. I would be grateful. This one is yours, you said?'

Jaerok swayed to and fro in his chair, blearily eyeing the alien girl as if he hadn't heard. Chakotay repeated the question.

'Yes, yes, I own this one. She dances for me here; sometimes she accompanies me home to share my bed.’ Jaerok blearily glanced past Chakotay. ‘Did you not bring yours with you? Or do you not have a female slave?'

Chakotay thought fast. 'I did. She is no longer alive.'

'Ah, well, that happens. Some of those we capture do not last long, for one reason or another. Perhaps the new ship will have one suitable for you. I know you will understand if I do not share mine.'

'Of course. I hope for a new one, and one as lovely as yours,' purred Chakotay.

'I will see to it, my friend. But I do not consider this one lovely – only useful. Yours, however, shall be lovely if you so desire. This one's species was not attractive in the least, but their ship was a thing of beauty! Provided us with much tritanium. I hear the new ship has real humanoid females; smooth-skinned, not fuzzy; many good, strong males for the work crews as well. We can use their genetics for our isomorphic injections. And that large vessel; big enough to create another entire section!' He hiccoughed and quaffed still more strong liquor, draping his arm over Chakotay's shoulder. 'Ah, we have built a delightful system here, have we not?'

Chakotay murmured assent, stomach clenching at the smell of the man, but intent on continuing. 'We've accomplished much, Jaerok - and we will accomplish still more. Let’s talk of how far we have come; from where we have come.'

Jaerok's head nodded and began to droop slightly, but he continued, in what became a soliloquy. Chakotay leaned in to listen. 'All the way...from...fluidic space... You remember how tired we grew of the conflict. So we rebelled! Let them have fluidic space. Let them fight the damned Borg all they want. Let them make peace with the damned humans all they want. We can survive on our own out here, without any of them - what with the vapor cloud to help us capture what we need.’ Jaerok turned and stuck his nose directly in Chakotay's face. Chakotay held his breath against the onslaught. 'Some of the species we capture are even good enough to eat! Although, truthfully, I myself prefer hot groken. What is your preference, Tahrok? A nice fleshy air-breather or...?'

With Jaerok's stale breath directly in his face Chakotay was hard put to maintain his role, but he choked back his nausea. At least this time his reply didn't have to be a lie. 'Like you, I prefer vegetation. And groken is a favorite of mine as well.'

'Then we must dine together one evening!’ In his blissfully inebriated state, he became generous. ‘I will even share my female with you until your new one is processed! She will do anything you desire.' Jaerok motioned the undulating girl closer, ripping the remnant of clothing from her body. Her face still held the expression of an inanimate object; she made no protest. Jaerok roughly jerked her to her knees and pressed her head to his lap.

Appalled; in an attempt to distract Jaerok, Chakotay shoved another drink under his nose and raised his own glass high. 'I would be honored!' he said loudly, clapping the man on the back. 'I offer a toast!'

'A...toast? What is that?'

'A toast is an invention of mine at my gaming establishment. Like this - to cement our friendship and to celebrate the arrival of the new ship!'

'Ah, a fine invention! Then...let us do this...toast!' Two more followed; Jaerok's head slowly came to rest on the table; his arm still flung over Chakotay, who swiftly and skillfully extricated himself from under the inert form. The slave girl would not respond to Chakotay's dismissal. He had no choice but to leave her at Jaerok's feet. He draped her with Jaerok's robe. The hour was late; the front of the bar had been vacated. Chakotay, alert for regulators even at this late hour, stealthily hurried back to Voyager, sadly wondering how long the little female would remain crouched there before her master awoke...

~ ~ ~

In Captain Janeway’s ready room, the Sovereign of the Hegémony Circles graciously accepted the cup of coffee from the Captain, made from cultivated beans he had brought her as a gift. The replicator had swiftly analyzed and reproduced the blend. She sat back on her ready room couch and sipped her own steaming cup appreciatively.

'I must say, Sovereign, I've never had better coffee. It's so rare in this quadrant.'

'I am glad you like it, Captain. We will do everything in our power to make your stay enjoyable. And from what you've told me, you have need of our help. Might you accept it according to this law you told me about, this ... Prime Directive?'

'In the instance of a society freely giving technology to us, it is allowed. We cannot avail ourselves of it without permission.'

'Then it's settled. We will help you by treating your vessel with our protective surfactant. I will take you to our laboratory where you will see for yourself a demonstration - both of what the acid contained in the Effuvium would do to your beautiful ship and how the surfactant works to protect it - and you and your crew as well. There need be no payment, other than good will exchanged.'

'Oh but surely we can exchange more than good will, Sovereign...'

'Please...surely we've become acquainted well enough by now for first names. Titles are no longer necessary between us, are they? You may address me as Raelok. Might I have the same privilege?'

Janeway smiled, rather enjoying the Sovereign’s obviously flirtatious behavior. It was not the first time she had appealed to the leader of a people. This man, however, seemed much more sincere than Gathorel Labin – the halo-headed leader of Sikaris, who had wanted her for his own selfish reasons.

'All right. My name is Kathryn.'

'Ah! A lovely name is Kath-ren. He took her hand in his own. 'Now, Kath-ren...no exchanges are necessary. We do this for you...in the name of friendship.'

'This is a massive undertaking, Sov-- ... um, Raelok ... and in all fairness, I think some recompense is justified,' Kathryn said, gently withdrawing her hand.

'Well...if you insist...what would you say to a modest payment of this marvelous light powder which you sprinkle into your coffee - a generous supply of that. It adds a richness to the beverage! Would that be acceptable?'

Janeway smiled broadly. 'If that is all you require, sir, it would indeed be acceptable,' she replied.

'Raelok,' he prompted, leaning closer to her, his breath warm on her face. 'Call me Raelok.'

'All right...Raelok.' The ready room door chimed. Raelok drew back and picked up his coffee cup, assuming a neutral expression. 'Excuse me, please?' said Janeway.

'But of course, Kath-ren. Greet your visitor.'

'Come,' she called.

Chakotay entered, his suspicions immediately aroused. ‘Captain,’ he said formally, glancing at the man in sumptuous robes; obviously a dignitary of some sort; seated much too close to the Captain. By the looks of things she was well on her way to favorable diplomatic relations. Too favorable, in fact.

Janeway set down her coffee and crossed the room to Chakotay. The transporter filters had not completely removed a faint but recognizable scent wafting ahead of him, nor did his flushed face escape her scrutiny. Her lips tightened in disapproval. Nevertheless, she performed the necessary introductions.

'Commander. May I present the Sovereign of the Hegémony Circles. Sovereign, this is my First Officer, Chakotay.'

'Greetings to you, um, Cha--toh--kah? Um, Cha—kay… Forgive me, the name is unusual.'

Chakotay, face set in stone, merely nodded in his direction. He spoke to Kathryn, sotto voce, in which he attempted to disguise his urgency. 'Captain, may I have a word with you alone?'

Janeway smiled slightly. 'I'm entertaining at the moment,' she said for the Sovereign’s benefit, and her voice dropped to a whisper. 'I'd ask you to join us, but in your condition I think it would be best if you went to your quarters.'

Chakotay glanced back at the man lounging on the sofa, calmly stirring his coffee. He seemed oblivious to the rude interruption; the hurried, whispered exchange between the two officers. Chakotay turned back to Kathryn, but she forestalled what he was about to say. 'Later, Commander - all right?'

'This is not what you think, Captain,' he said in exasperation. 'What I have to say is urgent, and I suggest you hear me out – and soon.’ The obdurate expression he knew so well flitted across her features. ‘I'll be in my quarters,' he stated angrily. He turned on his heel and left.

'Is there a problem, Kath-ren?'

'No...Raelok...just ship's business. Forgive the intrusion. Now...about this coating for the ship...I'm of course rather eager to resume our journey. When can the procedure be arranged?'

~ ~ ~

The door to his quarters was open. She entered at his invitation but declined the seat he offered. Now that he was back on the ship, he had changed into a crisp, fresh uniform; his grooming impeccable. They both remained standing while she cut to the chase; her voice soft but stern. 'What was that all about, Commander?'

'First of all, let me apologize for the intrusion. Second, I wasn't intoxicated.'

She shook her head ruefully and turned away. 'Indications said otherwise.'

'Are you going to allow me to explain?'

'Yes,' was her clipped reply. She took a seat on the chair he indicated. He remained standing and began without preamble. 'I found out something today. Something you need to know. Something about this space station you admire so much.'

'From whom? The town drunk?' she replied, sarcastically.

'As a matter of fact...yes. Thanks to their underground, and by accident. We’re lucky...’

'We came here for information, not to gather intelligence. These people have shown us nothing but hospitality, and they’ve decided to help us.'

'Have they now. Let me ask you this; do you remember the last time we encountered a space station?'

'Yes...the Starfleet simulation...Species 8472...an agreeable encounter, if I recall correctly.'

'I don’t think you’ll find this encounter so agreeable. What did the Sovereign tell you?'

'We’re not dealing with Species 8472 here.’

What did he tell you, Captain?’

‘At ease, Commander.’

Chakotay took a deep breath and sat down.

‘The Sovereign gave me the information we need about that anomaly out there,’ she continued, calmly, ‘it's a naturally occurring hydrogen iodide. Acid. It's not on the periodic table; no one knows how it came to be formed. All that's certain is that it’s out there, and that it dissolves metal like water over salt. Any metal. For that matter, any material known.'

'I know,' Chakotay stated.

'You know? Who told you?'

'The town drunk.'

'Be serious, Chakotay.'

'I am serious. We have to get out of here. Right now.'

'And go where? We certainly can't go through the stuff; we'd be dissolved in an instant. And I'll be damned if I'll waste over four years going around it.'

He stared at her. 'If it’s going to take that long, we'd better get started now, hadn't we?'

She shook her head. 'The Sovereign has offered his help. There’s a solution. Do you want to hear it?'

'No.'

'You're going to hear it anyway. He will provide Voyager with technology that will protect the ship so that we can go through the center of the cloud, where the depth is thinnest.'

'What's the technology?'

'An electrostatic surfactant. They developed it to protect the space station from sudden shifts in the cloud. It will protect any type of metal. The crew will enter stasis for protection and the station will send us by remote link directly through the cloud - at impulse speeds - in only a few hours.'

'Stasis?!'

'There are pockets within the gas cloud with asphyxiates that the coating can't keep out. Stasis will be necessary.'

'So - what you're saying is, we blindly trust these people, go to sleep and wake up on the other side of the acid cloud, is that it?'

'Yes...’

‘And you’ve already made an agreement to have this done? Paid the man for his services?’

‘Trust me, it didn’t cost that much - easiest deal I ever negotiated, in fact. Chakotay, what's the matter with...'

'Leave,' the old man had said. 'Leave before the negotiations.’ It was probably too late. He cut her off. 'What have you seen of this society?'

'The Sovereign escorted me on a tour of the station; I was very impressed.'

'So was I – at first. Garden of Eden, isn't it?'

'What's your point?'

'Species 8472 created a simulation of Starfleet Academy. This is another one of those same re-creations we've stumbled upon. Remember the one who took Boothby's form? Remember what he said? ‘Go ahead! Fire your damn nanoprobes! Blow our re-creation to high heavens. There are a dozen more scattered throughout the quadrant. You'll never find them all! My point is; we did find one, and this one is different. This space station didn't follow the agreement we had with the Boothby clone. This station has isolated itself from the others. These people have created their own insular society. They've decided they like living as humanoids so much they quit fluidic space and transformed this into their own little Utopia – and they maintain it by captured slave labor.'

'I've seen no evidence of that.'

'They're very good at hiding it. The strict rules, the wining and dining, entertainments, fawning all over us – it’s all for control, and they’re distracting us while they evaluate the ship - and the crew. We're nothing but raw material to them, Kathryn. They’re like the Borg in that manner. They constantly wear out their slaves. We - and others like us who are stopped by the Effluvium - are the new supply. Not only that, they need fresh DNA to maintain their humanoid physiology. Why do you think they built this station so close to the cloud?'

Abruptly, he rose out of his chair and hovered over her, growing angrier by the minute. She wasn’t convinced; the obstinate look on her face told him that. His voice grew forceful as he continued, 'Kathryn, listen to me! Behind every wall, there are slave passageways, slave quarters, sweatshops, kitchens, bordellos - providing these people with everything they need – food! shelter! clothing! sex!' He boldly lifted the lace from the low-cut bodice of her dress. 'Ever wonder why the women are required to dress like this?!'

She jerked the material out of his hand. Rising, looking him straight in the eye, she spoke his name with quiet anger. 'Chakotay...' He met her glance for glance, refusing to back down. Her face softened. 'Okay,’ she conceded, ‘so you think this is Species 8472. The only way to prove it is with cytokinetic injections. The last time we tried that, the subject died. So what are our alternatives?'

'Summon the crew, get back on board Voyager, and get the hell out!'

'Out of the question,’ she countered. She paced the room. ‘Look, Chakotay - I don't agree with your theory. So what does that leave? A society that utilizes slaves. The universe is rampant with that sort of abuse. There are some things we can’t change, as much as we’d like to. The Prime Directive...'

'Kathryn, to hell with the Prime Directive!! We don't have time for this. The more time we spend arguing puts us at greater risk!'

He had just stepped over the line, throwing the Prime Directive in her face; raising his voice. What ground he had gained in the argument had been lost in that instant; but like a battering ram against her obstinacy, he persevered. 'Every ship they manage to get their hands on is disassembled and used to enlarge this station. Didn't you notice the construction; how everything is made of metal?'

'I saw no waste or recycling operations; and if you cannibalize something there must be evidence of it.'

'You saw the station they wanted you to see, Kathryn. They have torpedo pods to hurl anything they don’t want into that acid cloud, a ready-made disposal system. Funny you should mention cannibalization. Their slaves serve just such a dual purpose.'

She folded her arms, unconvinced. 'And I assume you got all this information from the town drunk.

'One of the Sovereign's own assistants let some secrets slip – and yes, after I got him drunk. The Sovereign has some rather disreputable associates.’

'You certainly threw Starfleet protocol to the winds, didn't you?'

Chakotay exhaled a breath of pure exasperation. 'Kathryn...'

She began pacing about the room as was her wont, gesturing broadly as she spoke. 'No, Chakotay...I won't base a decision that will cost us over four years on the words of one intoxicated individual. I've seen no evidence of anything you've told me. And I'm not about to question the Sovereign; embarrass him about a member of his own staff. This argument's finished.' She came to a halt across the room and turned to face him.

'Now,' she continued, indicating further debate to be futile, 'I've been to the laboratory; seen the scientific proof that this surfactant works. We're going through that cloud. I'm assigning you the organization of the crew for stasis. I'll oversee the surfactant operations. Agreed?'

Chakotay looked down at his feet and shook his head. After a moment, he looked straight at her. 'Once again - you don’t know when to step back, Kathryn.'

She approached him, fire in her eyes. 'Are you questioning my orders, Chakotay?'

He stood still for a full minute, looking down at her, loyalty mixed with impotent anger; but when he spoke his voice was deceptively calm. 'It’s my job to question when you're about to make a serious mistake. You know that I've rarely disobeyed a direct order from you. But yes, ma’am. I'm questioning your orders - Captain.'

She stared at him; her own expression mirroring his: adamant, unyielding. Without a word, she turned on her heel and started out of his quarters. Chakotay reached for her arm but thought better of it, stopping her instead with his voice, a plaintive pleading in its low tone.

'Kathryn - as your First Officer and your friend - I'm asking you to reconsider.'

His answer was the hiss of the door closing behind her.

~ ~ ~

Voyager rested, vacated and waiting, on the deck floor of the docking bay. The entire crew, including a suspicious Tuvok, had been carefully evacuated and now lined the perimeter behind protective transparent aluminum shielding to watch the procedure. The overall consensus was that preparing Voyager to enter the vapor cloud was a good idea; no one wanted to add four more years to the journey. Tuvok had reluctantly agreed; it seemed logical. Only Chakotay, who kept his counsel, watched in trepidation.

After the docking bay was sealed, jets emerged from the floor, walls and ceiling, emitting greenish plumes as the surfactant spewed out. It hung like a heavy mist in the air. Then electrical current was discharged like ion lightning throughout the bay. Everyone shielded their eyes as millions of tiny electrical charges coalesced the substance and plated the entire surface of the ship. Voyager was now a pale green, like much of the station itself. Cheers and applause rang out; Chakotay did not take part in the ovation.

All members of the crew were allowed back on board the next day. In deference to the Sovereign's wishes, they had agreed to assume wearing their Starfleet colors only after emerging from stasis. Weapons had been left with uniforms in private quarters or in the weapons lockers. Subtle and skillful deception by those of the Hegémony Circles had the entire crew, including security, convinced that no weapons would be needed -- except Chakotay, who had hidden one phaser beneath his jumpsuit.

Ostensibly obeying the Captain's orders, Chakotay, padd in hand, supervised the crew into the stasis chambers set up in Cargo Bay Three. Janeway arrived with Maurok, another of the Sovereign's assistants, who was to close and lock the chambers. The holographic doctor had been downloaded into his holo-emitter, to be firmly clutched in B'Elanna's hand for safekeeping. Everyone, including Tuvok, trusting the Captain's decision, entered the stasis chambers, one by one.

Chakotay had seen nothing more of Jaerok, nor had he seen any further evidence that all was not as it should be. If he hadn’t stumbled upon the truth, he would have been as entangled in this web as helplessly as the rest of them. And that’s exactly what it is, he thought. A gigantic spider web. Even Tuvok had considered the Captain's decision completely logical; he had not believed Chakotay’s story when, in desperation, he had entreated the Vulcan to persuade the Captain otherwise. Perhaps they had all been brainwashed in some way; something in the food, maybe, or hypnosis from the games they had played, maybe dermal drugs in the clothing they had been issued...although nothing has affected me. Perhaps the hours spent in the bar protected me in some way. Whatever the reasons, Chakotay dreaded the hour at which he would be forced to implement his own plan; that hour was drawing closer.

'I'll be the last to enter stasis,' Janeway told Chakotay, tapping the medical tricorder in her hand. 'and Maurok will ensure I'm locked down.'

'Very well.' Chakotay called to Maurok, his voice deceptively smooth. 'Would you mind checking each of these units again? I want to be assured they’re tight. We don’t want any leaks.'

The man obligingly began with the first chamber, fifteen meters away, and began going down the rows, testing the seals. Kathryn closed the tricorder and motioned to a stasis chamber nearby, the one reserved for Chakotay.

'Commander, if you will...'

He smiled companionably at her and gently clasped her arms above the elbows. 'Are you sure I can't change your mind?'

She sighed. 'I thought we settled this.'

'We did.' Swiftly, Chakotay tightened his grip, trapping Kathryn beneath one arm. The tricorder spilled out of her hands as she immediately reacted, utilizing her Starfleet self-defense training. She struggled mightily; very nearly broke free, but he countered her every move. When he at last had her pinned, he withdrew the phaser he had hidden beneath the jumpsuit, swiftly set it to the mildest stun, and held it to Kathryn’s chest.

'Just what in hell do you think you're doing?! Chakotay!! Let go!!'

Furious, she continued to struggle against his grip. Maurok heard the commotion. Weapon in hand, he came running back toward them. Before he fired the phaser, Chakotay lowered his head and whispered into her ear: 'Forgive me, Kathryn!'

A blast from Maurok's weapon seared over Chakotay’s shoulder. Still protectively holding his Captain’s inert body under one arm, he ducked down, using the stasis chamber for cover. He reset the phaser to kill with swift fingers, and fired again. Maurok thudded to the floor, dead.

Chakotay reached down for the medical tricorder the Captain had dropped. A swift scan revealed no ill effects from the mild stun. She would awaken with a headache; perhaps a slight burn; nothing more; nothing perhaps but a new distrust of him...if there had been time, he would have agonized over that fact, but he swiftly lifted her over the side of the stasis unit; cradling her in his arms for just a moment before placing her within it. Before he locked her down, he passed gentle fingers over her cheek, sending up a prayer to the Sky Spirits that she might someday forgive him. Then he closed and sealed the lid. Running, he double-checked the settings on all the stasis units. B'Elanna lay motionless within her unit, unaware that Chakotay had taken the doctor's holo-emitter from her clenched palm. I'll keep him safe, little Maquis. I just might need him.

~ ~ ~

The Sovereign entered the Hegémony Circles’ command center to check the final steps of the lobotomy scan on the new ship’s occupants. He looked forward to finalizing the procedure quickly so that ‘Kath-ren’ would be his to enjoy. He envisioned that lithe, lovely, auburn-haired creature pleasuring him each night, and could barely contain himself. His eagerness turned to anger, however, when he found his assistant leaning forward on the control panel.

'JAEROK!'

Startled out of his stupor, Jaerok immediately feigned alert competence.

'How go the proceedings?!'

'Ah...Yes. According to schedule, Sovereign, according to schedule. Maurok's last report was that the entire crew was in stasis, except Captain Janeway and that First Officer of hers,' said Jaerok nervously. As usual, his head pounded with the effects of the previous night's dissipation, and a cold sweat tricked down his back.

'When was his last report?!'

'Ah...about fifteen minutes ago, sir.'

'It shouldn't take that long to lock down those last two. Initiate a thermoscan of the ship! Hurry, you incompetent fool!'

Jaerok's fingers twitched as he complied. The row of screens flickered with various images of the main parts of Voyager; the bridge; the mess hall; the rows of private quarters; the transporter rooms; all were empty. He called up Cargo Bay Three on one screen, with its neat rows of stasis chambers, all registering lifeforms within, body functions slowed to minimal. One chamber stood open. 'Enhance that screen!' barked the Sovereign.

The enhanced thermoscan barely registered the fading temperature of a heap of dead tissue on the floor: the remains of Maurok. The Sovereign impatiently tapped the controls himself to bring up views of the ship’s corridors. A large figure could be seen, running in the direction of Engineering.

'Something's gone wrong. I'll alert the guards. You begin the lobotomy scan on the other chambers now. I don't want to lose the entire cargo trying to stop the one!' The Sovereign hurried from the room.

'Yes, Sovereign,' Jaerok groaned. He leaned his head on his arms for a moment. If only he could eject from his system the poison of the night before. It hurt badly when he did so, but not enough to prevent ingesting more the next night. It was an impossible treadmill, but oh, so necessary. Slowly, he reached for the key that would initiate the lobotomy scans which had been cleverly hidden within the stasis chambers. Those scans would shoot a laser beam into each skull, traumatizing the brain within. The subject’s cognizant level would drop dramatically, producing docile, obedient slaves capable of work but not independent thought. A select few would be left intact as was necessary; but easily kept under control by the regulators.

Jaerok's body lurched and his hand fell off the key. The orders his body was issuing at the moment superseded those of the Sovereign's. Surely he had enough time to rid his stomach of this poison...after all, the beings in the chambers weren't going anywhere...

~ ~ ~

Chakotay raced through the corridors to Engineering to bring the warp engines on line. He could hear the Sovereign’s guards shouting, searching the corridors for him. A site-to-site transport took him directly to the bridge. Moving from one bridge station to the next, he prepared the ship for departure. Manning the bridge single-handedly was hell, but he’d done it before. He alone, on board the Liberty, had once rescued his entire Maquis cell from a Cardassian prison. He worked the helm controls feverishly. The ramp snapped shut, trapping the guards within. The ship lifted off the metallic floorplates, turning gracefully within the huge docking bay. Chakotay fired forward phasers to blow out the gigantic bay door and retracted the landing struts. Voyager shot out of the bay, away from the station, and veered off into space.

On the Hegémony Circles, the Sovereign stood stonily by the window, watching Voyager speed away at full impulse. He calmly walked back into the command center, removed a weapon from deep within his robes, and directed it at Jaerok, who lay sprawled across the console, snoring softly.

'You will not fail me again, Jaerok.' The snores abruptly ceased.

The Sovereign rolled the limp body unceremoniously to the floor and began hurried calculations to bring Voyager back via the remote link – the installation of which had been necessary to ensure the final deception.

~ ~ ~

Voyager’s computer came online. 'Warning. Remote link engaged. Reversing course.' Chakotay swore aloud as he worked to override the link. The bastards had thought of everything. Nothing he tried worked. The ship had slowed; now it turned and was heading back. Unable to override, he could think of only one thing - knock out the source of the link. Carefully, he sent closely directed phaser fire to the core of the station, which he knew held the command center. With viewer on, he watched the center core disintegrate. 'Remote link disengaged,' the computer informed him.

Now Chakotay set a course which would take Voyager four years out of its way, but would circumvent the Effluvium. He glanced up at the view screen. What he saw there horrified him. Despite the carefully directed phaser fire, an explosive cascade was beginning. Fire roiled out of the destroyed command center into the connecting spokes of the station, reaching the next level and the next. The station began exploding, wheel by wheel. Those explosions ignited others, and still others in a horrendous chain reaction, until the entire space station was a structure of fire. Suddenly it erupted in ball of brilliant white light. Chakotay slumped into the pilot's chair; his head in his hands. There was nothing he could do. His heart clenched in his chest as he thought of the old man in the square; Jaerok's small slave girl; all the innocents which had perished along with their keepers. In his efforts to save Voyager, Chakotay had, however unintentionally and unwillfully, destroyed them.

~ ~ ~

Now emanating from the expanding, fiery matter was a massive shock wave. Maybe I can outrun it. Chakotay diverted all power, including life support, to the shields. He had just turned the ship and initiated warp drive when the shock wave struck. The multicolored wave, laden with debris, caught and hurled the ship on its momentum straight toward the Effluvium. While Voyager had been treated with the surfactant as raw material for the space station, Chakotay did not know if it was sufficient to survive direct contact with the acid cloud. He worked frantically to bring the ship out of the shock wave but the force was too great. Shields were down; inertial dampers and minimal life support were the only systems not tapped for power. The viewscreen gave no hint of how much distance there might be left, but he sensed he was running out of time. What had Kathryn said, once before? Sometimes you just have to punch your way through? So be it! Let's just hope that damned surfactant works!

The air was getting thin; he was out of time. Chakotay gasped for air. He would have to forego the stasis chamber and rely instead on an environmental suit. A few were stored on the bridge. He donned one swiftly, securing the Holo-emitter in an insulated pocket, keeping a hand on the controls. The doctor would be needed to release the stasis units in case anything happened to him. He might have time to active the holoemitter before...

There was a distinct difference in the feel of the ship now; it was gliding more smoothly on the remains of the shock wave’s momentum instead of shaking. Chakotay took a deep breath as Voyager was hurled into the acid cloud. The Hegémony guards who had been trapped in corridors and cargo bays when Chakotay took the ship out, dropped writhing to the floor, gasping and choking as the gases which permeated the ship slowly asphyxiated then began dissolving them. Safe in their stasis chambers, the entire crew slept on, unaware of the mortal danger less than 30 centimeters away.

Voyager, now stabilized, flew through the acid cloud at full impulse. External sensors were useless; shields and life support were still inoperative. Chakotay couldn’t hazard a guess at how thick the Effluvium was or how long it would take to navigate it. He couldn't generate a warp field inside it. The E-suit offered protection for now, but there was a possibility he would run out of oxygen before they emerged. Planning for that contingency, he prepared instructions for the EMH and sent another message, coded for privacy, to the Captain.

~ ~ ~

There was a tremor in the console beneath his hands. 'Warning. Hull breach – xxxxx xxxxxx.' The message fragmented into static, and the computer went off-line. 'Great,' he muttered to himself. 'Just great. Where in hell is the hull breach?' A swift manual check of the ship's internal sensors, which were operating, revealed it – directly over his head. The acid was invading the bridge. He initiated internal force fields to hold it back, but several miniscule holes had already dissolved through the layers of metal, several consoles, and Chakotay's E-suit. His back, shoulders and legs became pocked with burning pinholes. Small amounts of gas and fumes began leaking into the suit, scorching his lungs and taking his air, but he remained at the helm. Gritting his teeth, Chakotay pushed the impulse engines to their limit, praying for strength to hold their course, while the holes in his suit burned deeper and wider.

Another half-hour went by. Suddenly the void was gone; replaced by normal space; Voyager had emerged from the acid cloud. The viewscreen showed normal star systems twinkling in the distance. Chakotay pushed the ship to a safe distance, leaning heavily across Tom’s pilot’s station. He slowed speed to one-quarter impulse and initiated a red alert. Then, weakening, he slid to the floor. With his remaining strength, he removed the holo-emitter from his E-suit and activated it. The doctor materialized, momentarily disoriented.

'Please state the nature of the medical... What am I doing here?’ he asked peevishly. ‘I'm supposed to be in the cargo bay!’ He realized he was talking to no one. The bridge seemed to be deserted. The ship’s klaxon blared red alert; red flashing lights and the glow of a single monitor provided the only illumination. Small, red hot spots dotted the area, and the smell of burning material – and flesh – was unmistakable. He was blinded by the dark, smoky haze. He stepped around the console, feeling his way, and tripped over something heavy. He bent down for a closer look. It was Chakotay’s inert form, crumpled on the floor in a melted environmental suit.

~ ~ ~

Captain Janeway paged the bridge. 'Lieutenant Tuvok, may I see you in my ready room.'

'Aye, Captain. On my way.'

She sat behind her desk and regarded her security officer for a moment. 'I understand the doctor has approved Commander Chakotay’s release from Sickbay. Escort him here, please.'

'Aye, Captain.' But before Tuvok could act, the ready room chime sounded. 'Come,' said Janeway, impatiently.

Chakotay walked in of his own volition, in full uniform. He nodded to Tuvok and approached the Captain's desk. Despite lingering weakness from his ordeal, he held himself at attention. Most of the burns had healed and the deep scars regenerated, although a few would always remain as painful reminders. Chakotay spoke first, his voice still a hoarse whisper. 'I came here directly from Sickbay, Captain. I hereby submit myself for disciplinary action.'

Janeway leaned back in her chair. Inwardly marveling at the integrity of the man, despite his recent actions, she shook her head in exasperation. 'Chakotay...I don't know whether to write you a commendation or confine you to the brig until we get home.'

'I can solve your dilemma, Captain. My actions deserve no commendation. I betrayed you and destroyed lives.'

She regarded him sadly while he remained at stiff attention. For whatever reason, she had made a grave mistake, and he had delivered all of them from the consequences of that mistake. However, attacking the Captain in order to protect the ship was not the action of a good officer, and he knew it.

She sighed audibly. 'What happened to the space station was accidental. That’s not a consideration. Regarding your other actions, I'm of two minds. I read your report, and I know what transpired. However...’ She rose and came to stand before him. 'As the highest ranking officer of the only Starfleet vessel in the Delta Quadrant, I'm forced to...'

'...set an example for the crew,' he said.

She nodded slowly, then assumed formal stance. 'Commander. Lieutenant Tuvok...'

Tuvok positioned himself to Chakotay's left to bear witness to the sentence, but made no move to restrain him. The Captain summoned the computer. 'Computer, enter into record: U.S.S. Voyager, NCC-74656. Ship's Log, Stardate 59099.5. Commander Chakotay has been found guilty of mutiny, insubordination and conduct unbecoming an officer. I hereby sentence him to a period of ninety days in the brig. Due to extenuating circumstances, the sentence is commuted, by orders of Captain Kathryn Janeway, to fifteen days. Upon our return to Sector 001, I respectfully request that the Starfleet Command Review Board consider clearing the Commander's record of all charges in this case. Details of the incident are encoded within, including Captain's personal notes. End Log.'

Chakotay remained at attention, refusing to look directly at her, but his voice betrayed his emotion as he whispered, 'Thank you, Captain.' He turned on his heel and made his exit from the ready room. Tuvok, followed by two guards, escorted him across the bridge, past the officers and crewmen standing at attention: Harry, B'Elanna, Tom and Seven - and into the turbolift.

Janeway returned to her desk and picked up the carafe to pour her usual morning coffee. She set it back down, smoothed her hair, and crossed the room to the broad window. Voyager streaked the stars with her speed, indicating the mounting distance from the destroyed Hegémony Circles. Standing there with arms clasped tightly, a tear worked its way down her cheek, then two, then a cascade. 'Computer,' she said in an unsteady voice, 'Engage privacy lock until further notice.'

~ ~ ~

Tuvok respectfully escorted Chakotay to the small cell in the bowels of the ship. Medical garments, which would lie softer on his injuries, had been placed upon the lowered shelf bed, along with a hypospray. Chakotay’s former Maquis crewman, Ayala, stood silent at the controls, waiting for Tuvok’s signal to initialize the force field. After Chakotay had changed, Tuvok accepted the folded uniform and comm badge. He spoke a few quiet words to the Commander, nodded to Ayala and left. Before Ayala set the force field, he ventured closer to Chakotay's cell.

'Commander, I know we're supposed to be Starfleet now, but this isn't right! Janeway should be in here, not--'

'Ayala,' Chakotay whispered hoarsely, 'If you say another word along those lines I'll call Tuvok back here and have you put in here with me. Is that clear?'

'Aye, sir.' Stung by the rebuke, Ayala returned to his station.

‘Inialize the force field!’ ordered Chakotay.

‘Aye, sir.’

Chakotay glared at him then stretched out on the cot with one arm over his eyes. In minutes he was asleep.

A few hours later, seeing the Captain approaching the brig, Ayala snapped to attention. She dismissed him and released the cell’s force field. The subtle scent of her perfume wafted across the room, waking him. 'Am I disturbing you, Commander?'

'No, not at all, Captain.' He sat up, blinking against the light, waiting for her to continue. When she did not, he amiably patted the cot by his side. She smiled and took the proffered seat.

'The doctor is going to monitor you in here until you're better. How do you feel?'

'Still hurts a little,' he admitted.

‘Did they leave you a hypospray?’

He nodded. ‘I’m fine.’

She looked down at her hands. 'Chakotay--'

He refused to let her travel that path. 'No, Kathryn. Command can take strange twists and turns. I understand that. Everything’s all right.' In an effort to ease the tension both felt, he changed the subject. 'How are the bridge repairs coming?'

'Nearly done. B'Elanna's repair crew already sealed the outer hull and plugged holes all the way to Deck 10. The bridge took the most damage. Your chair monitor was ruined and Tom's station is a mess; we've had to reroute navigation to Tuvok's station, but at least we didn't lose any gelpacks. We're replacing the carpet with some from the unused quarters.'

'Not mine, I hope.'

She grinned and shook her head. As was her wont, she placed one hand lightly on his shoulder. 'We came out of this with an advantage, Chakotay - the surfactant worked. We came through in one piece. B'Elanna says she can replicate more of it after the bridge has been repaired. It's a viable solution to any future problems with acid clouds.'

He said nothing, but smiled back at her and reached to take her hand from his shoulder to hold in his own. She let it remain there for a moment, then rose to take her leave. He lay back, the smile lingering on his face even after his eyes had closed and sleep had again claimed him.

The End

 



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