About the Author
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Commander Liam O’Donnell had never served on a ship the size of the Vesta. He estimated it could hold twenty Demeters, the special mission ship attached to the Full Circle Fleet that was his responsibility. He lost his way three times between the shuttlebay and Admiral Kathryn Janeway’s quarters.
It was possible he wasn’t lost, so much as dreading making his request of the fleet’s new commanding officer. He paused for almost a full minute once he reached her door before activating the chime and announcing himself.
“Enter,” the admiral said.
No turning back now.
“Commander O’Donnell,” Janeway greeted him as he stepped over the threshold to her private office and residence aboard the Vesta. He had seen her once before, at the memorial service on New Talax, and they hadn’t spoken that evening. She was shorter than he remembered—diminutive, in fact—but her stature was the only small thing about her. A genuine smile of welcome radiated over her fair face as she moved toward him, extending her right hand and grasping his firmly. Her presence easily filled the room, giving the space a warm, homey feel. She even made the incredibly restrictive full-dress uniform she wore look comfortable.
“Your reputation precedes you, Commander,” Janeway said as she shook his hand. “I’m so pleased to finally meet you, and eager to hear more from you about the last few weeks you’ve spent with the Confederacy. It goes without saying that your work thus far with the fleet, your efforts to communicate with the Children of the Storm and to aid the wave forms recently discovered, has been exemplary. I trust I can count on more of the same from you.”
O’Donnell sighed as he released her hand. No one who knew him had ever been this happy to see him.
“Thank you, Admiral,” he responded uneasily. He noted her smile falter and added keen awareness to the list of attributes he was in the process of applying to Janeway.
“Obviously there won’t be time now to hear your full report,” Janeway began.
“No,” O’Donnell agreed.
“The Ceremony of Welcoming begins in less than an hour.”
“Yes—about that,” O’Donnell interrupted.
Janeway stepped back, analyzing him without making her attention feel intrusive.
Quite the diplomat, O’Donnell added to his list.
“Is there a problem?” Janeway finally asked.
“Depends,” O’Donnell replied.
“Your definition of the term, Admiral,” O’Donnell clarified.
“Request permission not to attend the ceremony tonight, Admiral,” O’Donnell said.
He read more curious amusement than anger at his request, which was a good start.
“Why?” she asked.
“I’m really not good at parties,” O’Donnell replied.
The admiral crossed her arms at her chest, her eyes shining mischievously.
“This isn’t just a party, Commander,” Janeway said. “It’s a diplomatic mission.”
“All the more reason you don’t want me there,” O’Donnell insisted.
“You’ve been the Federation’s chief representative among the Confederacy for almost two weeks,” Janeway said. “Was it a mistake to ask you to assume that role?” she asked.
“No, Admiral,” he assured her. “One-on-one, small groups, I’m fine. When there’s a specific problem in front of me to solve, I’ll gladly talk your ear off. But large groups like this; I never know what to do with myself.”
“So small talk is the issue?”
“I would have skipped my own wedding reception had my wife allowed it.”
Janeway chuckled. She seemed to consider taking mercy on him, but the amusement fled quickly from her face.
“Request denied, Commander,” she said with finality.
“Admiral,” O’Donnell began.
“You are one of a handful of officers already acquainted with many of the diplomats who will be present tonight,” Janeway said. “They’ll be expecting you to make casual introductions. And they will most certainly note your absence and might take it as an insult.”
“Aren’t they more likely to take my genuine discomfort and displeasure at attending the function as an insult?” O’Donnell asked.
“If you allowed yourself to betray any of those emotions, I’m sure they would,” Janeway replied. “So you will be your best, most personable self tonight. Do I need to make that a direct order?” she asked.
“It wouldn’t help, Admiral,” O’Donnell said. “I did not make this request lightly. I’m not here simply because I believe there are a thousand things I could do with the next few hours that would be more constructive than attending this ceremony, although there are. I cannot pretend to be something I am not. It’s a valuable skill but one I never took the time to acquire. My feelings will be read clearly on my face, whether I wish them to or not. I would spare all of us the accompanying embarrassment. Commander Fife is prepared to take my place and will much better serve our interests.”
Janeway looked away for a moment, clearly reflecting on his words. Finally, she said, “A few months ago, your ship was captured by the Children of the Storm. There were no telepaths aboard your vessel, so you could not communicate directly with them. Based solely on their behavior, you decided that their primary interest in Demeter was observing the growth cycles of the botanical life-forms aboard. You were willing to risk your ship, your crew, and your life on this intuitive leap. To gain their trust, you departed your vessel in an environmental suit and used an untested tool to inject a hybrid life-form you had created into one of the Children, hoping that it would grow.”
Janeway’s clear blue eyes locked with O’Donnell’s. “Did I misread or misremember that report?”
“You risked death for that first contact, Commander. Why are you unwilling to risk considerably less for this one?”
O’Donnell’s eyes remained fixed on Janeway’s. “The Children had earned my respect and my compassion. For all our apparent differences, we were kindred spirits. I cannot say the same for the Confederacy.”
O’Donnell shrugged. “They’re rich. They’re powerful. They believe they are the center of the civilized universe,” he replied. “Their charms and social graces could induce insulin resistance. The only species they’ve ever encountered that was immune to their hospitality or unimpressed by their technological accomplishments was the Borg. That’s about to change, and while part of me is curious to see that realization take hold, the rest of me already knows how this story has to end.”
“And how is that, Commander?” Janeway asked.
“With disappointment,” O’Donnell replied.
Janeway considered his words, then said, “That’s always a possibility. But those of us tasked with making first contact must always remember that where there is common ground, the opportunity to move beyond disappointment toward mutual understanding and acceptance also exists.”
“Of course, Admiral,” O’Donnell agreed.
“I’ll see you in the shuttlebay at 1800,” Janeway said, dismissing him.
As Commander B’Elanna Torres’s fingers slipped and failed to close her full-dress jacket for the fifteenth time, she cursed under her breath. Her daughter Miral was watching her closely, and she took great delight in repeating every word that fell from her mother’s lips at the most inopportune moments possible.
Come on, Torres thought, gritting her teeth, wiping her sweaty fingers on her pants and redoubling her efforts.
“There’s still time to replicate a new one,” suggested Lieutenant Nancy Conlon, Voyager’s chief engineer and one of B’Elanna’s closest friends. Conlon wasn’t attending the ceremony and had offered to play with Miral until her bedtime. Both were sprawled on the floor of Torres’s quarters amidst magnetic building blocks, but neither had eyes for anything at the moment beyond B’Elanna’s attempt to force herself into her dress uniform.
“I don’t need a new one,” Torres insisted. “This is already a full size larger than my normal one.” Releasing all of the air in her lungs and pulling her abdomen into its flattest orientation, she refused to take another breath. Finally, the jacket relented.
“See?” Torres said, raising her hands to pose for them.
Conlon bit both of her lips to hide a smile.
“What?” Torres demanded.
“The point was for your pregnancy not to show, right?”
“Yes,” Torres replied.
“Mirror,” Conlon suggested.
Dropping her arms, B’Elanna ducked into her bedroom and examined her reflection in the full-length mirror affixed to the wall beside the threshold. There was no arguing that the jacket was now closed, but it was already pulling apart and the fabric stretched unflatteringly across her stomach. More important, the short waist of the jacket emphasized her rounding lower abdomen rather than drawing attention away from it.
“Damn it,” Torres said without thinking.
“Damn it,” Miral instantly repeated from the living room.
“Miral Paris,” Torres said, the warning clear in her voice as she returned to the living area and crossed to the replicator.
“Sorry, Mommy,” Miral said instantly.
As Torres hastily ordered a new dress uniform jacket a size and a half larger than normal and extra long, she wondered if whoever had designed these torture devices had ever considered the possibility that a pregnant officer might need to wear one. Miral came to her mother’s side and, looking up, asked, “Is the baby still a secret, Mommy?”
Draping a hand over her daughter’s shoulder and pulling her close, Torres replied, “No, honey. Not anymore.”
Miral turned back to Conlon and said, “I’m going to have a baby brother.”
Conlon laughed in genuine delight. “I know. It’s exciting, isn’t it?”
“And I am going to teach him everything I know.”
“I bet you are,” Conlon said.
“And I will be the mommy and he will be the baby.”
“Whoa there, kiddo,” Torres said, pulling on her new jacket and relieved by how much better it felt than the first. “I’m always the mommy.”
“But when you and Daddy aren’t here, I get to be the mommy,” Miral insisted.
“You get to be the big sister,” Torres corrected her gently.
“That’s a lot of responsibility,” Conlon said. “I was a big sister, you know.”
“You had a baby brother?”
“I had a baby sister.”
“Where is she?”
“My daddy went home,” Miral said, her face suddenly clouding over.
Fully dressed and able to breathe, Torres bent to one knee to meet Miral at her eye level. “That’s right, honey. But he’s going to be back before you know it.”
“Before the baby comes?”
“Definitely,” Torres assured her.
Miral sighed. She was doing her three-and-a-half-year-old best to accept the sudden departure of her beloved daddy. It had been more than a week since he left, and her fits of sudden sadness were most intense near bedtime and first thing in the morning. “I want my daddy,” she finally admitted softly.
“I know,” Torres said, pulling her into a tight hug.
“I was thinking that instead of playing here tonight, I might take you to one of my favorite ice cream shops on the holodeck,” Conlon said, rising and crossing to Miral.
“Ice cream?” Miral asked.
“Do you like hot fudge?”
Miral’s eyes widened as she nodded.
“Me too,” Conlon said with a wink. “You ready?”
“Yes,” Miral said.
Torres mouthed a sincere “thank you” to Conlon as she led her daughter toward the door. Voyager’s chief engineer nodded knowingly, then bent to whisper something in Miral’s ear.
Turning back, Miral said, “You look beautiful, Mommy.”
The compliment nearly undid Torres. “Thank you, honey. I love you.”
“Love you,” Miral replied as she tugged Conlon out the door.
Ten days before, it would have been Tom complimenting her appearance. Torres would have reveled in his words, knowing that her swelling belly truly was a thing of beauty to him. By now he was back on Earth, preparing to meet his mother in a series of court-ordered mediation sessions meant to determine their fitness as parents and the ultimate custody of Miral and her unborn brother.
They had argued right before he left. The memory of it still stung, the only sign of life in an otherwise suddenly lonely heart. Not long before, Torres’s life was near perfect. She hadn’t seen it, of course. You never did until it was gone.
Nothing fit anymore.
With a Herculean force of will, Torres set these dispiriting thoughts aside, squared her shoulders, and departed for the shuttlebay.
Counselor Hugh Cambridge was due in Voyager’s shuttlebay for transfer to the First World of the Confederacy of the Worlds of the First Quadrant. To arrive late was to court the displeasure of his commanding officer, Captain Chakotay, and the new fleet commander, Admiral Janeway.
He didn’t care.
The computer had alerted him to the Doctor’s arrival on Voyager, and for the next few minutes, his duties could wait.
Cambridge had learned days earlier that Seven was lost to him forever. It was possible he was transferring his understandable anger and disappointment with Seven onto the Doctor.
But Cambridge didn’t think so. The Doctor had been the prime mover in the series of events that had ended with Seven’s departure from the fleet. The counselor did not make a habit of sharing personal matters with the rest of the crew. His position required a well-honed detachment. In this case, however, he had decided to make an exception. He owed the Doctor pain, and once he had fulfilled this obligation, his own was sure to diminish.
He found the Doctor standing in his small office, conferring with a nurse. Though assigned to the Galen for the fleet’s mission, the Doctor had been temporarily transferred to Voyager when Seven’s CMO, Doctor Sharak, had been ordered to accompany her to Earth. Cambridge had not seen nor spoken to the Doctor in almost two months.
As soon as the Doctor saw him, he immediately dismissed the nurse. The door had barely slid shut behind her before Cambridge said, “You just couldn’t help yourself, could you?”
The Doctor sighed dramatically. “I missed you too, Counselor.”
“Seven explicitly requested that you keep all of your research into her catoms private. She told me about your little breakthrough before the Galen left to ferry Admiral Janeway back to Earth. She was astonished that you had successfully visualized a catom. But that brilliant discovery did not release you from your ethical duty to her as your patient and your friend.”
“Counselor—” the Doctor began.
“You had no right to share that breakthrough without her permission. But you had to, didn’t you? You couldn’t bear for your genius to remain hidden. You knew what they’d do to her when they learned of her potential usefulness. But you didn’t care.”
For a moment, the Doctor appeared stricken. Then, ever so briefly, a strange serenity descended over his features. He crossed to stand directly in front of Cambridge and raised a medical tricorder between them, directing it at the counselor.
“What are you doing?” Cambridge demanded.
“You are clearly unwell, Counselor,” the Doctor replied. “I would suggest you forgo the ceremony this evening and remain here for a thorough medical evaluation.”
Cambridge stepped back, stunned. “What the hell is wrong with you?”
“With me? Nothing,” the Doctor replied. “Seven did ask that I keep my research private, but shortly after I reached the Beta Quadrant and began treating the former Borg drone known as Axum, I was ordered by my superiors at Starfleet Medical to brief them on all of my work related to Seven and her catoms. Naturally, I found the orders ethically troubling, but Admiral Janeway assured me that it would be a violation of my duties as a Starfleet officer to refuse the direct order. Moreover, once I realized the nature of the medical threat now facing several Federation worlds, this new ‘catomic plague,’ I was certain that were she free to do so, Seven would agree to the disclosure. Perhaps you do not know her as well as I do, Counselor,” the Doctor said.
Not for the first time, Cambridge wished he could punch the hologram in the face.
“And the experimental therapy you decided to use on Axum?” he demanded. “You shared Seven’s catoms with him?”
“Axum was dying. His catoms had become dormant. Without the infusion he would have died. He nearly did, as it was.”
“Did it occur to you that mingling those catoms would have the unintended effect of forcing Seven to share his thoughts?”
“It did not,” the Doctor admitted. “When Seven advised me of that development, I was surprised. But Doctor Sharak was able to relieve that symptom for the most part.”
“She suffered a great deal before that relief came, Doctor,” Cambridge said.
“Seven also learned a great deal, and what she learned will undoubtedly help her as she begins her work with Starfleet Medical.”
“So you’re sleeping just fine these days,” Cambridge said.
“I don’t sleep, Counselor,” the Doctor corrected him. “But if I did, my actions in this case would not disturb it.”
Cambridge considered him carefully. Were he human, as he appeared to be, a diagnosis would be easy enough to reach. But he wasn’t. He was a sophisticated holographic program that, according to the “experts,” had transcended its basic directives and attained sentience. He was more like a new life-form, one that, until this moment, Cambridge thought he’d understood.
“You realize that because you did this, Seven will never again return to this fleet?” Cambridge asked.
The Doctor’s ire flared unexpectedly. “I did what I had to do,” he said. “I was not responsible for the plague that set this entire chain of events in motion. I do not blame Seven, nor should you, for wishing to help those now working to aid its victims. Tens of thousands of people are already dead, and hundreds of thousands more will be, unless a treatment regimen is devised. I know that the thought of standing idly by while so many suffer would pain Seven deeply. I would never interfere with a choice that was hers. And because I care more . . .”
Cambridge waited as the Doctor halted himself midthought. Confusion replaced his anger, followed almost immediately by that odd, flat, eerie calm.
“Doctor?” Cambridge finally asked.
“Seven will return to the fleet when her services at Starfleet Medical are no longer required. I will hasten that return by working without cease until I have cured the plague myself,” the Doctor said calmly, almost as if the idea had just occurred to him.
“The best minds in Starfleet have already worked without success toward that goal for how long?” Cambridge asked.
“Over a year,” the Doctor replied. “But they are not Seven. They are not me. Had we been advised earlier, this plague would already be nothing more than a painful memory.”
“Unbelievable,” Cambridge said.
“Only for those of limited imagination,” the Doctor said.
“Axum was her first love. You know as well as I do the power of primacy. Whether the plague is cured or not, she won’t abandon him again,” Cambridge said.
“Should that be her choice, I would understand,” the Doctor said. “I would be happy for her. Wouldn’t you?”
Cambridge was at a complete loss. He knew the Doctor had once loved Seven. He knew the Doctor was appalled by her choice to enter into an intimate relationship with the counselor a few months earlier. He suspected that if the Doctor could not have her, he would have done anything, including forcing her into Axum’s arms, to make sure that what she had begun with Cambridge would never have a chance to develop. But to hear him now, the Doctor could have been talking about any member of the crew. The shift between vehement protestation and clinical reserve was astonishing.
It made no sense.
“Chakotay to Counselor Cambridge.”
Cambridge tapped his combadge. “Go ahead, Captain.”
“We’re waiting, Counselor.”
“On my way.”
Cambridge considered the Doctor for a moment longer, then turned on his heel and directed his hurried steps toward the shuttlebay, wondering if the Doctor had ever truly been the man so many believed him to be.
THE FIRST WORLD
The room into which Captain Chakotay and his crew were ushered to wait for their fellow officers attending the ceremony was clearly not often used for this purpose. A small metallic desk had been shoved into a corner with a plant, its large flowing lavender leaves trailing over an indiscernible vase, clearly meant to camouflage the workstation. Chairs were set along three of the four walls, and a small table placed in the center held a carafe of water with several cups stacked beside it.
Chakotay suspected they wouldn’t be here long. Neither he nor any of his crew—Fleet Chief B’Elanna Torres, Lieutenant Harry Kim, Lieutenant Kenth Lasren, or Counselor Hugh Cambridge—chose to sit.
“What do you think they normally use this room for?” Kim asked of Torres. She seemed annoyed by the question and merely shrugged. Chakotay appreciated the attempt by his acting first officer to make this situation feel normal, but he understood that the tension flaring from most of them was going to be difficult to overcome.
Ten days earlier, Torres had been separated from her husband, Voyager’s first officer, Commander Tom Paris, under the most painful of circumstances. Lieutenant Lasren, Voyager’s only full Betazoid, had been selected to attend the ceremony in hopes that his empathic abilities would be useful to Admiral Janeway as she formally opened diplomatic relations with the Confederacy. Lasren did not use his special abilities on a routine basis, and the anticipated stress of doing so was clear on the young man’s face. Counselor Cambridge could usually be counted on to lighten the atmosphere, but his mood had been excessively dark since he’d learned of Seven’s departure. Chakotay knew he needed to make time to speak with Cambridge, but there simply hadn’t been any since Voyager had returned to Confederacy space, bringing the Galen and the Vesta with them.
Not to mention the fact that Chakotay had only spoken a few times with Kathryn since she had taken command of the Full Circle Fleet, and none of those conversations had been what he’d hoped for from the woman with whom he intended to spend the rest of his life. He was eager to see her tonight, though he knew the evening would be all-business. Anticipation of her imminent arrival, however, was accompanied by a fair amount of trepidation.
“B’Elanna, Harry, Kenth, Hugh,” Chakotay said, immediately drawing the attention of all present to him, “I know things have been happening pretty fast the last week or so. There has been a great deal of change to absorb, much of it difficult. But for the next several hours, we need to set all that aside. Tonight we are honored guests of the leadership of a confederacy of planets that, as best I can tell, is the first we have ever encountered in the Delta Quadrant that rivals our Federation. Commander O’Donnell’s early reports indicate, among other things, that they are incredibly excited to meet with us and explore the possibility of an alliance with our people. I don’t have to tell you what an asset such an alliance would be for our fleet, and the Federation.
“Our galaxy seems to have grown a little smaller since the development of our slipstream capabilities. The ‘streams’ the Confederacy uses to traverse the space they claim, subspace corridors that bridge vast distances, have had a similar effect here. Even a few years ago, the thought of entering into relations with a civilization as far distant as this one would have been unlikely to hold the potential for much meaningful exchange of information or resources. That is no longer the case. Starfleet’s most important role is as an ambassador to all warp-capable cultures in the galaxy. Tonight we embody that role. Opinions of the Federation will be shaped by the way in which we conduct ourselves.
“I’m not going to bother ordering you all to be at your best. I’m simply going to ask you to consider all that is at stake here, and to remember that opportunities such as this have been too few and far between. All of the challenges we are facing will still be with us tomorrow morning. Tonight, let’s enjoy ourselves, shall we?”
“Well said, Captain,” a familiar voice noted.
Turning, Chakotay saw that Admiral Janeway had entered during his remarks. Always at her right hand was a slightly built Vulcan male, Lieutenant Decan, Kathryn’s personal aide. The Galen’s captain, Commander Clarissa Glenn, the Vesta’s CMO, Doctor El’nor Sal, and her captain, Regina Farkas, followed behind Janeway, along with Demeter’s Commander Liam O’Donnell, who looked as if he had come to attend a funeral, but he nodded in Chakotay’s direction as soon as their eyes met.
“Admiral on deck,” Kim said crisply.
The admiral bit back her amusement as she quickly ordered, “At ease.” Crossing to Kim she said softly, “I appreciate the courtesy, Lieutenant Kim, but let’s go easy on the formalities when it’s just us.”
“Of course, Admiral,” Kim said.
Turning to Chakotay, her smile widened. “Captain,” she greeted him. Her eyes held his for a brief moment, and much of the worry he’d felt prior to her arrival dissipated.
“Admiral,” he said warmly. Bending to her ear, he whispered, “You look stunning.”
Janeway nodded, accepting the compliment before moving among Voyager’s officers and greeting each of them personally. She briefly pulled Torres aside, and a firm hug between them suggested that the admiral had just availed herself of her first opportunity to congratulate Torres on her pregnancy. Soft conversations erupted all around as old friends and acquaintances greeted one another. Doctor Sal, a tall woman in her eighties, moved quickly to Chakotay’s side and, without warning, threaded an arm through his.
“I hope you don’t mind, Captain,” she offered with a sly smile.
“Not at all,” he said.
“I always like to enter a room on the arm of the best-looking man around,” Sal teased.
“I guess you’ll just have to make do with me tonight,” Chakotay teased back.
“Is my CMO bothering you, Captain?” Farkas asked, moving to stand before them.
“No,” Chakotay assured her.
“I’ve ordered her to behave herself,” Farkas said. “If she steps out of line, you have my permission to shoot her.”
“I’m sure it won’t come to that, Captain,” Chakotay said.
“Don’t be,” Sal suggested.
“It seems we are all present and accounted for,” Admiral Janeway said, raising her voice above the low din. Immediately all other conversation in the room ceased.
Gazing at those around her, her eyes bright and her face flush with anticipation, Janeway said, “I’m truly looking forward to this evening. If our schedule is any indication, our hosts have gone to great lengths to impress us tonight. Let’s allow them to do that. I know from experience that large gatherings like this can feel impersonal and become tedious. Just remember, we are the first Federation citizens to set foot on this world. Our presence here is a gift to us from those who came before; those who first braved unexplored space with a desire to expand their knowledge of the universe. I don’t pretend to know right now what may or may not come of our eventual negotiations. That’s not important now. Take this moment for what it is and make the most of it. It is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Savor it.”
Nods all around seemed to satisfy the admiral as the door slid open and a tall humanoid in a long tunic that might have been spun from pure gold entered. As he moved, the fabric rippled, more like a liquid than a solid. A wide, long, dark metallic chain draped over his shoulders enhanced the effect by appearing to float on the fabric’s surface. Chakotay knew him to be Leodt, one of the two primary species that had founded the Confederacy. The other was the Djinari. The Leodt’s skin was a deep brown, his eyes black as pitch, and his most striking facial feature was the circle of pointed teeth his thin lips did little to conceal. Janeway immediately moved to stand before him.
“Federation representatives,” he greeted them with sincere warmth, “I am First Consul Lant Dreeg. It is my honor to welcome you to the First World.”
“It is our honor to be so welcomed,” Janeway said, clearly a rehearsed response, likely settled upon in the negotiations leading up to this moment.
“If you will follow me?” Dreeg asked.
Chakotay and Sal fell in line directly behind Janeway as the others assumed their preappointed positions for their entrance into the ceremony.
Here we go, Chakotay thought.