AB INITIO

By Brianna Thomas

Rated PG-13

Summary: Takes place after the events of Counterpoint. Spoilers for Counterpoint (obviously) and Sacred Ground. Inspired by the waterfall pix in Koffee Klub's summer 2002 PPP, but was never entered.

Tayryn has created an amazing video trailer to this story. The perfect accompaniment! You can watch it here

The crew was just beginning to really relax after the high tension they had all experienced during the prolonged encounter with the Devore. Everyone had been intensely aware that any wrong move on their part could cause the arrest and probable deaths of the telepaths, the incarceration of the entire crew, and the impounding of Voyager. Janeway gave instructions to Commander Chakotay to rearrange the duty rosters to give everyone at least a day off, and to Neelix to plan a social event of some kind. Seven of Nine was told to keep her eyes peeled for an M-class planet where the crew could take shore leave. The former Borg raised her regular eyebrow and replied that she was uncertain how peeling her eyeballs would increase efficiency in this task.

Five days out of Devore space, Kathryn awoke with a headache and feeling like she hadn't slept. It was not all that unusual an occurrence, and just because this headache seemed stronger than normal, and the tiredness bordered on exhaustion, it didn't really warrant undue attention. Particularly since, she, more than anyone, had been under high stress while in Devore space, having to watch her every word and action in a cat-and-mouse game with Devore Inspector Kashyk. However, by the end of her duty shift, she could hardly move, the fatigue was so great. The entire bridge crew nearly keeled over when she left right on time, saying she was going to Sickbay. Chakotay rode the turbolift with her, his concern apparent when she begged off dinner that evening, telling him all she wanted was a bowl of soup, a bath and her bed. He managed to get a smile from her when he lined up the three b's - bowl, bath, and bed.

The doctor clucked over her like a mother hen, reciting his usual mantra. Too much coffee, too little food; too much work, too little exercise; too much report reading, too little sleep. He administered the hypospray for her headache and let her go on her way, knowing he might as well have been talking to the wall.

Returning to her quarters, Kathryn was touched to find a bowl of hot lentil soup and a small salad on the table, along with coffee ice cream waiting in stasis. When she entered her bedroom to exchange her uniform for the softest, fluffiest robe she owned, it was impossible not to smile at the sound of water running in her bathtub. She hit her comm badge. "Janeway to Chakotay."

"Chakotay here. Something amiss, Captain?"

The smile was evident in his voice, and the picture of his endearing dimples filled her head. "Don't play innocent with me, mister. Seems to me I should be alerting security about an intruder in the captain's quarters. You wouldn't know anything about that, would you?" Even her Starfleet training couldn't help her to maintain a stern tone.

"Me, Captain? Have you checked with the computer?"

"Good idea." Kathryn lifted her voice. "Computer, has anyone besides myself entered these quarters today?"

"Negative."

"There you have it, Kathryn. No need for a red alert."

She tossed her uniform toward the laundry pile; it felt gritty somehow, as if she'd been rolling in dirt. Tying the sash on her robe, she headed back to the table. "Okay, enough with the teasing, Chakotay. How did you do it this time?"

"Simple for a former Maquis." His voice paused at her snort. "I just had the computer inform me when you left Sickbay and then had it send over the food and start your bath on a timer. However, you'll have to pick your own bubble bath."

An eyebrow quirked. "And just how do you know that I use that?" A long pause ensued, and she smiled. Gotcha.

There was the sound of a throat clearing. "I did live with you for a couple of months, remember?"

New Earth. Oh yes, she remembered. The freedom from responsibility, the laughter, the changes in her heart that began there. And especially, what didn't happen, but would have if they'd just had a little more time. They never talked about it - they didn't dare. Kathryn bowed her head for a moment. "Chakotay," her voice was huskier than normal. "Thank you for everything. I…" She was treading on thin ice, but for once, decided to forge ahead. Blame it on feeling crappy. "I've never known anyone quite like you."

Another long pause. She could almost picture his head lowered, perhaps tugging at his earlobe.

"Go eat, Kathryn, then have your bath and head to bed." His voice was gentle. "And at the risk of sounding like the doctor, please don't have any more coffee tonight."

"Actually, I'm thinking of having some your funny tasting tea." She knew that would get them back on more stable ground."

"Herbal tea? You really aren't feeling well, are you?" The teasing was back in his voice. "Sorry I couldn't program the computer to turn down your bed for you, but if you like I could come over and tuck you in."

"In you dreams, buster," she laughed.

"That's a given." He didn't sound like he was teasing anymore. "Get some rest, Kathryn. I'll see you tomorrow."

Although she slept like a log that night, she awoke even more tired, and the headache was back just as strong. Plus, her joints were aching, and her skin felt ultra sensitive. The sight in her mirror was enough to startle her. Her face was terribly pale, and large black circles were beneath her eyes. "Don't you just look like Dracula's sister?" She made a rude gesture at her reflection. Even her throat was a little sore. She wondered if there was some kind of virus onboard, because she certainly felt like she had the flu. Only the certain knowledge of yet another lecture from the doctor prevented her from contacting him to see if he'd had any other patients show up with similar symptoms.

Even though it was a fresh uniform, it still felt uncomfortable against her skin. She laughed to herself, thinking how the bridge crew would react if the captain showed up for duty wearing a fuzzy robe. In her living room, Kathryn realized with a shock that she'd forgotten all about the coffee ice cream still sitting in stasis. "I really must be sick," she muttered as she recycled it. Breakfast was only half a slice of toast since nausea prevented her from consuming anything more.

As the turbolift doors opened on the bridge, Harry turned to greet her as he did every morning that he worked the Alpha shift. The shock on his face told her she looked every bit as dreadful as her mirror had indicated.

"Captain?"

Now everyone's attention was on her. She pulled herself upright. "All right people, I'm just a little under the weather, okay? As you were."

As she stepped to the command level, she felt her first officer's anxious eyes on her. "Don't you start, Chakotay," she muttered to him.

Her comment must have worked because he managed to hold his tongue for half an hour. In that time, she reread the same report four times, and wriggled constantly in her chair, vainly trying to find a comfortable spot. All her joints felt like they were on fire. She had finally reached the conclusion she was going to have to give in and go see the doctor when Chakotay leaned over the console.

Concern was all over his face. "Captain," he whispered, "I really think you need to go to Sickbay."

"I think you're right," she conceded. Her voice was raspy. "The bridge is yours, Commander." She stood, intending to head for the lift, but her head began to swim and her vision became blurry. There was just enough time for the annoyed thought to form in her mind that she was going to faint right there on the bridge, when blackness began to take over. She turned back to the commander. "Cha…"

Chakotay saw the moment that consciousness left her before her eyes closed, and he caught her as she began to collapse. "Tom!" The part-time medic was moving from the conn before he even called. Chakotay was horrified at the burning heat under his hand on her forehead, yet when he took one of her hands, it was ice cold.

Tom ran a medical tricorder over her and swore.

"What is it? Paris, report," Chakotay frowned as the freshly demoted ensign hesitated.

Tom's gaze was anchored to the instrument. "She's full of some kind of infection this tricorder can't even recognize." He lifted worried eyes to his senior officer's.

Chakotay stood and raised his voice. "Computer, beam the captain and Ensign Paris directly to Sickbay." It was one of the hardest things he'd ever done to watch to the two of them shimmer away and not go with her.

He practically had to sit on his hands to stop from contacting Sickbay. Almost an hour later the EMH himself called.

"Well, Commander, the best I can tell you at this moment is that I don't know. All of the captain's symptoms point to something like Grinellian flu, but right now, I can't even tell if the illness is bacterial or viral in nature. I've had two other cases of similar symptoms reported, and since I don't know if it's contagious or not, I've erected a forcefield. Although it's probably shutting the barn door after the horse has escaped considering the contact the captain already had with all of you."

The doctor had obviously been adding ancient idioms to his programming, undoubtedly without B'Elanna's approval. At least he didn't sound anxious. "What treatment are you following?" Chakotay inquired.

"I've managed to bring the captain's fever down, and I'm using a spread of standard antibiotics, just in case."

"Is she conscious?" he inquired.

"Oh yes. And already pushing to leave, wanting coffee, wanting reports to read. Generally being the lovely patient she always is."

A husky voice came faintly through the comm. "I heard that! Just remember, you can be replaced. Literally."

The bridge crew chuckled and the commander couldn't withhold his grin, knowing better than most just how stubborn their captain could be. "I'll let you get back to your, uh, lovely patient, doctor. Chakotay out."

At the end of his shift, Chakotay stopped by Sickbay just in time to witness Captain Janeway retching over the side of the biobed, narrowly missing the doctor's feet with the soup Neelix had brought her for dinner. The EMH mutely handed her the napkin, then thrust the food tray through the forcefield at the waiting chef.

Wiping her mouth, she apologized. "I'm sorry, Neelix. I can't seem to keep anything in my stomach with this damned flu."

Neelix gripped the tray tightly, glancing at the commander. "It was just Vulcan soup, honest. It was the plainest thing I could think of." There was a dejected slump to the shoulders of the usually happy Talaxian as he exited out the door, tray in hand.

Looking around Sickbay, Chakotay could see the biobeds behind the forcefield were full. "This looks like an epidemic," he commented to the doctor.

"I've had five more cases since this morning," the EMH responded. "Including the captain, that makes our total eight so far. The captain's case appears slightly different, but the symptoms are similar enough to consider them together for now."

When the EMH crossed the room to attend to another patient, Chakotay folded his arms across his chest and spoke to the captain. "I've never known Neelix's cooking to make you sick before, Kathryn. Guess I don't need to ask how you're feeling."

Kathryn propped herself on her elbow and sighed. "I haven't felt this nauseated since I had to present my thesis to Admiral Paris at the Academy. Do I look as bad as I feel?"

Her face was sallow-toned and the black circles under her eyes looked like she'd lost a fifteen round bout in the boxing ring. He nodded, "Pretty much."

That comment earned him a weak version of the death glare. "You really know how to flatter a girl, Commander. You need to work on your bedside manner a bit."

Broad shoulders lifted in a shrug. "You did ask."

"Who said you had to be honest?"

"I've always heard it's the best policy."

The friendly bantering would have continued had the EMH not bustled over at that moment. "Time for you to leave, Commander. My patient needs to rest."

The captain made a face. "You mean you want me to stay overnight?"

Regarding her like she was a child, the doctor replied, "You have an unknown illness with an unknown rate of progress, and at present, no specific treatment. What do you think?"

Janeway lay back and muttered, "There's no need to be sarcastic."

*****

The EMH paced agitatedly in his Sickbay office. "That's just it. There's no record in the database that gives a clue as to the nature of the captain's illness. In the last three days, all I've been able to discover is that this ailment is a mutation of its original form. Whatever it started out as was benign. It isn't any more."

Chakotay could hear the frustration in the doctor's voice. What concerned him most was the total absence of arrogance that was the usual indicator of the doctor's supreme confidence in his own abilities to produce yet another medical miracle worthy of presentation at a some conference. And if the doctor was worried…

A total of nine patients had appeared, but while the symptoms were similar, the other eight had been ruled unconnected to the captain's situation. Although unpleasant for the victims, their cases proved to be simple food poisoning. And it hadn't even been Neelix's fault. The gel packs governing the replicators had been infected. It made Chakotay think of all the meals the captain had shared with the Devore inspector. "Is it possible that she was poisoned?" he suggested.

The hologram shrugged. "At this point I wouldn't rule out anything, but the important question would be how, and with what?"

"What have you been doing for her?"

"Literally a hodge-podge of anything and everything I can think of. Ensign Paris and I have run every test known and a few that were never invented until now. Whatever this thing is, it's throughout her body. Last night she spiked a temperature four times, and no sooner would I get it under control, than the next surge would occur, higher than the last. I feel like I'm chasing down a band of terrorists." He glanced at the commander. "No offence."

Chakotay waved away the hologram's apology, his eyes drawn to the motionless form on the biobed. Kathryn had always been slender, and since the onset of this illness, she hadn't been able to keep any food down. She was already noticeably thinner. Lying so still, she seemed tiny, vulnerable and fragile. He knew she'd be thoroughly annoyed at being perceived like that. It was just possible to see slow breaths flowing in and out while she slept. A sense of unease gripped at his throat and he had to work to subdue it.

As much as he hated to admit it, there was nothing he could do for her here. On the bridge, at least he could take care of her ship and crew. "Keep at it, doctor. I'm sure you'll come up with something. Let me know if anything changes."

*****

The doctor contacted the commander just before the end of shift and requested his presence. It wasn't possible to assess the tone of the hologram's voice "Tuvok…" He'd been about to hand the bridge over to the Vulcan, when something made him pause. First and second officers regarded one another. Chakotay looked to the ops station. "Ensign Kim, you have the bridge."

"Aye, sir."

Chakotay turned back to tactical and gestured toward the lift. "Tuvok."

The enigmatic security chief nodded and handed his station over to his replacement staff.

The entire trip to Sickbay was silent, yet there was something of an accord between the two. While they would never have described themselves as friends, they were linked by mutual respect for each other and unswerving loyalty to the woman who presently lay in Sickbay. Ensign Paris met them just outside of Sickbay doors returning after his break. The chief pilot/medic had requested to spend all his shifts in Sickbay assisting the doctor until the captain was on the mend. The three entered together.

"Doctor, what have you disc…?" Chakotay fell silent and would have staggered had it not been for the steadying hand of the Vulcan beside him. The deterioration in the captain's condition in the few hours since his morning visit was shocking.

He had always been fascinated by the creamy tone of Kathryn's skin. It had become one of his most enduring dreams to someday discover if her cheek was a soft as it appeared. Now her skin was ash colored with the feathering of red splotches that appeared to be from broken capillaries.

"Commanders." The voice of the doctor roused him from his stupor. It was hard to wrench his eyes away.

Tuvok spoke. "What can you tell us, Doctor?" The calm tone of the Vulcan was a relief to Chakotay's ears. For the first time, he could understand why Kathryn relied on him so much.

"As you can see, this ailment is progressing at an alarming rate, and nothing we've done so far has made any real difference. The disease is attacking virtually every system in her body; I just get one area repaired when the next starts to break down. The amount of treatment I've utilized should have been enough to stop the bubonic plague and Kortellian flux combined." The doctor's frustration was obvious. It was well known that although the doctor struggled trying to get the captain to take better care of herself, he held her in great esteem and genuine affection.

Chakotay couldn't prevent his eyes from drifting back to the biobed. "Do you have any good news?" he managed.

The doctor jerked a nod. "It's small, but it might help. It's obvious…"

"Gentlemen," the voice was little more than a croak, "it's not polite to talk about the patient like she's not even here."

The doctor whipped through the forcefield over to the biobed. "So, Captain, you decided to wake up. How are you feeling?" In spite of the lighthearted words, the hologram's tone was gentle, even more evidence of his concern.

Her eyes were still closed, but she licked her lips and rasped, "Like I've tangled with the Vidiians. Chakotay?"

He swallowed the lump that threatened to close his throat. "I'm here, Captain. Tuvok is here as well." Even now protocol constrained him with the use of her title.

When she licked her lips again, the doctor administered a hypospray. "That should help with your hydration levels and your pain. Is that better?"

It might have been an attempt at a smile, but looked more like a grimace.

At that moment her eyes opened, and Chakotay nearly cried. Those beautiful blue eyes that had captivated him from the moment he'd beamed aboard Voyager so long ago were completely bloodshot. When she winced at the bright light, the doctor called for the lights to dim, then grabbed an optical regenerator and began to pass it over her eyes.

"Doctor, what have you discovered?" That husky voice that normally sounded like smooth whiskey was deep and rough.

"It was Commander Chakotay's query about whether you had possibly been poisoned that pointed me in this direction. The only recent outside contact Voyager has had was with the charming Devore and the telepaths. I took scans of the telepaths, and also succeeded in surreptitiously taking some of the Devore when they were running amuck onboard. I've been trying to keep a complete record of every alien lifeform we encounter. While it's not poisoning per se, the net result for you, Captain, is the same. It took a great deal of concerted digging because of the extent of mutation, but I've been able to determine that this ailment contains the same basic biomolecular signature of the Devore."

The senior officers exchanged alarmed glances. Most of the senior staff was well aware of the amount of contact the captain had had with one Devore in particular. Chakotay turned to Paris. "Tom, get down to the guest quarters and take every scan you can, tissue residue, anything. If there's a hair on the floor, find it."

Tom nodded grimly, grabbed a couple of scanners and headed for the door.

"Well? Would somebody care to fill the physician in?" The acerbic tone of the EMH redirected their attention.

The captain's tired eyes moved from the pained face of her first officer and closest friend, to the calm face of her security chief and oldest friend. "Tuvok," she croaked, "you tell him."

Chakotay knew she wasn't undermining him, but giving him a gift in not having to speak. Tuvok would be better able to render this report without emotion hindering him.

The Vulcan turned to the doctor, speaking in his usual precise tone. "While Inspector Kashyk was aboard pretending to defect, it seemed evident that his interest in the captain extended to the personal level. It was the decision of the three of us to play upon that interest, within reason, for the sake of the telepaths. However, to ensure her safety, it was agreed that Captain Janeway should not be alone with the inspector when he departed. Hence, the commander and I were sequestered on either side of the shuttle bay at that time." The monotone delivery faltered momentarily, then resumed. "Just before Inspector Kashyk entered his shuttle, he kissed the captain, and then she kissed him in return."

At the doctor's hiss, Tuvok turned to his captain. "I believe that covers it."

"Not quite." The classic Janeway grin almost appeared, but she stopped as the skin around her mouth pulled tight. "What Tuvok is too polite to say, is that as soon as Kashyk's shuttle left the bay, I lost my dinner. And it was such a nice meal too."

Chakotay well recalled hiding behind some storage containers, phaser in hand just in case Kashyk tried something like kidnapping Kathryn. Aware that she trusted the Devore no more than he did, he was thoroughly impressed at how her last words to the inspector would have won an acting award. Kashyk had hesitated a moment, then grabbed her shoulders and kissed her. The return kiss had been to convince the alien of her total trust. However, no sooner had the shuttle departed out of the bay than Kathryn's expression changed. Both Tuvok and he leaped into action. Tuvok flipped the lids of storage containers until he found an empty one, while Chakotay half carried, half dragged Kathryn over for her to empty the contents of her stomach into the bin. He held her as she heaved again and again, then she calmly accepted the quickly replicated cup of water Tuvok handed her to rinse her mouth.

Afterward, alone in the turbolift together, Kathryn had surprised him by leaning tiredly against him. "You know what pisses me off the most about that kiss?" she said.

Looking down at his small captain, he was hard pressed to see the usually strong commanding officer.

Eyes closed, her head rested against his shoulder. "I should have been able to enjoy it. My first real kiss in nearly five years is with the proverbial tall, dark, and handsome male. Intelligent and charming - just like someone else I know." She cracked an eye open at him, making him smile.

Her expression stilled. "But underneath all that charm is a malevolent streak of pure evil. Oh, I know you've not exactly been a choirboy in your past, Chakotay. But Kashyk has caused the deaths of who knows how many hundreds of individuals - males, females, and children - and what's more, he enjoys it. I nearly lost it when he told me that story about the little girl. I'm quite sure it's true. He's vicious, purely for viciousness sake. And I had to kiss that. Don't get me wrong - I'd do it again, and more, if it would save even a handful of telepaths from the fate he has planned for them. Did I tell you he tried to throw the Prime Directive at me?"

She had. Late one night, she'd come storming to his quarters, pacing up and down, vibrating with anger at the hypocrisy of the so-called repentant inspector. The story of the little girl had chilled them both, knowing as they did that it represented dozens of other little girls just like her, whose only crime was to possess an ability not even of their own choosing.

The doctor's voice yanked Chakotay back to the present. "Transferred in saliva. That's a start. I'd say it's safe to drop the forcefield." A sizzle sounded. "I'd also say that upchucking of yours probably saved your life, Captain. If the full impact had hit your system, you most likely wouldn't be here now. Although, if it had manifested itself earlier, perhaps we could have returned to Devore space and found a cure. As it is, it will take…"

"No!" Janeway painfully hauled herself up on her elbows. The forceful explosion had split the skin at one side of her mouth. "You will not even think about returning there! You will not put this ship and this crew at risk again. You all know what they would do, not just to Tuvok and Vorik, but the whole crew. I forbid it. I for…" She began to cough and had to sink back.

Chakotay stepped forward with the dermal regenerator the doctor thrust at him while the EMH prepared another hypospray. "Kathryn, calm yourself." He didn't care any more that he'd used her first name before crewmembers. Focussing his attention, he watched the regenerator repair the damage.

The hypospray did its job and her breathing settled. "Promise me, Chakotay," she demanded. "They would never help us. We got away once. All that would happen is they would impound Voyager and incarcerate the crew, possibly immediately killing Tuvok and Vorik. Kashyk would love it, you know he would."

It was true, but it was nonetheless hard, so he nodded slowly. "I promise."

Those still amazing blue eyes latched onto his, and she raised her hand, little finger extended. "Pinky swear."

It was impossible to stop the tears that sprang to his eyes. She'd first done that to him on New Earth when she'd made him promise to stay away from the jagged cliffs he loved to climb. Over the years, the childish promise had become more binding to them than any other commitment. He often made her swear not to work on her day off; she had made him swear not to pound Tom out after he broke her heart with the antics that forced her to demote the pilot to ensign. Chakotay slowly extended his hand and curved his little finger around hers.

Eyes locked with his, she firmly linked their fingers. "Swear it, Chakotay." Her voice seemed weaker and it was obvious she was getting tired.

His reply sounded thick. "I swear I won't take the ship back to Devore space."

Her gaze moved to his right. "Tuvok, you heard him; you must hold him to it. And remember, 'the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. Or the one.'"

If Chakotay hadn't been so distraught, he would have laughed. Kathryn Janeway knew how to fight dirty when she needed to, like quoting the great Spock to a Vulcan.

Although slow in coming, Tuvok's response was measured. "Agreed, Captain."

*****

The scans from the guest quarters confirmed what they'd already surmised; the captain's illness was a direct result of the two kisses with Devore Inspector Kashyk. How to stop its deadly progress, however, remained infuriatingly elusive. To the crew, it felt as though the soul of Voyager was slipping away. They tiptoed around, silently performing their duties, each terribly aware of the absence of their commanding officer. Even Neelix was unable to rise above the sense of emptiness, and actually had to leave the mess hall when he burst into tears one lunchtime after unconsciously preparing the usual extra pot of coffee that he always had ready for the arrival of the captain.

Almost every waking moment that Chakotay wasn't on the bridge was spent with Kathryn. He would read reports aloud and try to keep her abreast of what was happening on her ship. When she was able to talk, they shared stories of their lives. On one level, Chakotay delighted in learning some things he'd never known about her, yet on another level, it brought him deep despair, feeling that she was making a final effort to impart something of herself, of her essence to him through her whispered tales. He was reminded of the famous phrase from A Tale of Two Cities, a book that Kathryn had given him for his birthday one year, knowing his love for the classics. "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…" It should have been the most wonderful of times, the openness of sharing the precious details of their lives with each other, yet the reason for it made it soul-ripping.

Her visitors were many, and at various times, Chakotay would slip out for a stroll around the decks, trying to keep contact with the distressed crew. Unanswerable questions flooded his mind as he walked the halls. What if they had specified no contact between Kashyk and Kathryn? She could have put up her hand to stop his kiss, but still convincingly invited him to come back, couldn't she? What if she had subsequently kissed Naomi's cheek like she sometimes did? What if he had actually given into the urge that had been ruthlessly shoved to the back of his mind for so many years and finally kissed her himself? Or for some reason, someone else had? Would that have been enough to transfer the disease again? The 'what ifs' circled around and around in his head like rabid squirrels chasing each other.

Although the doctor initially fussed about the constant traffic in Sickbay, eventually the endless stream of visitors proved useful. It became the task of whoever was sitting with her to hold a dermal regenerator in one hand and a hypospray in the other, as day by day the captain's skin became more fragile and her pain level rose. Chakotay was no longer able to take her hand during his visits or on his departures as was his usual wont. One afternoon when he took her hand, she winced in pain, and his hand came away bloody where her skin had split at the light contact.

Seven days into it, in one of her increasingly infrequent bouts of consciousness, the captain requested Commander Chakotay's presence. He reluctantly accepted her transferal of command of the vessel to him. The computer's pronouncement, "Command transfer complete," was one of the saddest sounds he'd ever heard. Just like when she'd been injured trying to make an agreement with the Borg, or as Tom called it, 'a deal with the devil,' her one admonition to him was that no matter what happened, to get the crew home. In spite of the transferal, Chakotay could not bring himself to permanently take the captain's chair, and the vacant seat was painfully evident to the bridge crew.

"Who would have thought it?" Kathryn mumbled to him on one of his visits. "I guess there really is such a thing as the kiss of death."

Pain lanced through him at her weak gallows humor and he shook his head. "Don't, Kathryn. We'll find something - we will." If he couldn't make her believe it, he had to make himself believe it or he'd go mad.

Weary eyes lifted to him in the dimmed lighting. Her voice was no more than a whisper now. "Here we are, Chakotay, finally. Romantic lighting, beds to choose from, and…" She hissed as pain shot through her.

Chakotay stood and applied the hypospray to her neck, hoping even that slight contact wouldn't hurt her. "Hush, Kathryn. Rest now," he murmured to her.

"No, wait, Chakotay. I have to tell you…" Her eyelids fluttered as the medication entered her bloodstream. It was just possible to see her lips move as the sedative took over. He was startled. Had she really been trying to say what he thought he'd seen?

The next day the doctor programmed the computer to suspend her in midair, as her delicate skin could no longer take the pressure of the biobed. She was covered only by the curve of the medical shield, her mottled gray skin stretched over evident bones. Chakotay had seen Cardassian prisoners with more flesh on them than she had. Her hair hung lank and dull, no sign of the usual brightly burnished highlights. One of the extra tasks the doctor programmed into the medical shield was to continuously seek out and regenerate the fissures and subcutaneous bleeding that constantly occurred.

It became necessary for the doctor to threaten both Tom and Seven with removal from duty if they didn't rest, as both worked unceasingly to try to discover something to bring the onslaught to an end. There was a brief lift in their hopes when Seven's nanoprobes brought about a positive change. But it was only temporary, as the disease adapted and mutated again in a matter of hours, literally assimilating the nanoprobes.

Eleven days after her collapse on the bridge, Captain Kathryn Janeway was put into stasis. The ailment had attacked the tissues of her heart, causing cardiac arrest. The doctor was barely able to resuscitate her.

Chakotay sat alone beside her stasis chamber that evening, his hand resting against the glass. It hurt to look at her, but he couldn't tear his eyes away. "Kathryn, we've shared so much together, you and I. So many good times." He paused, memories taking him for a moment. "And of course, you know we've had more than our share of bad times. We've lost people, friends who have become family. Plus we've both hurt each other over the years. I want you to know I appreciate your patience with me. I appreciate the friendship you've given me, more than you'll ever know." He had to turn his head aside for a moment and swallow. "And I want you to know that all times that you've angered me, disappointed me and hurt me over the last four and half years, I forgave you every time. It really wasn't that hard. But if you die…" His voice cracked and he had to continue in a whisper. "If you die, I'm not sure I'm going to be able to forgive you for that, so just don't, okay? Just don't."

He did a childish thing after that. Even though he knew it was juvenile, he did it anyway and while it didn't change anything, it gave him a momentary small measure of satisfaction and release. He went to the holodeck and pounded a holoimage of Inspector Kashyk into the mat of the boxing ring.

That night in his bed, Chakotay looked out the viewport at the passing stars. They had always been a solace to her, but now to him, they just seemed cold and empty. He glanced for the hundredth time at the picture of Kathryn on his bedside table. It had been taken on some shore leave when she laughed at something someone had said. The colors were washed out in the darkened room, but he knew she held a glass of blue liquid in her hand that almost matched the shimmering deep blue gown she'd worn that night. Her hair had been elegantly pinned up, and the entire reception had been enthralled by her vibrant energy. He thought of the shadow of that woman he had left alone in her stasis chamber, and turned his head to the wall and wept.

*****

They rose. They worked. They ate. They slept. Tasks were completed, reports issued, read, and filed. Requisitions were made and signed. All done in almost total silence. Tom quipped one day that a group of monks on a vow of silence would fit right in. Chakotay figured it must be one of the quietest ships in the quadrant and he had no idea what to do about it. Even if he had an inkling, he didn't think he had the energy to pursue it.

He wasn't sure if it was better or worse that this appeared to be a quiet region of space. While it was good that for a change, they weren't fighting for their lives, still, the lack of activity left far too much time to think. There had been no altercations of any kind in the two and a half months since leaving Devore space. He couldn't help thinking how much Kathryn would in the same breath, both love and hate this extended quiet. It gave the crew a chance to take a breath, but it was boring, and that in itself was a danger. Most of all, the quiet brought no respite from the overwhelming sense of grief that gripped them all.

"Commander, I'm picking up a distress signal."

Chakotay stood as he glanced briefly over his shoulder. "Let's hear it, Harry." The interruption was a welcome relief.

"I am Adaj Iggam. Anyone within range, please render aid. My co-son is gravely injured, gravely injured. I say again, anyone…"

Chakotay nodded to Harry and the agitated voice ceased. "How far are we from him?"

"About an hour at present speed."

"Tuvok, anything?" Like him, although now officially the first officer, Tuvok had chosen to remain at his original post.

The Vulcan looked up from his tactical console. "Just the one vessel in the vicinity. It is approximately the size of Mr. Neelix's ship; I suspect that it is a private merchant craft."

Chakotay took his seat. "Harry, send a message that we're on our way. Baytart," he spoke to the pilot filling in while Paris continued to spend most of his shifts in Sickbay, "let's pick it up. If there are critically injured, we'd better move it. Warp nine."

Thirty-five minutes later they arrived at the co-ordinates. While the small vessel's exterior appeared undamaged, it was obviously adrift. "Tuvok, what do we have?"

"Two life signs, one weak. A rudimentary cargo ship with basic weapons and shields, neither of which is operational. No warp capability, and engines are offline. Commander," Tuvok looked up, "failure of life-support is imminent."

"Hail them." At Harry's nod, Chakotay began. "This is Commander Chakotay of the Federation Starship Voyager. How may we assist you?"

A lanky humanoid form appeared on the screen, similar to humans except for the ridges of pulsating flesh running down both cheeks, and the absence of any apparent nose. There were scorch marks on his clothing and what could have been a burn on his face.

"Deepest, deepest thanks," came a gravelly voice. The humanoid held up long fingered hands and cupped them in a form of either greeting or supplication, the heel of one hand positioned in the palm of the other. "The blessings of the waters be upon you for responding, blessings. I am Adaj Iggam, Trader of the Second Order of Berith. It is my co-son who is deeply in need of a suspension case, if you could. Our vessel is old and repairs are many. A console that Jeman was working on exploded and I fear, I fear." The ridges pulsated quickly, and the fingertips of the still clasped hands glowed. The voice was even deeper. "Jeman is the union of my first future and she is anticipating her first future. I must get him to the waters of Ab Initio, I must."

Ab Initio. Chakotay was familiar enough with Latin from his anthropological studies to recognize the term meaning 'from the beginning.' He found it interesting that the universal translator chose that definition of the name of the alien's desired destination. He tapped his comm badge. "Chakotay to Sickbay. Doctor, you are going to be receiving two guests, both injured, one seriously."

"Acknowledged. And I certainly appreciate being informed; it happens so rarely."

The commander ignored the doctor's comment and closed the connection. Addressing the alien, he said, "We will transport you and your co-son directly to our medical facility where our doctor will assist you both. Then we'll tractor your vessel to our shuttle bay and see what repairs we can assist you to make."

The alien cupped his hands again. "Deepest, deepest thanks again from myself, my first future, and my first extended future."

The connection closed and Chakotay turned to ops. "Harry, beam them both to Sickbay with the standard screening for contaminants, and if necessary, erect a forcefield. Then tractor the vessel to the shuttle bay and get a team on it."

Harry nodded and made several touches to his console. He looked up. "Do you suppose co-son means son-in-law?"

"Most likely," Chakotay nodded. "It would also seem that Mr. Iggam's firstborn daughter is pregnant with her first child - his first grandchild. Harry, you have the bridge. Tuvok, let's go meet our guests."

They entered Sickbay to find a very tall, lean figure being treated by Ensign Paris while the doctor hovered over a long form enclosed in a surgical unit on a biobed. There was no forcefield so Chakotay and Tuvok approached.

The older alien was leaning around Tom, making it difficult for the medic to work the dermal regenerator over the burns. "Please, I mean no disrespect, no disrespect. But I must get him to the waters. Can we put him in a suspension case like that one?" He pointed to the stasis pod that held the captain.

Tom restrained the distraught alien. "Let the doctor do his work, and let me take care of you."

On seeing the two commanders, the alien moved to stand from his sitting position on the biobed. Chakotay waved him back. "I am Commander Chakotay and this is Commander Tuvok. Can you tell us what happened?"

The alien pulled his attention back from the other biobed. "Please forgive my lack of manners. I thank you for your assistance. I am Adaj Iggam and we are from the planet Berith. Jeman and I are both traders; I am of the second order, while Jeman is of the third order. But he is rising through the ranks very rapidly, very rapidly indeed and could make the second order before his tenth season. His ascent is unprecedented…" His voice trailed away as he gazed at the still form on the biobed. "I..yes, what happened, yes. Our temperature control has been fluctuating these past couple of days and Jeman was making an adjustment when it exploded in his face. I was just about to hand him another tool." The alien's distress was obvious.

"Doctor, what can you tell us?" Chakotay asked on behalf of the stricken father-in-law.

The EMH spoke without looking up. "I can stabilize him and without knowing much about his physiology, I can repair some of the more obvious damage. But I'm afraid there's little I can do beyond that; his injuries are very extensive to both his head and his chest."

Adaj Iggam pushed himself past Tom. "When you have done all you can, please can I have for him a suspension case, like that one? If you would assist me to get him to the waters of Ab Initio, he can be saved." The alien looked over at the stasis chamber. "It would appear you have another who is in need of taking the waters."

The command officers exchanged glances. The Vulcan remained impassive, only raising an eyebrow. Chakotay was about to inquire further when the sharp voice of the doctor interrupted.

"Gentlemen, if you don't mind, please take your discussion elsewhere; I have a patient to attend to."

Instead of being bothered by the physician's brusqueness, the trader seemed to relax and tilted his head to the right. "Ah, your medical man is just like our own on Berith, yes, just like."

"Tom?" Chakotay queried the young man as he continued with his regenerator over their guest's hands.

The instrument snapped off. "He's good to go."

Chakotay turned to the EMH. "Doctor, if you don't mind, we'll borrow your office so Mr. Iggam can stay near his co-son."

The doctor waved his hand absentmindedly, his attention riveted to the individual on the biobed.

Tuvok stood just inside the door while Chakotay took the doctor's chair and the tall alien sat across from the desk. Chakotay voiced his earlier question. "You've spoken a few times of the waters of Ab Initio. Can you explain what you mean by this?"

"It is the planet of the mind and soul readers, hidden within a nebula eight day's journey from here. At least," the trader corrected himself, "eight days for my vessel. We were just there on a trading mission. It is a great honor to be allowed to trade with Ab Initio, a great honor. But," he waved his long fingers in an undulating fashion, "you do not wish to hear of this. You wish to know of the waters."

"As well as how to get you to them," Tuvok added. "You mentioned them being mind and soul readers. Do you mean telepaths?"

"Telepaths," Adaj repeated. "Yes, that would be an acceptable term. The nebula that surrounds the planet is composed of volatile gases that are impenetrable except for the regular partings. They are the only means of entry."

"Partings. What are these?" Chakotay inquired.

"On regular intervals the nebula parts so a vessel may safely pass through to the planet."

Tuvok and Chakotay exchanged glances. Neither had ever heard of such a thing. "Is this a naturally occurring phenomenon, or has it been engineered?" Tuvok queried.

The alien hunched as if shrugging. "No one knows, no one. It has been this way for many ages, too many to know. Theirs is an ancient and classical society. Their language and customs have remained unaltered for eons, yes, eons."

Chakotay wondered if perhaps that explained the universal translator's choice of Latin to define the name of the planet, it being one of the classical languages. Maybe the language of Ab Initio was the Delta Quadrant equivalent of Latin. It was the kind of thing he would have loved to study. "What of these waters?" he asked.

"Ah, the waters of Ab Initio, the waters." A beatific expression crossed his face. "To take the waters is to bring healing to body and soul. It is why I must return with Jeman. There, he will be restored to my Dairii, and our joy will find completion when her first future and my first extended future comes in due time." He craned his long neck, peering into the main room. "Do you suppose your medical man is ready to put Jeman in a suspension case yet?"

Chakotay looked at Tuvok, who nodded and slipped out of the office. As his eyes followed Tuvok, it was just possible to see the stasis pod that contained Kathryn on the far side of Sickbay. The commander returned his attention to the Berithian trader. "Adaj, these waters. Who can take them?" He wasn't sure what to think or how to feel. It almost seemed too dangerous to hope.

The alien hunched his body again. "All who navigate the parting may take the waters, yes, all. But a Niaj assesses the procedure that must be followed for each individual candidate.

"And the Niaj are…?"

The long fingers floated almost musically. "The Niaj are the rulers and keepers of the waters. Ab Initio is an open, yet closed planet. Visitors are welcome, but only those who have attained the level of Niaj actually have contact with foreigners. There are many outsiders who are hostile to their way, and would seek to bring harm." The flowing fingers stilled.

Chakotay thought of what the Devore would do if they knew of such a planet, and a chill ran through him.

*****

The senior staff sat around the conference table to discuss the approach to the planet Ab Initio. Once his co-son had been safely placed in a stasis pod, Adaj Iggam had left his side and worked willingly with Seven to locate on scanners the specific nebula that hid the planet of telepaths. It made them all think of the Brenari telepaths that they had provided safe passage for, the very reason for the devastating illness of the captain. Ab Initio - 'from the beginning' - somehow seemed very apt.

"This nebula provides adequate shielding from all discoveries?" Tuvok inquired.

Adaj Iggam leaned his head to the right. "In addition, the Niaj provide cover."

B'Elanna turned to him. "The Niaj?"

The alien spread his long fingers. "Yes, the rulers and keepers of the waters. Part of their task is to guard the planet from danger."

Seven spoke up. "Are they warriors? Do they have weapons that protect the planet?"

Adaj made a strange sound, and they realized this was his laughter. "Ah no. They have no need of weapons. They deflect any marauders, or they simply become invisible."

Astonished silence greeted this revelation. Tom voiced their struggle to understand. "Are you saying they literally disappear or that they have a cloaking device?"

Adaj tilted his head to the left. "Not a cloaking device as you mean. The Niaj know when danger approaches and the planet will be undetectable even should someone enter the nebula correctly."

Tuvok leaned forward. "These Niaj are able to telepathically assess the intent of intruders and cloak an entire planet. Is that correct?"

Again, Adaj tilted his head to the right. They were beginning to understand that to the right was the equivalent of a nod, while to the left was equal to a negative headshake. "Yes, that is so." There was silent astonishment at the thought of such mental power.

Chakotay thought for a moment. "You say they are the rulers and keepers of the waters. Are the Niaj priests?" Many societies were ruled by their spiritual authorities.

The alien considered. "Priests. Yes, I believe that would be an acceptable term, although not complete by what I believe you to mean. But acceptable."

"What can you tell us about the entrance through the nebula?" Chakotay wanted to move the discussion along.

Harry passed a PADD to Commander Chakotay. "With Adaj's help, we've been able to determine that the entrance, or as he calls it, the parting occurs every 16.4 of our hours."

Chakotay's eyes widened as he saw some of the statistics. "It'll be a tight squeeze to get a starship through an opening that size. Especially with currents buffeting the ship. There will be zero margin for error." He passed the PADD to Tom, then addressed the trader again. "What happens if a ship touches the sides of the passageway?"

The alien lowered his head. "Ah, to touch the sides of the parting? Alas, you would be no more. Not even the waters would be able to help you then. Yet vessels of your size and even larger do safely navigate the parting." The ridges around his face pulsated. "Only you must not use your warp engines. The emissions will increase the buffeting and destabilize the parting. Even the impulse engines of a ship of this size cannot be fully engaged for the entire trip."

Chakotay looked at the chief pilot. "Tom?"

Tom looked up from the information on the PADD and shrugged. "No problem. It'll be n.b.n."

Chakotay's eyebrows matched Tuvok's. "Pardon me?"

"Nothing but net." All eyes turned at the austere voice of Seven of Nine. At the scrutiny of the entire staff, the former Borg seemed ill at ease. "It is a term from the ancient Earth sport of basketball, describing a goal in which the ball passes through the mesh basket without touching the hoop. I believe the accepted term is," she paused, clearly uncomfortable, "swish."

As the whole room continued to stare, Seven shifted uneasily. She almost seemed embarrassed and spoke with hesitation. "Since Earth is our appointed destination, I have been studying the political and social history of the planet."

After another pause, it was Tuvok who rescued her. "A logical course of action," was his comment.

"Well, Ensign Paris, let's see if you can make this ship go 'swish.'" Chakotay said.

Tom shrugged again. "No sweat."

"That is a term meaning the effort to accomplish the task will be insufficient to cause the ensign to break into…"

Chakotay cut her off. "I'm sure we can all figure that one out ourselves, Seven. Tom, I want you back at the helm." Noting the younger man's nod, he added, "And I want you working only a single shift. The doctor can manage without you for the next few days. We can't afford to have you tired for a trip like this." He knew the ensign had been working as many hours as the doctor would let him, still assisting with research and testing. Lately Tom had been taking care of any minor accident that arrived in Sickbay to allow the doctor to continue with his work.

As the senior staff exited, Tom and B'Elanna were discussing ways to keep the impulse engines stable and lower any emissions that could disturb the nebula. Chakotay indicated that Harry should escort their guest to his quarters and requested that Tuvok remain behind.

Tuvok sat quietly as Chakotay leaned against the view port. He knew the commander would speak when he was ready. In spite of all the emotions that had beset this particular human in the last several weeks, he had no qualms about the leadership ability of the commander.

"Tuvok, what do you make of the story of Ab Initio's waters?" Chakotay remained staring out at the passing stars.

"You are considering the captain." Tuvok's reply was delivered not as a question but a statement.

"I wonder what she would think about this."

Tuvok measured his response carefully. "I believe one of your ancient Earth playwrights said, 'There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.'"

Chakotay's head whipped around. Who would think? Shakespeare from a Vulcan.

Tuvok stood up. "Captain Janeway always focussed on the scientific side of things, yet at the same time, she was well known for acting according to her instincts. Also, as you may recall, in our encounter with the Nakami when Kes was injured, Captain Janeway herself experienced something that went far beyond the scientific realm."

Chakotay well remembered the helpless horror he had felt when he watched Kathryn carry Kes toward the light of the very shrine that had so badly injured Kes. Eight hundred megajoules of biogenic energy coursed through that shrine, yet, beyond all reason, everything had worked out. Kathryn had been very thoughtful for a long time, and even sought him out for another vision quest, the first since her introduction to her animal guide in their initial year together.

"I believe, Commander, that it is safe to say, that Captain Janeway would do almost anything that would save a member of Voyager's crew. And she is still a member of this crew."

Feeling more settled in himself, Chakotay nodded. Once again he could understand why Kathryn leaned on Tuvok so much. "That she is. And I suppose it would be illogical to dismiss out of hand any possible recourse."

Tuvok inclined his head. "Until a possible opportunity has proven to be nonviable, indeed it would be." He turned to leave, then paused before the doors.

Chakotay wondered at the Vulcan's hesitation. "Something else, Tuvok?"

It was the security chief's turn to be uncomfortable. What followed sounded like a reluctant admission. "Even one of our Vulcan philosophers, Bevek, said 'Beyond logic and reason lies another realm.' Of course, he was considered something of a renegade."

No one would ever have believed that it would be Tuvok who would make Chakotay smile for the first time in many weeks.

*****

The Voyager grapevine was alive and well. Hesitant and skeptical, yet the hope that surged throughout the ship was real. Chakotay couldn't help but think how impressed and touched but at the same time, amused Kathryn would have been to see how the entire senior staff worked as a unit to make this trip to Ab Initio happen. While still not comfortable with each other, even B'Elanna and Seven managed to pull together without squabbling.

With Adaj Iggam's assistance, the correct nebula was located in two and a half days. At the appropriate time, the phenomenon Adaj referred to as 'the parting' occurred, and Tom was as good as his word, proving once again that Voyager was graced with Starfleet's best pilot. The extra adjustments the team had made provided added stability against the turbulence and Tom's skill brought the ship safely through to an oasis within the nebula. The planet that lay before them could only be described as beautiful. It was every bit as green and blue as Earth, but with greater landmasses. Swirling clouds dotted certain areas.

They had barely exited the parting when they were not so much hailed, as a form just appeared on their view screen. The figure was humanoid and wore a robe of incandescent pale green. But the face of the form was covered by a matching pale green mesh hood. "Greetings, Voyager. Welcome to Ab Initio. And a special welcome to our good friend, Trader Iggam. We did not expect to see you again so soon, but I sense all is not well with you."

While the voice was warm, Chakotay was not sure that he was hearing it with his ear or with his mind. The mesh hood made it difficult to see whether the mouth was moving or not. Chakotay glanced at Tuvok to see whether he had anything to contribute at this point, but the Vulcan minutely shook his head.

Chakotay turned back to the figure before them. He wondered how the person knew the name of their ship. "I am Commander Chakotay of the Federation Starship Voyager. Trader Iggam and his co-son are in need of your help."

"Welcome Commander Chakotay. I am Niaj Eenna. The blessings of the waters to you and…" There was a slight pause and the head of the figure tilted slightly. " - your crew." Chakotay wondered what the Niaj had read that caused the hesitation.

Adaj Iggam stepped forward, his hands cupped in the half form of supplication he had used in the initial encounter with Voyager. "Greetings Niaj Eenna, greetings. The commander and the crew of this ship have rendered aid most kindly to my co-son and me in our time of desperate need. Please." The trader lifted a long fingertip that glowed blue, and touched his forehead.

There was a brief silence, and Chakotay was aware that something was happening. After a moment, the Niaj nodded. "Ah, I see. Most unfortunate. Jeman is a very special young one. You must bring him down quickly to see Niaj Treyna." Chakotay wasn't sure if the robed figure smiled, but the voice was light. "You know the way by now, Trader Iggam."

Adaj cupped his hands and spoke his thanks. He added, "Niaj, this crew has been very kind to my co-son and myself. They readily assisted us and have also repaired our ship. There is one of their own who needs, yes needs, to take the waters as well." Adaj turned to the commander. "I hope I do not speak out of turn, Commander Chakotay, but I know that the waters can help your comrade."

"It's all right, Adaj. I was going to inquire if it would be possible for Captain Janeway to," Chakotay paused before recalling the phrase Adaj used, "take the waters." He had not actually made a decision to pursue the possibility until that moment. There was a stillness on the bridge and it seemed as though the crew was collectively holding its breath. Adaj had said that all were welcome, but what if…?

"Your comrade Captain Janeway is most welcome to take the waters." There was almost a united sigh of relief. The Niaj moved slightly. "Commander, we welcome all peace seekers who are in need. We are not the owners of the waters, but merely the keepers of what has been entrusted to us. Captain Janeway, her condition is serious?"

Chakotay was about to respond when something that the Niaj just said caught his attention. "How did you know that Captain Janeway is female?" He didn't like the idea of someone reading his thoughts like that.

"It is all right, Commander Chakotay. It is against our laws to read someone else's thoughts without their permission. Trader Iggam is a special friend of Ab Initio, yet I could not read his thoughts without his consent. To do so would be considered a grievous crime among our people. However, emotions are impossible not to read, and when they pertain to a specific individual, they come colored by gender. Besides that," the Niaj made a small bow, "it is we who owe a debt of gratitude to you for rescuing some of our own. The courage and generosity of Voyager's captain and crew are well known here on Ab Initio. You are already special friends here."

"The telepaths, the wormhole," Harry's voice was heard quietly in the background.

"You are correct," Niaj Eenna confirmed. "Kir and his companions have added many stories to our history. But enough of this, you desire the initial meeting as soon as possible, I assume?"

Chakotay's immediate thought was how pleased Kathryn would be to hear that everything had worked out for the small troupe of telepaths. If he ever got a chance to tell her, he recalled with a pang. Not sure what the Niaj's words meant exactly, Chakotay glanced at Adaj, who nodded. "Yes, we desire the initial meeting." For some reason, he felt it necessary to copy the formal language. He watched the Niaj closely, but was still unable to determine if the priest was speaking aloud or communicating by thought. The veiled alien had said he was not allowed to read thoughts without permission, but had said nothing about transmitting thoughts. Perhaps their world was a non-verbal one.

The Niaj inclined his head, acknowledging the appeal. "Then may I request permission to come aboard your vessel, Commander? Since this is your first taking of the waters of Ab Initio, I will be your Niaj, and will need to assess the case."

"Permission granted. Harry…" Chakotay had barely turned to the ops station when Niaj Eenna appeared on the bridge, to the shock of all present.

Chakotay held up his hand to forestall any movement from security. He gave a wry comment. "I did give my permission, after all, even if it is an unconventional entry from our point of view."

Once the Niaj, Adaj Iggam, and the two commanders arrived in Sickbay, Adaj went directly to stand beside the stasis chamber of his co-son. The Niaj addressed him. "Niaj Treyna is ready for you and your co-son. The blessings of the waters." With that pronouncement, Adaj again cupped his hands in the now familiar fashion, and Niaj Eenna formed his hands around the trader's in like manner. When the Niaj stepped away, Adaj's fingertips glowed the same green as the priest's robe. Without any sound or warning, Adaj and the stasis pod disappeared.

"What is going on here?" the doctor demanded.

Chakotay made the introductions. "Doctor, my apologies. This is Niaj Eenna of the planet Ab Initio. Niaj, this is our doctor, who worked to stabilize Jeman when he first arrived."

"And just what was that?" the EMH pointed to where the stasis pod had been.

"Their method of transportation is somewhat different from ours," Tuvok supplied.

"Somewhat. Now there's an understatement," the doctor muttered.

The Niaj turned to the physician. "There is no cause for alarm. The end of their journey is beginning so that their journey may now continue." The Niaj silently regarded the doctor for a moment. "Interesting. You appear agitated, yet there are no emotions coming from you. You are not organic?"

"I'm a hologram," the EMH replied in the same defensive tone that always appeared whenever the issue of his nature arose.

"Ah. A unique individual, all the same."

The doctor's tense stance and facial expression relaxed. Chakotay wasn't sure if the alien knew or not, but he had just said the one thing that could completely placate the EMH.

The Niaj regarded Tuvok. "You also are a unique individual; you are not like the others. Your emotions are present, but very controlled."

"I am Vulcan," the tall security chief replied. "Our race believes in being ruled not by emotion, but rather by logic. I am not as unique as the doctor; there is one other of my race onboard Voyager."

The Niaj indicated his acceptance of the information. He then turned to the remaining stasis pod. "This is your comrade in need of the waters?"

Chakotay could only nod. He had continued to visit, as had most of the crew, but to see her like that, had felt like a knife cutting his soul every time.

The Niaj took one look through the glass of the stasis chamber, then turned to the commanders. "She had direct contact with one of the Devore while you were in their space." It was not said in an accusatory manner, merely as a statement.

The two senior officers glanced at each other. "Brief, but yes, she did," Chakotay replied. "It was part of the deception to save Kir and the others. How did you know this? Did you sense it?"

"It was not necessary to sense anything." Niaj Eenna gestured to the pod. "Her condition indicates it - the gray and broken skin, the emaciation. These are well known symptoms of direct contact with a member of the Imperium."

Well known? Did that mean…?

The doctor put into words what they were thinking. "Are you saying this reaction is common?"

The Niaj regarded the suspended captain. His voice sounded sad. "Alas, yes. Any race that is subject to intimate contact with a Devore experiences this effect. It is, as I said, well known throughout this region."

Chakotay felt his mind almost ready to explode with the implications of this information. It was Tuvok who asked the question on their minds. "The Devore are also aware of this?"

The reply was shattering. "Oh yes. They often use it as a means of execution against outsiders that they have captured."

A death sentence. Kathryn had been more right than she knew when she called it the kiss of death. Chakotay turned his back to the other three and gripped the sides of the nearest biobed as anger poured through him. He could picture in his mind the scene in the shuttle bay, Kashyk's brief hesitation before grabbing Kathryn's shoulders to kiss her. It was at that moment that the Devore had decided to play his trump card and condemn her to a horrible, painful death. Chakotay's knuckles turned white against the biobed. No holographic inspector in the boxing ring was going to ease the screaming rage that tore at his soul at the thought of this malicious, deliberate act. There was no need to have done that. Kathryn was right; Kashyk was vicious for viciousness sake alone. No wonder he had conceded defeat so easily. He'd known it wasn't really defeat at all.

Chakotay's jaw clenched and his shoulders were rigid as memories of Kathryn's protracted suffering filled his mind. The aching sorrow and grieving of every member of the crew lay like lead in his heart, all because of a spiteful act by an evil, unconscionable individual. Chakotay hadn't witnessed such deliberate, calculated malevolence like this since the Cardassians.

"So all of my efforts to save her were for nothing." The grief in the tone of the doctor's voice brought Chakotay back around. While the EMH might be made of photons and computer algorithms, the hologram's care for Captain Janeway was genuine.

"On the contrary, doctor," came the soothing tones of the Niaj. "Your diligence has made it possible for your captain to make it here where she can be restored."

*****

At the staff meeting that Chakotay had Tuvok call, the news of the deliberateness of Inspector Kashyk's actions were initially met by shocked silence. Even Seven seemed overwhelmed by the information.

Harry blinked rapidly. "You mean, he knew this would happen to her? He choose to do it, had even planned to infect her?"

B'Elanna exploded. "The filthy p'tak! Underhanded, deceitful, and dishonorable. The ants of Anag are too good for him."

Chakotay almost laughed at her words. Anag was a planet the Maquis had been forced to hide out on for a short time. They were warned to stay away from the swamps because of large ferocious ants that acted like Earth's piranha fish. They had all seen what was left of a cow that strayed too close to the swamps. B'E was right; the ants of Anag were too good for him.

Tom let out a long breath. The chief pilot's hands were clenched into fists on the conference table. Summing it up, he mused, "So, if we lost, we lost, and if we won, we still lost." He looked at the Niaj sitting to the right of Commander Chakotay. "What now?"

The priest turned to the EMH. "Captain Janeway is your patient; will you release her to our care?"

"I don't understand this, 'taking the waters,'" the doctor sighed, "but the bottom line is, I can't help her any more. If you can somehow save her, then yes." They all knew what it must be costing the proud hologram to admit that.

"Niaj, Adaj Iggam said that each case needed to be assessed individually. What needs to happen here?" Chakotay wanted to get the details in order for them to proceed. As strange as all this was for them, it was their only avenue of hope and he was determined to pursue it as quickly as possible. This ship and crew desperately needed their captain back, and he… He shoved his feelings aside.

"I need to understand more before I can determine the correct procedure to follow. Since she cannot go herself, she will need an Appointed Intervenor, someone who cares for your captain, to take her into the waters."

"There are over one hundred and forty candidates to choose from. The whole crew cares deeply for Captain Janeway," Neelix supplied. The chef had been inconsolable for the last nearly three months. No one had visited her more in Sickbay, both before and after her placement in stasis, save Chakotay himself.

"I apologize," the Niaj clarified. "I did not speak clearly. It must be someone who cares from the heart. A connection of the soul."

There was an immediate and awkward silence as all eyes flicked to Commander Chakotay and then quickly away. Some of the staff looked down at the table. It didn't take a telepath to sense the tension stretched like a wire across the room.

"I apologize again…" the Niaj began.

"Commander." It was Tuvok. The dark Vulcan looked at Commander Chakotay. "I have some technical issues to discuss with the staff. Niaj Eenna expressed an interest in a tour of the ship. If it meets with your approval, perhaps you could conduct the tour while I conclude matters here for you?"

Chakotay could have hugged the Vulcan. "Good idea, Tuvok. Niaj?" Rising from his chair, he gestured to the door.

Other than explanations regarding the various sections of the ship they traversed, the pair remained silent until Chakotay demonstrated a simple holoprogram of a field of flowers. It was one of Kathryn's that he especially loved and had used often of late in an attempt to find some peace.

The Niaj began. "Commander, I apologize for causing discomfort."

Chakotay sighed ruefully. "My…" he paused momentarily, "feelings for Captain Janeway are complex, and I guess you could describe them as something of an open secret among the crew."

"And the captain? Does she return your feelings?"

Did she return his feelings? How many nights had he lain awake pondering that very question? "I don't honestly know. I know she cares for me. We have a wonderful friendship that means so much to me, but whether there is more in her heart, I…" He stumbled. "Sometimes I think so; sometimes I'm not sure."

The Niaj looked around him at the simulated field before speaking. "You are colleagues. Is a mated relationship forbidden in your culture?"

Chakotay sighed again. "That too is complex. It's not so much forbidden as advised against under the circumstances of a superior officer with a subordinate."

"I was aware when we first met that this crew, while yours, is not yours," the Niaj stated.

So that explained the initial hesitation during their first contact on the bridge. "That is correct. Captain Janeway is, was, the commanding officer of this vessel. She transferred command to me when…" He couldn't continue, seeing her as she had been that day, gaunt, gray-skinned, and in pain.

The Niaj turned to Chakotay with a gentle voice. "Commander, would you allow me to read your thoughts? It would save you any more explanation of matters I must understand in order to best advise on the procedure."

Chakotay had always been loathe to have anyone sifting his mind in any way given his genetic trait toward mental illness as evidenced in his grandfather. The particular gene had been deactivated in him, but such mental exploration always made him uneasy. Yet this was for Kathryn. He slowly nodded his consent. "What do I do?"

"Nothing. Only relax."

The priest regarded him steadily and his forehead began to feel warm as if he was standing in sunshine. A sensation gradually developed as though his mind was being brushed by feathers. In a moment, it was gone. It had taken only seconds.

"Thank you for your trust, Commander. You and this crew have met many challenges. You have experienced much and suffered much, especially in regard to the affliction of the captain. I believe your entire crew would do well to take the waters. But as for assisting the captain…" The Niaj paused as he seemed to be listening to something.

Don't say it's impossible; don't say you can't help her, Chakotay silently implored.

The Niaj's voice changed, became almost singsong. "It will take two days to purify and restore her. The disease was very advanced and her suffering, great. The first stage, for physical healing, the second, for inner healing. In three of your days, it will be ninety days since the infecting; we must begin then." The Niaj reached out and touched Chakotay's forehead. "You are the Appointed Intervenor, and only you can take her into the waters." Without a sound, the Niaj disappeared.

Chakotay only became aware that he had been holding his breath when it exploded from him in a rush. There was a lingering warmth in his forehead at the point where he had been touched. He didn't know what he was supposed to do or how any of it would happen, but it didn't matter. He would do whatever it took to bring Kathryn back to them.

*****

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