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Title: And Not Fade Away, Part 2 of 5
Author: Morgan Stuart
Fandom: Star Trek: Voyager
Disclaimer: This universe does not belong to me; I'm just an appreciative visitor. I make no profit from this fan work.
Description: When Chakotay, Paris, and Kim are stranded on a vicious alien world, Kes risks her sanity and Janeway risks her command to see that rescue eventually arrives.
Dedication: This is for Margret.
Historian's Note: The events in this story take place directly after the events depicted in the third season Star Trek: Voyager episode "Flashback."
Warnings (Highlight to Read): Graphic violence.




"Permission to speak freely, sir?"

Chakotay gasped with the shock of words after so many hours spent in silence. He had offered to take first watch in the meager cabin and let Kim sleep. Sitting before the fire, staring into its mesmerizing depths, he had not moved for half the night. When the blankets around his shoulders fell to the dirt floor, he did not notice. He had not realized Kim was awake - if, in fact, Kim had ever slept at all. He did not meet Kim's eyes. He merely nodded.

"It isn't your fault."

He jerked as if he had been hit and stared at Kim. From the looks of the young man, he too had passed the night sleeplessly. "What do you mean?"

"Tom did what he did for both of us. You were willing to do the same thing for him and for me." Silence spread between them. "I'm sorry if I am out of line. It's just... I thought that you... "

"I know what you're trying to do, Ensign, and I appreciate it. Now get some rest." The formality of Chakotay's tone widened the uneasy space between them. He stoked the fire and gathered the blankets back around himself. His expression remained unchanged.

Well, that was no use. Kim had wondered whether or not to reach out toward the commander. Now he wished he had stayed silent. Chakotay remained a bit of a mystery to Kim. The commander often seemed quite sensitive to the feelings of his crew, yet at times incredibly private and secretive, even uncomfortable, about his own. It seemed that he was there for his officers, but would not allow them to offer reciprocal concern. Kim felt awkward and alone, trying to quiet his own fear and yet dispel the anger and self-recrimination he read through Chakotay's veiled features. He burrowed against the hard ground, seeking a comfortable position.

He thought again of Paris. What are they doing to him? When will they bring him back? How will we escape? Questions ran together in his mind and exhaustion mercifully overcame him.

***

"This is day four. Voyager will be expecting us within the next few hours." Kim stirred the pasty concoction without further comment. He knew better than to ask when Chakotay thought Paris would be returned. Neither of them had an idea. The two worked and rested in a hyperaware state, outwardly obedient to the guards and inwardly frantic for a sign of their comrade.

Chakotay had tried to funnel this fear into productive pursuits: gathering and sharing information, planning, even cleaning the hut and clothes. They learned more about the Phrama, their political divisions, their religious beliefs, and the agricultural system that fueled them both. He knew that they would have to act quickly when Paris rejoined them. A search party would be coming soon. So many variables rested on the lieutenant's condition, though. So many unanswered questions. They waited.

As Chakotay drifted off to sleep next to the fire later that night, Kim, taking the first watch, heard the plodding of hoof beats and the murmur of activity. Shouts. The faint glow of torches shone through the cracks in the cabin walls. "Commander!"

In a reflex borne of long necessity, Chakotay came instantly awake and rolled into a defensive crouch. They reached for threadbare Phrama jackets and headed out toward the disturbance. A ring of workers had formed in the village common. Mounted guards formed the innermost ring. The same thought occurred to both officers immediately, and they took off at a run to elbow their way into the heart of the gathering.

Paris was hunched on the ground, arms hugging his chest and knees drawn in a fetal position. He rocked back and forth, shivering violently, his eyes open and intense but unseeing, as if he were concentrating with all of his waning strength on something distant within himself. His torturers had stripped him to the waist and taken his boots, Chakotay noted, probably to intensify his exposure. He now wore his socks on his hands. Bruises made his chest and stomach a solid mass of blue-black flesh; the guards had systematically brutalized him after he was too weak to protect himself. There were burns as well. The dust and filth of his imprisonment covered him. Shouldering past the stunned Kim, who was already removing his own coat to cover his friend, Chakotay knelt before Paris and carefully grasped his bare shoulders.

"Paris." The lieutenant flinched away from his touch, shuddering uncontrollably. Chakotay took a deep, calming breath. "Paris. It's Chakotay." Dark brown eyes searched pale blue ones and found only the faintest promise of recognition. He leaned closer, grimly registering the harsh, ragged breaths Paris struggled to take. "It's Chakotay," he repeated softly, studying Paris's face.

Chakotay. It was terribly difficult, trying to remember. He'd built so many walls in these recent hours and expended so much energy on maintaining them. But this hushed voice and these eyes, meeting and questioning his own, touched the terrorized senses that had screamed and hidden and finally slumbered. Somewhere, beyond thought, Paris reacted to the gentle words. No friendship. No comfort. But he did find a grudging, honest emotion. Respect. Chakotay. I trust Chakotay. This can be over now.

Paris surrendered himself to arms he somehow knew would cause him no pain or shame. He pitched forward. As Paris lost consciousness, Chakotay caught him, disentangled arms and legs, and gathered the lieutenant to himself.

Kneeling beside Chakotay, Kim wrapped his ragged jacket around Paris's trembling frame, then grasped Chakotay's elbows and steadied him as he rose to his feet. The older officer nodded his thanks. "Watch my back."

Falling into step behind his commander, Kim warily eyed the mixed crowd of slaves and captors, guarded against anyone who might move against Chakotay or his vulnerable burden. The desperate sound of Paris's labored breathing was all that broke the silence. The onlookers parted and let them retreat in the darkness to their cabin.

***

Kim threw open the cabin door, rushing to pile several threadbare blankets onto the dirt floor beside the fire. Turning back to Chakotay as he entered, he accepted part of Paris's weight and the two slowly sank to their knees, lowering Paris gently to the ground. Kim continued to murmur soothing words like a mantra as if begging the lieutenant to respond. Chakotay could tell he was horrified at Paris's condition and dangerously close to shock himself.

"We need more water, more wood, and more blankets. I don't care how you get them."

Kim nodded eagerly, grateful to have something constructive to do to help. He wrapped his sleeping blanket across his shoulders like a cape and practically ran to the door. "And Ensign! Be careful." Kim nodded and disappeared into the night.

Chakotay knew the tasks would take some time. He wanted to spare Kim. He could do this himself. He pulled back the blankets and methodically ran his hands over Paris, searching for injuries. The bruises testified to the punishment he had received; there was no way to determine the internal injuries. His shoulders, back, thighs, and knees all had surface burns, as if he had pressed against hot metal. At least one rib on his right side was broken, maybe more. He could find no other evident broken bones, but he could feel a far more ominous threat - each tortured gasp sent deep rumbles through his chest. It seemed as though Paris was suffocating, or drowning. He lifted the blond head and rested it on his lap, hoping it would ease his breathing. Only then did he see a thick knot surrounding a small puncture wound on his neck. A sting? A bite of some kind? He could not tell.

Chakotay then dispassionately bathed him. Repeatedly he dipped a rag into the water bowl, cleaning the worst if his wounds, wiping away the dirt and blood and his own filth, carefully redressing him in the Phrama clothes they had washed for him. He moved slowly, conscious to avoid further trauma. He knew Paris did not really care what he thought of him personally. That made it easier for the commander to deal with his unconscious form now, helpless and humiliated. At least Kim did not have to see him like this.

In his soul, however, the spirits warred with one another. His recently-found respect aside, he had never personally cared for the former - what did he once call the admiral's son? Mercenary? He was not without his reasons. Nonetheless, Paris did not deserve this. He was a hero many times over. And Chakotay was his commanding officer. He owed Paris his life, was now bound to be his protector, and yet he had allowed this to happen. He had not wanted this, to be sure, but he should have shaken this planet to its very foundations before he let it claim his crewmate and charge.

Paris coughed harshly and moaned as Chakotay turned him. Although sometimes still angrily defiant of the first officer, who knew the man he used to be all too well, Paris was now a penitent. His resentment flared less often, and less overtly. Now the two even shared an occasional joke, an occasional game of pool. On Voyager he was building a new life and fighting himself at every turn to do so. Volunteering to endure this torture was his attempt to do something noble, to spare others and accept punishment for the mistakes that still haunted him. The gasping body beneath Chakotay's hands was crucified on his own hopes of self-redemption, and his commander had not intervened. Each ministering touch to the lieutenant was Chakotay's silent act of penance.

***

Clothed and wrapped in blankets beside the fire, Paris struggled toward consciousness. Even before his eyes opened he choked on an urgent syllable: "Has!" It was as close to a scream as his shallow breath would allow.

"Paris, it's Chakotay. You're all right. Calm down. You're safe."

The pale blue eyes fought to focus and he whispered again, "Has." Another gasp, and violent coughing overcame him.

"Has? I don't understand, Paris. Be quiet now, you are all right. Calm down." Chakotay held a wooden cup of water to his lips, but Paris turned away miserably and tried to free his arms from the blanket. "Mah hans," he mouthed in panic.

Understanding hit Chakotay suddenly. When he had washed Paris he had removed the socks the lieutenant had worn on his hands. Evidently he was exposed to the frigid night and feared he might freeze. Chakotay's stomach twisted as the implications became clear, as he imagined the young officer deciding what he could lose first to frostbite as he slowly died a little at a time. He was a pilot. His hands were his life.

"Tom, listen to me." He restrained the wild motions that threatened to steal such fragile breath. "Your hands are okay. They weren't damaged. Your hands are okay."

Then Paris looked at him, fully lucid, for a long moment. Pain was etched into every feature of his face but he was calm. And aware. He grew still, satisfied that Chakotay spoke the truth. He closed his eyes and concentrated on breathing. "Harry?" He mouthed the name as a question.

"He is gathering wood and water. He's fine."

This seemed to satisfy Paris. He drank from the bowl Chakotay offered and sank back against the blankets, exhausted.

Chakotay just sat there, watching him, for some time. He was unsure what to do to help. Now that the lieutenant was conscious, Chakotay felt uncomfortable tending to him, as if his nearness to the vulnerable man were some kind of invasion. They had always observed each other's space. He was no doctor, but he had seen his share of injury and death on the front lines with the Maquis. The Phrama may not have wanted to kill Paris, but they came frighteningly close. They would have to watch and wait. Chakotay trembled in the wake of the adrenaline surge which had carried him this long. In a few hours dawn would come and they would be expected to work again in the fields. What then?

At a noise outside, Chakotay fell silent and moved warily toward the door. Before he reached it Kim entered, his back loaded with blankets and a waterbag. "I stacked the wood outside the door," he panted, his breath white clouds in the cold night air. He carried a small metal pot in his arms. "Is he okay? Did he wake up?"

Chakotay stepped aside to let Kim see his friend for himself, moving behind the ensign to help unload the supplies he carried. Shrugging off his burden and placing the pot on the floor, he knelt beside Paris and smiled. "Good to see you awake. You really had me scared."

Paris returned the smile weakly. He opened his mouth to speak, then convulsed with coughs. Kim rested a hand on his fevered head until the fit passed. "Don't try to talk, just rest. I've got more water for you, and some soup when you feel like it." He held the waterbowl to Paris's lips and let him drink. "Did they give you any food while... while you were gone?" Paris's eyes grew vacant, and he shook his head. "When you've rested, then." What did they do to you, Tom? Kim's voice grew husky as he looked at his friend's drawn face. "We're going to make you well, and we won't let them hurt you again."

"S'okay... Harry," he whispered faintly. The haunted face appeared no more peaceful as Paris drifted into unconsciousness.

***

Janeway entered the sickbay to find Kes surrounded by the three men she needed - and who, in return, needed her - the most. The Doctor was simultaneously asking her questions, running scans, and arguing with Neelix. Neelix was circling her bed with nervous steps, gesturing wildly and arguing with everyone. Tuvok's head was cocked to the side in thought, and his own deep tones joined the other voices, melding into a confusing medley that seemed to do nothing but aggravate all of the participants. Kes sat on the bed, chewing on her fingernail, curiously detached from the raucous attention focused on her. Her cheeks were wet and her eyes red-rimmed, as if she had been crying, but she now seemed utterly composed.

"What's going on here, Doctor?" The voices quieted only partially as the Doctor crossed over to Janeway.

"Mister Neelix tried to contact Kes. When she did not respond, he found her in her quarters, rather hysterical. When he tried to determine the reason why she was so upset, she could not explain it. He says, and these are his words, that she seemed 'disoriented' and 'foggy.' By the time she fully understood where she was and who was with her, he had carried her here."

"Can you think of anything that could have caused this hysteria?"

"Kes did complain of a nightmare. And Neelix has noted mood swings today. But I have no further explanations. Physically she is fine, except for mild exhaustion." His forehead wrinkled in deep concern. Janeway put a gentle hand on his arm in empathy. Then, abandoning him to his debate with Neelix and Tuvok, she stepped closer to the young Ocampa.

"Captain?" Kes's naturally deep, resonating voice held no trace of hysteria. The quiet word contrasted sharply, in fact, with the heated tones of the others. Janeway lifted a commanding finger and the Doctor, Neelix and Tuvok all fell silent. Kes slowly turned on the bed to look at Janeway, her blue eyes calm and steady.

"Yes, Kes? Talk to me."

"I know how strange this will sound, Captain, but I don't believe that these emotions are mine."

"What do you mean?"

Kes registered the Doctor's uplifted brow and Neelix's frown of concern, then returned her attention to the Captain. "I believe... that I may be experiencing the feelings of the landing party."

Janeway took a deep breath, then looked over her shoulder at her acting second-in-command. "Tuvok, could this be possible?"

He considered it for a moment. "It is possible, Captain." He turned to his student. "Kes, why do you think you are experiencing the feelings of the Away Team? Is this in any way similar to how you have sensed the thoughts of crewmembers before on Voyager?"

She chewed her lip, choosing her words carefully. "Yes and no. I feel recognition. I know the person whose feelings I am experiencing. So it is not random. But I can't read thoughts, just extremely strong emotions. And these feelings seem as if they are echoing from far away, clear but distant, the same way I experienced the thoughts of the other Ocampa we encountered on the array."

Tuvok continued thinking aloud. "Those Ocampa were calling you, Kes. And they, like you, had extraordinary telepathic and telekinetic abilities. Are the officers on the planet seeking contact with you? And if so, how? I do not believe Commander Chakotay, Lieutenant Paris, or Ensign Kim have ever tested positive for telepathic potential."

She shook her head. "No, I don't think they were seeking me in any way. I just felt what was going on..."

Janeway frowned and then interrupted. "If I may, Kes, what exactly did you feel was 'going on'?"

She sighed, as if steeling herself to visit unwelcome territory. "In my dream, I was sure that Lieutenant Paris was being tortured. He was in agony, and frightened, and after a while he was so desperate, he was beyond reason... it was horrible for him." She paused, shuddering in remembrance, letting her audience absorb what she was saying. "At first I thought I was just worried about Tom, but then the feelings kept returning. Now there's a general worry, like a 'background hum,' that could be the other two officers. But Tom is still in pain. He is not being hurt now, but he is wounded, afraid, and very sad. It was as if his soul screamed out and I heard it."

Janeway, Neelix, and the Doctor stood in shocked silence. Tuvok recovered from the unexpected news first. "It is logical that, if Kes were to experience a link with any crewmember, it would be one for whom she has an emotional attachment. I believe that you and Mister Paris are close friends." She nodded in reply. "And if Mister Paris were put in an unpleasant situation, more so than the other officers, his emotions might be stronger, and thus more easily received telepathically."

"Tuvok, this could explain why the landing party hasn't returned yet. If what Kes says is true..."

"Pardon me, Captain, but aren't we being a bit too hasty?" Neelix interrupted. Janeway crossed her arms in displeasure at Neelix's outburst, but she could not bring herself to reproach him. She knew any stress on Kes was also stress on Neelix. Besides, the Talaxian did have a way of seeing things from another angle. And she was not anxious to accept the reality that Paris had been tortured while she orbited the offending world, oblivious to his need for help.

"Explain."

"Kes believes the ancient legends of her people, about their mental abilities. And the other Ocampa we encountered, they only added to her expectations. Now that she has friends who have not returned from their mission on time, it is easy to add up a bad dream and natural concern and believe that she somehow knows what's happened to them. She's tired and she's worried. What she needs is a good dinner and a good night's sleep. If you have a bad dream or worries about the Away Team, don't you count it as natural reaction to the fact your officers are in danger? Why should Kes be any different? Can't she have the same subconscious reactions we do without it being some mysterious telepathic phenomenon?"

The Doctor bristled visibly during Neelix's commentary. "Well, Mister Neelix, I was not aware that you were trained in psychological and neurological studies. Perhaps you can instruct me in your free hours on the dynamics of the telepathic-telekinetic subconscious."

Tuvok likewise reacted to the Talaxian's queries immediately. "I do not believe that you appreciate the full extent of Kes's abilities, Mister Neelix. She has a potential that we cannot even fully understand."

Janeway shook her head. "I agree with you, Mister Tuvok, but Mister Neelix has a point. We should not jump to conclusions just because Kes has certain gifts. She is also Humanoid, and vulnerable to the same factors that we are - Vulcans excepted, of course." A wicked half-smile, a touch of humanity in the midst of a tense situation. Then, somber again, she looked to Kes. "What do you think? Could exhaustion and worry account for what you are feeling?"

Gentle eyes on the Talaxian, Kes replied, "I know Neelix worries that I take things too seriously sometimes. And I know it's because he cares about me. But this is unlike anything I have experienced before. And I have been more exhausted, even terrified, before, and this did not happen. It was so clear, Captain. I have to believe it's what I think it is." Her eyes then sought out her teacher, at once plaintive and apologetic. "I realize this is a private thing, Tuvok, but, if you think it would help, I'd be willing to share my memories."

Sickbay went quiet. Everyone felt the weight of what she was suggesting. Waiting a heartbeat, to give him time to consider the proposition, Janeway spoke softly. "That's your decision, Tuvok." I haven't forgotten the time that I thought I'd lost you in Suder's mind. That's why I told you to always ask my permission first. I had to be sure you would be safe. But I will give you permission if you decide to do this. It's your call now, old friend.

He met her eyes as if she were the only one in the room. Most appreciated, Captain. He drew a deep breath. "I know you respect the Vulcan sense of privacy, Captain. For that I thank you. I do not object to what Kes suggests, however. Her mind... is not foreign to me." Behind Tuvok, Neelix shifted uncomfortably at the admission, aware that it touched on an intimate relationship, a literal meeting of the minds between the mentor and acolyte, which he could never share with Kes.

Janeway took the statement for what she knew it was: the closest thing to an outright expression of concern for Kes that Tuvok could make. I know you are worried, Tuvok.

A curt nod. "All right, then. Mister Tuvok, I will be interested to hear your interpretation of Kes's experiences when you are finished. Shall we leave you now?" She gestured to the Doctor and Neelix to retreat with her and leave the two alone. The Doctor frowned disapprovingly, and Neelix drew a breath to protest.

Tuvok preempted their refusal smoothly. "Captain, I do not object to your presence." It cost him. Only Janeway knew that this was a gesture of kindness to his young pupil, to have those who cared near her. "But this procedure requires complete silence." He looked pointedly at both Neelix and the Doctor.

"Understood, Mister Tuvok. I assure you that we will cooperate fully." It was her turn to throw pointed glances.

"Are you prepared for this now, Kes?" The Vulcan made his way to the bed where she sat. Trust showed openly in the youthful face. She nodded, then closed her eyes. Instinctively, she leaned into the dark hands that sought her pale temples.

"My thoughts to your thoughts, my mind to your mind..."

In unison, their features twisted, and their lips parted in silent screams.

***

Tom Paris regained consciousness incrementally, with intriguing clarity of thought and sensation. The pain in his lungs was searing, tearing through his body from his aching back to his broken ribs, shattering the fragile link between his thoughts and his abused body. Every shiver registered and confirmed his own aloof self-diagnosis. /I'm in shock./ But he could not share the prognosis, could not stir his bruised frame to action. He was separated from the scene at hand. An outside observer. Apart.

Even now, as the firelight played across the faces of Chakotay and Harry Kim, he marveled at his inability to care, to partake in their hushed, frantic concern over his welfare. Just a few minutes ago he had feared for his hands. Now his very survival seemed uninteresting. Coolness, welcome moisture. Harry was running a damp rag across his brow. Speaking to him, to the blank eyes, those windows into a world too distant to see. More blankets, the very jacket from Chakotay's back. He could not stop trembling. He withdrew in a philosophical way. Ironic, it was, that it would end like this. But typical. He had lived his life in bursts of brilliance, parted by stretches of wretched mediocrity, at times even failure. He could handle the heroic moment, just not the constant day-to-day. And it had led to this.

He had tried. Tried to do one more good thing, one more burst to perhaps outweigh the seemingly endless periods of sarcasm, cynicism, and disappointment. Tried to spare others. Tried to die well, if he had to die at all. But here he was, reduced to a shivering, broken body on a cold dirt floor, breathing in hideous, agonized gasps. A burden to his commander. A heartbreak to his best friend. Slipping deeper into shock. Waiting for the end. A death as slow and wearisome as the greater number of his days. Somewhere far away, in one of the dark recesses of his mind that still offered commentary on his plight, silent laughter echoed. How pathetic. How very Tom Paris. And how appropriate, that the one surge of emotion that survived to the end would be his own self-loathing.

There was no point in trying to understand what they were saying. There was no energy with which to try, anyway. He heard the words of his shipmates, but they held no meaning.

"The old Phrama laborer that I told you about, they call her a wise woman and healer. She offered me the soup. She said it would help him."

"Does she know what they did to him?"

"She had an idea. But I... I don't want him to hear."

"It's okay, I don't think he's aware right now. Quietly."

"Does he have a small wound in his neck, like a point of a needle -"

"Yes, and it's swollen. What is it?"

"She... she said that, on top of the torture, they've infected him with this disease that destroys the lungs... It's a favorite they only use on 'special occasions'... "

"And its effects?"

"Pain. She put herbs in the soup to dull it... She said the Phrama workers who've been infected are bedridden. They can hardly breathe. They just... just waste away before everyone's eyes, and finally die."

"How long ?"

"It depends on age, on stamina. From a few hours to a few weeks. She says they are terrified of it, because it is slow and so painful."

"Do you trust her to tell you the truth?"

"Yes... I do. And sir, there's more. The guards try to force them out to work, to show them off to the others. They try to make a spectacle out of them..."

"I understand... We have to remember that we can't be sure how this will affect Paris, because he's Human... But whatever happens, we won't let them drag him into the fields."

"They'll punish us if he doesn't fill his quota."

"I know. We'll just have to get out of here soon."

"Can he travel?"

"If what you say is true, he will only get worse. We need to act quickly."

"What can we do?"

"You can sleep."

"Now?"

"Now. That's an order. I need you to sleep, because I'll want you clear-headed in an hour or so when I wake you up and brief you."

"On what?"

"Our escape plan."

Paris was only marginally aware that Kim curled beside him in a protective ball, sharing the corners of the blankets that covered him. That Chakotay sat across from the fire, cross-legged with his palms pressed to the dirt floor, keeping both the door and the lieutenant in view as he gathered his thoughts. That a new dawn would soon break onto the blood-red alien horizon. Paris's reality was crumbling all around him in cadence with the echoes of his shredded breaths.

***

When Tuvok terminated the meld, Janeway felt as exhausted as Kes looked. The delicate Ocampa swayed back into Neelix's arms, which eased her into a resting position on the sickbay bed. She was wet-cheeked and worn, but she wearily assured both Neelix and the Doctor that she was fine. Relieved, in a way, to share the images she had experienced.

Tuvok stepped back from Kes, shakily reaching behind himself to locate the biobed before sitting down heavily. His captain stood quietly at his elbow. "Tuvok, are you all right?" He nodded without meeting her eyes. His gaze seemed intent on the scenes he had witnessed within Kes's mind. Sickbay grew still, waiting for him to speak. The Doctor, Neelix, and Janeway all exchanged impatient, anxious looks. But they waited.

Finally, the Vulcan cleared his throat and turned toward Janeway. "Captain, I must concur with Kes's interpretation of her experiences. It seems that she has felt the emotions of Lieutenant Paris, on the surface below. It would appear that he has been tortured."

Janeway lowered her head into her palm, and her shoulders sagged for a minute, perhaps two. When she looked again at her security officer, she drew herself up to her full height and folded her arms across her chest in defiance of the situation and the odds. "Then we know that the Away Team is under duress. We know that they've encountered hostile lifeforms and they're unable to return to Voyager. The questions, then, are how to locate them on the surface, and how to retrieve them without putting the rescue team in the same danger the landing party now faces." She whirled to the Doctor. "May we use sickbay for an impromptu meeting, Doctor? I want Kes and Tuvok to be included, but I expect you want to keep an eye on them a little longer."

His thin lips pursed in pleasant surprise. He was clearly pleased to have so much going on around him. "But of course, Captain. I -"

"Thank you." A swift hand tapped her communicator. "Lieutenant Torres, report to sickbay. Immediately."

***

Chakotay left them that day to work in the fields. Kim stayed with Paris. The lieutenant could not be left alone. In the night they had been forced to sit him up and hold him several times just so he could breath. Kim gave him water and soup and reassurance, although the tortured man barely registered any of these. Most importantly, the ensign remained with Paris to protect him from any Phrama guards who might be ordered to bring him out and make a spectacle of his helplessness.

When Chakotay returned at sunset he stumbled wearily into the tiny cabin, sinking to his knees before the fire pit. Sweat gleamed on his bare olive-toned chest. He looked up at Kim, armed against his entrance with the metal pot, and smiled despite himself. "You're a threatening figure, Ensign. I surrender."

Kim grinned sheepishly. Stepping around the pit to offer Chakotay water, he gasped as he caught glimpse of the commander's back, cut into thin bloody ribbons from his waist to his torn neck. "Renoja?"

"Yes."

The whipping was not severe enough to prevent him from working, but it would have made every movement difficult. A knot formed in Kim's throat. Chakotay shook his head at the unspoken sympathy. "He warned us what would happen if the quotas weren't filled. I knew what I was getting into. I'll be okay." He drank thirstily. His eyes roamed the hut, noting appreciatively that Kim had washed every spare piece of clothing and cookery while he was gone.

"Food?"

Chakotay looked at the sack of meal and thought of the thin paste it made. His stomach had refused to accept the fact that the Phrama workers' fare was its only option. The gruel, combined with the heat and labor of the day, would be unwise. Eating again would only make him ill, slowing them down and dehydrating him further. He shook his head, then nodded toward Paris. "Any change?"

"Not really, although he let me feed him a little of that soup. He's not noticeably worse." Or better.

"Good." He sat, debating silently with himself for a moment. Then he drew his knees up to his chest and let his head fall stiffly forward on crossed arms. "Give me just a few moments." His words were muffled against his skin. "Go ahead and wrap the bowls and tools into a blanket. I'll just take a minute or two."

Kim nodded and began moving quietly around the cabin. It stunned him to realize that Chakotay had not slept in the last two days. Not that he had exactly had sweet dreams himself. But Chakotay had not even tried to rest. He glanced at the hunched figure. The deep breaths that rippled the muscles of the torn back reflected silent meditation, not sleep. But Kim knew that Chakotay respected his own limits. Had he not led a Maquis ship in guerrilla warfare? The Commander knew the demands made by his body, when he could postpone them and when he had to obey. Sighing, Kim collected the contents of the cabin together, spoons and bowls, twisting them into a coiled blanket thoughtfully. He then gathered and folded the blankets and ragged clothes that had been discarded during the day as the heat intensified.

He was adjusting an unconscious Paris when Chakotay raised his head. "I'm going to wash my back in the stream and have a look around. How are things here?"

"Ready, sir."

"Good. When I return, we move."

***

Chakotay reentered the cabin sparkling with stream-water droplets, shivering with the coming of the chill night. His mouth formed an "o" as he took in deep breaths to combat his body's reaction to the cold. His steps still betrayed fatigue, but they were purposeful and controlled nonetheless.

While he had washed his back and surveyed the area, Kim had added layers to Paris's clothing and wrapped the suffering lieutenant securely in their least worn blanket. He had also started a fire in the fire pit. Chakotay drew close to its fledgling heat, surveyed the small shelter and its contents and nodded. "Good work. We'd better wear as much of the clothing as we can."

Kim nodded and held up a torn shirt. Okay, let's try this "reach out to Chakotay" thing one more time. "Would you like me to bandage your back before you put something on?"

The tension in his shoulders relaxed visibly since Kim spared him the need of asking. "I'd appreciate it." He knelt compliantly. "Looks like you've become this mission's medical officer." Kim chuckled, pleased with this minor success, and worked swiftly, tying strips of the shirt like bandages around his commander. That wasn't so bad. His hands were quick but gentle, and Chakotay held his breath and remained still until the ensign had finished.

"There, I think that will protect the wounds from your clothing. "

"Thank you, Mister Kim." He rose stiffly and began adding layers of shirts, beginning with his Starfleet undershirt. His demeanor changed subtly, gratefulness melting into preoccupied concentration. "It looks like the workers are inside for the night. Are you clear on what to do?"

"Yes, sir." Kim wrapped the last of the shirts around his own shoulders.

"After we begin there may be little chance for communication."

"Understood."

"Fine. Good luck." Their calm made the situation surreal to Kim, their careful pace at odds with the desperation of their actions. But he could see how Chakotay had made a successful Maquis Captain. His tranquillity, while disconcertingly out of place, was also comforting somehow. Kim knelt at the fire and gathered the small flint-set together. Chakotay strapped the tool-filled, twisted blankets to his own back, criss-crossing them like ancient ammunition belts. Kim winced just thinking about the weight against his fresh wounds, but said nothing. He would have his own burdens to worry about soon enough. With a curt nod to Chakotay and a backward glance at Paris, Kim slipped out of the cabin and into the darkness.

Standing still in the silent dwelling, Chakotay shivered despite his heavy clothing and the growing blaze in the pit. The black sky - he could see it through the smoke-hole in the roof, its opaque depth like a dark pool of water above him - seemed utterly innocent of the night's occurrences. He was thankful for it, as if it were some objective bystander, a representative of history to chronicle this drama. All the while he gazed into the night he counted the minutes quietly to himself. Eight... Nine... Ten.

In the corner, Tom Paris swam through a brief moment of clarity. He could make out the commander's pillar-straight figure in the flickering light. Staring at the sky as if it were holy, Chakotay murmured private words to what must have been an ancient spirit. And nodded, as if he had received answer. Instinctively Paris shuddered with the weight of whatever was happening. He could sense the somber gravity of Chakotay's mood. The commander stood for so long without making a motion, Paris was shocked when the solitary figure suddenly turned to him silently. Then the former Maquis bent down before the semi-conscious navigation officer and guided his lips to water. It was curious, frightening, that the commander then hauled him up to a sitting position, whispering a short few comforting phrases of safety and reassurance. So this was it. He could not process the words, the plan. But he could feel the intensity of the moment. A moment drifting hopelessly out of focus. He was slipping again. Fading away. Gone.

Chakotay crouched for a moment next to the slumping Paris and considered the passing time. Then he shifted to his feet, squatting and drawing Paris's weight over one taut shoulder. He stumbled backwards, sat, shifted Paris, and tried again. Awkwardly he finally stood. Half-straightened. Turned. Looked up through the roof's smoke-hole.

The sky was on fire.

And so it begins. Panicked wallibeves bellowed, sounding crazed, guttural cries. A new smoke mingled with familiar scents. Almost there. Paris's gasps were growing louder. The body Chakotay held twisted jerkily with the labor of breathing. Just a moment more. Hold on. The commander strained to listen, strained to hold himself still. The rhythm of hoofbeats. Now.

He leaned his weight into the door. The darkness was marred by the pulsing light of burning stalls beyond the boundary of the small labor village. He tore his eyes from the mesmerizing sight, peering into the murky night for Kim. Abruptly a wallibeve emerged from the blackness and stomped to a halt only inches away from Chakotay. He reached up with his free hand, felt his way along the saddle, finally met Kim's clenched fist. It uncurled, offering him the reins. He could hear the heavy breathing of a second wallibeve, the one that carried Kim, although he could not see it. It pawed at the ground, sidestepping in terror, snorting its dismay.

Time, time, hurry. He launched himself up toward the beast and flailed, dragged down by the weight of Paris and his own abused body. Try again. Don't panic. When he finally swung himself over the mount's back he could not stifle a short cry of pain. But the rest was easy in comparison. Sliding Paris down in front of him in the saddle, wrapping the reins around his wrists, shifting his protesting legs on the frightfully-wide wallibeve into position.

Phrama shouts. Screams. Splashes of light reflected on the sky. The stalls were burning and the fiefdom was coming alive.

Chakotay did not need to urge his wallibeve into a gallop. It took off with all the power of its instinct for survival. He could sense Kim following suit. Around the huts, across the field. As planned. Under cover of darkness. And the fire would require all of the attention of Llilegrough's men. For a while. A short while. He had no delusions about how brief their window of opportunity would be. Paris's head was buried in Chakotay's chest, his unconscious form draped sideways, his cocooned body held in place by the commander's arms as they reached for the reins. Kim, laden with newly-stolen tools, clanged rhythmically behind them. They were alive. They were together. They were escaping. Be merciful in your judgment of us, Sister Sky. Chakotay became something elemental, unleashing the carefully-controlled forces within him, propelling them forward with his anger, his fear, his will. Go, go, go, go, go...

***

Something, an intensity, a turning point, something important was happening. For a brief moment Kes saw the world through Paris's eyes, the disjointed view narrowing and dissolving with his own loss of awareness. She shivered without knowing why.

She hurried her pace to the shuttle bay, hitting her communicator as she walked. "Tuvok? I'd like to go now, please."

A pause. The request was unorthodox, even insubordinate. But the Vulcan no longer thought in those terms. Not with Kes, not now. He asked no questions. "I will inform the captain that we shall depart a few minutes ahead of schedule. I am on my way."

"Thank you." She broke out into a run.

***

When they had passed the solitary cubes that market the border of the interior of Llilegrough's lands, Chakotay and Kim allowed their wallibeves to drop into a rhythmic canter. Exhausting their mounts immediately could only hurt them later. Besides, neither Chakotay nor Kim had ever ridden such an animal before. A less punishing pace appealed to them both.

Eyes now adjusted to the dark, Chakotay led them along the planned route toward the crash site. He could see the white puffs of Kim's breath over his right shoulder. The shouts and cries from the Phrama carried over the flat terrain and urged them onward, reminding them that their flight would ultimately be discovered. Chakotay could not help but think of the other time they traversed this terrain. They had been hot, thirsty and bound. But Paris had been whole and strong. The limp body curled against him now made no motions save the involuntary shudders that accompanied his painful breaths.

After a mockingly short distance, considering the difficulty of their passage on foot in the daytime heat days before, the riders approached the rocky boulders of the foothills. The stones deflected the sounds of the Phrama from behind them and threw the echoes in fantastic directions. The Starfleet officers sounded at once both alone and surrounded. They picked their way around rocks, finally approaching the two jagged formations that had held the shuttle. Chakotay signaled Kim.

The shuttle was gone.

So was their chance of escaping the planet.

"Commander..." Kim's voice reverberated, calling the title again and again. Chakotay met this eyes and watched Kim's determined professionalism fight bewilderment and disappointment. He himself had no explanation for this mysterious disappearance. They stared at each other for a moment, absorbing this development. It was a contingency for which they had planned, but neither man was truly expecting it. Seeing the vacant cleft was a harsh blow.

The Phrama curses, the wallibeves' hoofbeats, thundered at them. Was the canyon distorting the distant sounds, or were pursuers closing in on them? It was not a question they could afford to ponder. Abandon escape, embrace survival. They had no other choice. Adjusting Paris's weight and whirling his mount, Chakotay faced his shipmate.

"Mister Kim, into the mountains! Now!"

***

"Tuvok to Voyager."

"Janeway here."

"We are approaching the atmosphere of the planet."

"Maintain an open channel. I want communication as long as possible." Even if Lieutenant Torres's additional external sensors successfully relay the information to us, I want more than data back. I want you back, Tuvok. I can't lose you, too.

"Understood." You worry, Captain. Surely you know that I will return to your side if I am able. "Our angle of approach will allow us to 'skip' off the atmosphere and analyze the data before we commit to entry. Impact... now."

"WARNING. WARNING -"

"Tuvok!"

"Hold on, Kes -"

"Mister Tuvok, report!"

"- WILL RENDER THIS SHUTTLE POWERLESS -"

"Captain, we cannot -"

"Tuvok! My console is blinking! The power is -"

"- WARNING -"

"Tuvok! What's going on?"

There was silence. Kathryn Janeway's fist clenched and opened spasmodically. "Torres, have we got their data?"

"Coming through now, Captain."

"I want an explanation -"

"Tuvok to Voyager." We are well, Captain.

She took a deep breath, crossing her arms, hugging herself in silent thankfulness. "Report, Mister Tuvok."

"It appears that our concerns regarding the atmosphere were justified, Captain. Full contact with it must have disabled the shuttle. The Away Team must have crash-landed after losing power." We cannot follow them.

A sigh. I know what that means, to us, to the landing party. "Are you all right? Is Kes?" Of course you are. Nothing would fluster you.

"We are well, Captain."

"Good. Then return to Voyager. Lieutenant Torres is analyzing the information now." Come on Kath, you didn't think it would be that easy, did you? Settle yourself down. This could be a long process. She swallowed convulsively. Just hope the landing party can survive it.

"Affirmative, Captain. Tuvok out." His long fingers played across the console, then he sat back and regarded his companion. He hesitated before choosing his words. "I know that this is difficult for you." He searched for more. "I ... regret the fact that we must return."

Kes said nothing. Her eyes were unfocused, staring glazedly. Silent tears spilled from her eyes and trailed down her cheeks.

"We can be of no help to them if we, too, are captured."

She nodded her understanding. Took breaths in short little sips. Pressed her fingers to her lips. "We were just... so close. Analyzing the data, making a new plan, it will all take time. I don't know, I don't know if we have time, Tuvok... I am losing him."


END OF CHAPTER ONE

On to Part 3