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Xenogamy (expurgated version)

By Alicia Ann Fox
Partially eradicated carvings of alien origin represented a valuable lesson, one which Kerr Avon was beyond apprehending. He did not even fully comprehend the reality of his escape. Stumbling in the roughly chiseled tunnel, knees and bare feet rasping on the stone, one hand held protectively against his stomach, he searched without hope for a way to the surface.

The tunnel widened and smoothed; his eyes could not see in the darkness, but his left hand could follow the wall. He moved faster until, abruptly, empty space gaped before him. The chamber seemed weirdly carpeted in gold. It was too far down to see clearly. Avon fell.

#

"We found him in the Sacred Cave," Chakotay informed the holographic Doctor, indicating the unconscious body transported from the surface of a planet they had nicknamed Snow. "But we didn't find any evidence of entry through the tunnels, and there are no ships in the vicinity. No signs of other life, either."

The Doctor ran his medical tricorder quickly over his patient's torso, and looked up in surprise. "This man is human."

Chakotay nodded. "That's what our tricorders told us. The captain would like a full analysis, to make sure."

"I'll take care of it. Please send Kes in to help me."

Chakotay exited, using his communicator badge to summon the Doctor's assistant on his way out.

Suddenly the man on the bed moved. The Doctor touched a hand to his shoulder. "Lie still, I am trying to ascertain the extent of your injuries."

His sentence was interrupted by a left-handed swing and a surprisingly powerful grappling grip. The Doctor threw himself bodily across his patient, pinning him down. He was sure the man had heard and understood what he'd said; obviously he had no reason to believe him, as he continued to struggle. After a few moments, the Doctor finally captured the man's arm and pinioned it, out of reach of his throat. Not that it mattered to his own health; after all, he didn't breathe. He flicked on a restraining field. "Lie still," he reiterated, annoyed. "I am trying to help you." He added, "I am the Emergency Medical Hologram, and this is the starship Voyager."

His patient subsided with an exhausted gasp, but still tried to twist his neck away from the Feinberger. Relentlessly, the Doctor pinned the man's forehead with his palm and ran the scanner over the left side of his face. "I told you I won't do anything to hurt you. You're safe, you're on a Federation ship."

A minuscule noise of disbelief escaped him, the first sound he'd made. Deciding his patient was cognizant, the Doctor wiped blood from the man's lower lip, which he'd bitten nearly through on some recent occasion, and ran the scanner once more, finding chipped teeth. "No one is going to hit you," he said. Someone entered the sickbay; he glanced back and said, "Ah, good. Kes, you can help me with this. I'll need my hypospray."

The young blond woman gave him the instrument as she joined him at the diagnostic bed, looking down at their patient in wonder. "Harry told me they found a human down there."

"So far as I can tell, Ensign Kim is absolutely right. However--" the Doctor pulled out a regenerator "--someone obviously doesn't care for humans in this sector. We're going to have to set the hand, there are three cracked metacarpals and six fractured phalanges." He applied the hypospray with a flourish.

"How--" Kes began.

"How do you think?"

Watching, intently, the Doctor at work, she at last answered, "I suppose the question is really who, not how."

The Doctor took a moment to smile at her. "Very good. Have a look at the tricorder readings while I take care of these ribs."

A few minutes later Kes said, "He was drugged." When the Doctor gave her an encouraging look, she gripped the patient's shoulder lightly. "Do you know what drugs you were given?"

The face turned to her was expressionless under the bruises, but he seemed to understand what she was saying.

She tried again. "How many times were you injected?"

"Don't remember," he said vaguely. His voice was husky and dark, and sounded ill-used.

"So you can talk."

Panic flared. "Won't." He moved, but the Doctor controlled him easily this time.

"Lie still. You are safe, so long as you are in my sickbay."

"No," the man breathed, and closed his eyes.

#

The ceiling had changed, it was not the rough-hewn rock ceiling of his cell. Nor was he aboard Liberator. Interrogation area? He couldn't remember what that room looked like, though he'd been there several times. Avon tried to recall if he had told them everything already....

Someone was speaking to him; he heard the voice as if from a distance. He hurt all over, but considerably less than the last time he'd been conscious. His throat felt sore, and his teeth were oddly smooth. How much time had passed?

"Don't worry, you're safe, this is a Federation ship, U.S.S. Voyager. I am the Emergency Medical Hologram. The Doctor."

It appeared solid, for an hallucination. Surely he hadn't seen it materialize from thin air, just then? He'd never been quite this far under before, drugged enough to see things. Perhaps so much abuse had jolted his system that he was suffering from random firing of synapses, like a computer overwhelmed by cataclysmic feedback. But there were other sensory cues: the air smelled different, and the light did not glare so harshly. He curled his hand protectively into a fist, and felt the stiffness of healing injuries. This seemed real. A new tactic? Confusing him wasn't going to get them very far. Had he told them about the teleport yet?

"Can you tell us your name?"

The insignia was upended on the Doctor's blue and black uniform, Avon noticed. With a great effort he managed to sit up and glare.

"Very well," the Doctor said. He said to someone behind him, "If you want to know his name, you can ask him." Without warning he stuck something on Avon's forehead.

Avon jerked back, but there was no pain or disorientation. Cautiously, he leaned against the headrest, as if nothing had happened. The Doctor was studying some sort of handheld device--Avon didn't recognize the style of it at all, and he quelled a fear of some new object of torture.

"We would like to know how you came to be on the planet below," a second voice asked.

Avon looked up. Dark skin with a strange undertone, dark hair, pointed ears...they looked natural. He realized that this must be a non-human, though he had never seen one, unless he could count Cally. Amazing that this one had been let out of the Space Command labs. "Who are you?" he asked, surprising himself with the difficulty of that simple query. His pulse raced, though it was not the alien he was afraid of. In fact, he couldn't quite isolate a specific fear; he was generally unsettled, a rare feeling for him, at least as he remembered himself, from before--before--

"You are experiencing a panic reaction. Breathe deeply," the hologram instructed.

"That would perhaps be beneficial," the alien said. "I am Lt. Tuvok, Chief Security Officer. Our medical analysis indicates that you are a human. You will please tell me your planet of origin."

"Don't waste my time," Avon said, testing for immediate reprisal. It didn't come. Was this "good guard, bad guard"? It was a vast improvement over "bad guard, bad guard, and another bad guard over in the corner with a bit of pipe."

"Perhaps I should explain. We did not expect to find a human in the Delta Quadrant."

"In the what?"

"The Delta Quadrant."

Avon pondered this, rubbing at his fingers. Finally he said, "I don't know where I am. And I can assure you Blake is not looking for me." Even if he had the barest clue where to find me, Avon thought, he wouldn't put aside his search for Star One. Assuming that whatever Avon had told his interrogators had not led to Liberator's capture or destruction already.

"If you do not know where you are, surely you know where you came from."

Avon leaned his head back and closed his eyes. He was grateful when no-one touched him. At the least he could get a little rest before the next trip to interrogation. "Earth," he said. "It's in my records."

Tuvok did not sound surprised at this information. "You were found on the planet below, in an underground chamber possibly manufactured by the planet's former inhabitants. We found no records, nor indeed any other lifeform or any explanation for your presence."

Avon opened his eyes as his brain shuddered awake. "How do I know you're not lying to me?"

"Please do not try to strangle me again," the doctor's voice interrupted. "I must examine the regeneration of your phalanges and metacarpals." He picked up Avon's right hand and ran a small device over it.

"Vulcans cannot lie," Tuvok said, in the same serene tone he had used throughout. "You were alone, though it is obvious that someone else inflicted your injuries. It is unfortunate that you have no knowledge of how this came about. Can you give any further information that may be of assistance to us in unraveling this problem?"

Avon pulled his hand away from the hologram, who felt disturbingly real, down to warmth and skin texture. His hand still hurt, from--he mentally slammed to a stop, before he began to shake. "Where did you come from? One of the Outer Worlds?" Something was ticking at his brain...the device the Doctor had...the Doctor itself...what was going on?

"Lie back, please," the Doctor instructed.

"Who injured you?"

Avon obeyed the first command, as he still felt light-headed, then answered the question. "Federation interrogators. Are you softening me up for the next round?"

Again the alien showed no reaction. "No, I am not. You appear to have been "softened up" considerably already. No one on Voyager will harm you. What Federation are you referring to? Describe the interrogators."

"There was...a captain, in charge. I don't know why only a captain, maybe he was hoping to keep the bounty and hadn't informed his superiors. And two interrogators, they took it in turns--" He was shaking, he noticed with interest, and waited for it to stop, tucking his hands beneath his armpits. The nubby dark blue fabric of the shirt he wore was warm and soft. Tuvok waited patiently for him to continue.

"Turn on your side," the Doctor instructed, explaining, "there is some residual bruising of your kidneys."

Obeying, he shivered again at the unnerving feel of a warm palm against his skin. It felt solid, human. But he'd seen the Doctor materialize. The Federation couldn't create holograms of this level. He knew there was no way. No one had explored down that path. No one. Some kind of teleport? That didn't fit, either.

"Thank you. He should be on his feet in a few days, Mr. Tuvok."

Tuvok nodded. "I will inform Captain Janeway. You may continue," he said to Avon. The Doctor moved away to a glassed-in office.

Avon rubbed his face with his hand, suddenly exhausted, willing to say anything if they would leave him alone. "I only saw those three. And four mutoids."

"There was a bounty for your capture."

"Yes."

"What was your crime?"

Avon closed his eyes. "Rebellion." He could have said more, a great deal more, but what was the point? He felt himself drifting, but was brought back by the next question, focusing on Tuvok with difficulty.

"What is your name?"

Luckily, an easy one. "Kerr Avon."

Tuvok accepted that information with a nod and retreated to his earlier question. "What Federation were you referring to?"

"The Terran Federation. Based on Earth. Sol system."

"We are very far from Earth, Mr. Avon. Approximately seventy years at our best speed."

Somehow, Avon was not surprised.

#

Sickbay. Darkened. Someone with him...Kes, he identified, after long minutes of silence. He felt cold, sweaty, almost dizzy with adrenaline. Breathing hurt. He'd fallen asleep, but no-one had shocked him awake, he wasn't there anymore, so why--

"What did you dream?" Kes asked, her low rich voice almost hypnotic, slowing his rapid heartbeat.

He blinked a few times and swallowed; his own voice still came out raspily. "I don't remember." He tried to sit up; she moved to help him, and only then did he realize her hand had been rubbing his neck since he had awakened. Before, perhaps. Bemused, he asked, "Where's the Doctor?" not complaining when she switched to stroking gentle circles on his back, easing his return to the waking world. No one was here to witness the weakness.

"I volunteered to stay in sickbay, so he's switched himself off until he's needed. He does that now and then. Neelix went to bed."

Good, Avon thought. Neelix, besides being the strangest looking alien he had seen so far, made him nervous, as if he could see right through Avon's eyes. The cheery disposition was a thin layer over someone clever and knowledgable; the best kind of ally, the worst kind of enemy. He didn't feel able to defend against Neelix yet.

"And your captain? I thought she wanted to ask me questions." Or so the earnest Commander Chakotay had said.

Kes glanced at a chronometer on the bulkhead. "She might be along in a few hours. After she has her breakfast. I wouldn't worry, Avon, she's very reasonable. You might be able to help us, you know."

"I told you I don't know how I got here."

"But you came through...whatever is there. At least there's the possibility we might find something useful."

"Hmph." He wanted to see more of the ship, of its crew, to see what his situation really was. At the moment he didn't have the strength to think about it very much. He needed to know more....

#

Neelix brought a leather jacket for him along with other clothes: black boots such as they all seemed to wear, soft trousers that gathered at the waist and ankles, shirts that fastened up the front, a couple of vests with buttons. He chose a charcoal shirt, the black vest, and put the jacket on over it all, feeling better at once just from its weight. The ship was too cold for his taste.

Captain Janeway was waiting for him. Chakotay had reminded Avon of Blake, minus the misguided passion, but Janeway was in command, indisputably; her bearing, her level measuring gaze, her obvious intelligence, took over Sickbay. She reminded him of a professor he'd had once, who had later disappeared, surprising Avon not in the least. "Mr. Avon," she said. "We'll sit in the Doctor's office."

"Just Avon," he said, following her. He could see the Doctor across the room, bent over a console, and wished it would switch off again so he could watch. So far he had only seen it switch on. Avon sat, clasping his hands in his lap.

"Avon, then. Are you feeling better?" she asked.

She had the same peculiar flat accent as the rest of the crew he'd met. He nodded. "What should I talk about?" It was obvious to him that she would get what she wanted from him. He had no reason not to tell her everything he didn't know, and perhaps it would give her a favorable opinion of him.

"Around the time you probably arrived here, there was an energy surge we detected from a considerable distance. Was there any equipment that you saw? Any visible effect?"

"If there was any equipment, the Federation took it long ago. The place felt alien, the interrogators weren't comfortable there. And I never heard of any experiments along the line of alternate universes, that's the theory you are working with? It's too creative an idea for the Federation."

"That's our best explanation so far." She leaned back in her chair, looking him up and down. "Do you know where in your galaxy the planet was located?"

He shook his head. "We were in the Outer Worlds when I was...caught. I don't know how far I was taken, I was...they...I had no way of knowing."

"Can you point the general area out for me on a chart? First the Terran Federation, then the Outer Worlds."

"I don't see why not." Avon took mental notes as she brought up a display. He pointed out star systems, and when she brought up a complex map of the area where he had been found, tried to orient himself. His only clear memory was bashing his broken hand, falling; the pain had momentarily cleared the drugged fog from his mind. "I fell out," he realized.

"Of the tunnel?"

"Yes." He fought for memory, wanting an explanation as much as she did, now. He didn't like the blank spots. "There was a color. A golden color...it didn't look like a force screen, it was more like...?" He shrugged. "I could have been hallucinating."

"We've found no evidence of any kind of mechanism on this end, though we're studying the carvings in the walls. The ones in the tunnel seem to be text."

Avon frowned. "Carvings?"

"Everywhere. Made with some sort of molecular compression tool. Quite beautiful, some of them, though I don't suppose you had the chance to appreciate them."

He shook his head, slowly. "There were no carvings. All the walls were chiseled flat. If they were alien, I'm not surprised." He expanded, "Genocide was Federation policy, at the beginning of the New Calendar."

"And your people, you were against the Terran Federation?"

Avon crossed his arms across his chest, unobtrusively nursing his hand, which ached from the exercise of using the computer. He pictured Cally, carrying a rifle. "What do you care?"

Her expression hardened slightly. Avon tensed. "Curiosity," Janeway said, after a moment. "You don't have to answer any of my questions if you don't want to."

He reminded himself sharply that Janeway might have left him to die, could still kill him. This might prove to be a safe bolthole, if he cooperated. "Yes," he said, glancing down at the table. "We were fighting the Federation. We had no choice."

Janeway stood. "We'll talk again later, Avon. I'll be sending Ensign Kim to put you in some quarters. You don't have to stay with us, but you're welcome to do so."

Avon thought, If she thinks I'm leaving without knowing how solid holograms work, she's crazier than Bayban the Butcher. "Thank you," he said. "I accept."

#

"Very nice," Avon said to Ensign Harry Kim, to encourage him to leave. Much as he had enjoyed Harry's extensive and intelligent commentary on possible methods of bending the universe, he preferred to appreciate the comforts of his new quarters after he'd had a chance to look at the work console over in the corner.

"I'll get you when it's time for dinner," Harry said. "I'd better get back to the bridge."

Avon locked the door manually behind the young man, and sat down before the console. Harry had switched it on for him, pointing out how to get a map of the ship and other useful items. Surely they didn't want him wandering freely about their ship; this had to be a test of some sort. Avon hated to disappoint when tested.

If he'd been designing such a test, he would have netted off this particular console to reveal only a certain level of information, and then guarded access to it with barriers a terrorist from another universe could manage. He hadn't had occasion yet to mention what exactly he had done for Blake, but they knew he had some level of technical expertise. They would be expecting him to try something. He needed to do well on this first test to convince them he could be useful.

"Security files, why not the obvious," he murmured.

He could see the evidence of some recent manipulation of the data storage by a higher level program, after which some redefinition had been performed. He wondered if it had been Harry, who seemed from his conversation to be competent in such matters. The Security area was ringed with enough walls to scare off a casual searcher. He penetrated them, then wondered what he was supposed to do next. He'd been hoping the next level would slam down, perhaps with a time limit, but nothing happened. Next time, perhaps.

Avon scanned the file headings desultorily, skimmed through a file about a murder case (the murderer later dying to protect the ship), and more carefully studying the case of an information leak to the alien Kazon. That could be a warning to him, but then again it was not marked off in any special way to draw his attention.

The technical plans of the ship would have been altered to prevent him from learning too much, so he ignored them. Crew records offered a few moments' amusement as he scanned pictures to see what the various nonhumans looked like. He was disappointed that none of them looked terribly alien to him.

Eventually, when no-one came to tell him he could stop, he shut down the system and had a nap. He wanted to be alert for dinner; probably these civilized folk intended to quiz him over food.

#

"So now we're back to playing with the phase-induction," Harry said.

"That means my crews have to work around the clock," B'Elanna Torres, the chief engineer, said. She was the senior officer at their table in the galley. She looked at Avon intently again, then away.

He wished she would get it over with, and ask how he'd managed with the computers, but she never quite made it to that point. Torture by frustration, he thought wryly.

"Hey, Harry," said the pilot, poking the younger man in the arm. "Which one of the Delaney sisters are you taking out tomorrow night?" Tom Paris, with his faintly disreputable air, reminded Avon somewhat of Vila.

"Neither," Harry said. "I'll be reconfiguring--"

"And reconfiguring, and reconfiguring," Torres said, her tone irritable. Her almost aggressive conversational style was the first thing Avon had noticed about her, but it seemed to be habit, not necessarily indicative of her real mood. He wondered about Klingons, and how much she was like her mother's species. Torres continued, "I don't think we're going to get anywhere with this, Harry. You're sure you don't remember anything, Avon?"

Again. He put down his cup of tea and looked at her directly. "I told Janeway there was nothing to see, except possibly a forcefield after I fell, and I'm doubtful of my own mental state at that point."

"Let the guy alone. You people need a break," Paris said. "Take a few hours on the holodeck."

Holodeck. Avon had the general idea of it from Harry's orientation lecture; what a tool it would make, for simulations and such. He poked at the remains of unidentifiable vegetables on his plate. The three Voyager crewmembers had eaten meat. Barbaric.

"No time," Torres said. "We're having a brainstorming session in Engineering later."

"A wild and wacky theories meeting, you mean?" Paris commented.

"Have you asked Neelix?" Avon said. "He had creative ideas in your sabotage case."

"Neelix?" Torres repeated, as if astounded. Then her attention sharpened. "How do you know about the sabotage?"

Finally. Why was she pretending she didn't know? He could feel Harry's intense gaze, as well. Paris was watching him more casually, more dangerously. "Was that the test, to see what I would read?" he asked. "That's more clever than I'd expected."

Torres was staring at him. "What are you talking about, Avon?"

"You needn't toy with me. The console in my quarters. It was rigged, correct? Altered so I could access what seemed to be secure data? You wanted to see what I would do."

Harry shook his head. "It wasn't altered. I just switched it on so you could use it, before I left. You saw me. You seemed interested in the Doc, so the Captain said to let you read up."

Unlikely, Avon thought. He was disappointed that Harry was not being more creative.

"How did you get into Tuvok's files?" Torres asked.

"You didn't fool me," Avon said. "I know what secure data looks like. You should have put another security level in, just for show." Uncomfortable silence stretched his nerves; he said, "Well? Get it over with."

"B'Elanna, it doesn't matter how," Paris said. "He was in Tuvok's files, and he's obviously paranoid as hell."

Harry said slowly, "You thought we wanted you to break into our computers. But why?"

Torres threw Harry a disgusted look. "This isn't the Romulan Empire," she snarled. "We weren't testing you, Avon. You're supposed to be our guest and you'd damned well better start behaving like one."

Paris said, "Talk fast, Avon."

If they were lying, it was such convoluted deception he would never be able to untangle it, so he was forced to take them at their word. Incredulity made him grin for a moment. Solid holograms, entire computer-generated holographic worlds, meshed with computer security he could have mastered before he'd even seen Zen. Well, almost. "That was it?" he asked. "Those were your computers? That was real?" At Torres's nod, he added, "I see I won't lack for employment, here."

"You're going to have to show me what you did," she said, darkly.

"Great," he said. "Any time." His fortune was made.

#

Torres, Tuvok, and Janeway congregated in Avon's quarters. Avon was tired, but he explained to Janeway again, patiently, how he had accessed their system. It wasn't his methods she needed him to clarify so much as his vocabulary, and her eyes burned with excitement when she began to catch on, a scientist beneath her command veneer.

"You're extremely talented," Janeway said. Avon mentally preened. It pleased him to have that fact recognized. "But I can't understand why you thought this was a lower-level system, when you were even able to detect the involuntary downloads we experienced recently."

Avon was a little embarrassed about not having thought that through. "Every system in the Federation has been tailored to keep me out. Me, specifically. This was so easy, comparatively--"

"I see," Janeway said, smiling.

Torres hovered at his shoulder, less belligerent than he had expected her to be. She was the chief engineer, after all, and he'd intruded on her area. But she seemed to have lost her annoyance in curiosity, becoming a mirror of Janeway. She would be a good person to ask about holography; he would find it pleasant to have a technical discussion, after so long with no one available even close to his level.

Tuvok listened, apparently content to let Janeway ask the questions. Avon couldn't tell what he was thinking about all this, about anything, in fact; useful in a security officer. He was startled when Tuvok spoke.

"How did you know to create a new persona to penetrate beyond the file listings?"

"Instinct." It was the truth, and something he could not teach. His edge.

The Vulcan inclined his head to Avon. "Captain?" Tuvok asked.

"We'll be returning to the bridge," Janeway said. "Thank you, Avon, that was most informative. I'd like to put you to work later on, if I may."

"Of course," Avon replied, relieved to be on familiar ground. He'd apparently won her over, with less effort than he had thought he would require, but decided against discussing terms just now. He would wait until his position was more secure.

"I have a few questions for him, Captain," Torres said.

Janeway gave permission with a small wave of her hand. "If Avon doesn't object. Take a break from changing the laws of physics, B'Elanna, and talk to him on the holodeck or somewhere, that's an order."

"Sir," Torres said, as the others departed. She turned to Avon. "You don't mind?"

"If I can see the holodeck."

She sighed explosively. "The Captain will know if I go back to work. So much for the brainstorming session. Come on." She grabbed his upper arm, startling him for a moment, and headed for the door.

"That must be nice," Avon said, in her wake. In the corridor he unobtrusively freed himself, forcing her to slow her pace.

"What?" Torres stopped and looked at him.

"Having someone tell you to stop working."

"Hello, Lieutenant," Commander Chakotay said, stopping before he passed them by. "Hello, Avon."

Avon nodded to him; Torres didn't return the greeting. "What's the best holodeck program to satisfy the Captain I've relaxed in forty-five minutes or less?"

"Won't work, B'Elanna," Chakotay said, and smiled a wicked smile. "You were scheduled for the whole evening off."

"Harry--"

"Harry is having a break, too. I would recommend my number three, for starters. Best relaxation program in the galaxy. Now snap to it, Lieutenant." He walked off briskly.

Torres snorted. "He means his hot spring program." Then she smiled at him, lifting an eyebrow. "Do you want to try it?"

She was flirting with him. He could handle that. It looked like this evening would be more entertaining than he had thought.

#

The evening played out much as Avon had expected. They must be desperate on this ship, he thought, to seduce a passing stranger. But he'd enjoyed himself. He liked B'Elanna. He liked her intelligence. He expressed an interest in seeing the Engineering section.

"I can't show my face there tonight," B'Elanna said. "Unless there's a crisis."

"That could be arranged," Avon murmured, though in fact he was too tired to do anything of the sort.

"Don't even think it," she said firmly. "We have to leave the holodeck pretty soon, and I think we need to clean up first."

"Must we?" he asked, automatically.

B'Elanna sat up. "Yes. Your hair is sticking everywhere." She ruffled it; he reached up and pulled her hand down. "Bath?"

"What kind?" he asked, suspiciously.

"No tricks," she promised. "Computer, engage Janeway 3a."

Avon looked around as he stood up. The tub was big enough for three, pale yellowish marble, plain copper fixtures. Hologrammatic sunlight streamed in from the windowed ceiling. He blinked at the brightness. "What happens after we leave the holodeck?"

"You look like you could use some rest." B'Elanna was picking out towels, green this time. There was no sign of the white ones. "I could stay with you, if you want." She looked over at him, for a brief moment appearing unsure.

This, he had not expected. Until a moment ago, he had not thought that far ahead. This kind of decision meant that he had not temporarily strayed but had stumbled on the bolthole he'd so often dreamed of...never expecting it to become reality. Nothing was that easy. Was it?

How to explain.... "I haven't been sleeping well."

"I've seen nightmares." She waited.

Avon climbed into the tub. "All right, then," he said.

#

He awoke slowly from the best sleep he'd had in a while.

"I have to go on shift in about an hour," B'Elanna said. "Do you want to see Engineering, or sleep?"

"If you knew me better, you'd know the answer to that question," Avon said, feeling his mouth quirk up at one corner. "Engineering."

"I thought so," she replied, kissing him. "Second question--do you care if anyone guesses what we've been up to?"

"Is it dangerous?"

B'Elanna sat up but didn't move far, staring down at him with a speculative expression. "No. I think I can handle anything anyone says."

That hadn't been what Avon had meant, but her answer told him there was no physical danger in a personal relationship. He'd worried about that when she'd brought him to her cabin, reflex after the subterfuges he and Anna had found necessary...he realized he and Anna had only been able to manage one full night together, and that one made dark in his memory by what they'd said, and what it had meant.

"What are you thinking?"

His heart skipped. "It doesn't matter, any more. Tell me what you're going to show me today."

#

Voyager's Engineering section looked as if it had formed, pristine, from an idealistic engineer's visionary daydream. Everyone had the appearance of being very busy. "Do they always snap to it like this when you come on shift?" Avon murmured, close to B'Elanna's ear.

"If they know what's good for them," she muttered back. A man with curly reddish hair stepped up and handed her a datapad. "Thanks, Carey." She scanned it rapidly, then handed it back. "I'm going to be taking Avon here around for a few minutes, then he'll need a computer station."

"Yes," Avon confirmed, brightening. He itched to know more about the ships' systems the way Vila's fingers itched near a locked door. "You don't mind?"

"I think you can manage the computer systems," B'Elanna said wryly. "Avon, this is Lt. Carey, my second."

"Carey," Avon acknowledged, storing the name away. By the time the tour ended, he knew twelve new names and had met another Vulcan, this one so pale Avon could clearly see the alien's greenish skin tone. He was grateful to be left alone, finally, at a workstation tucked away for quiet research. There were too many people; he'd lost his tolerance for crowding after so long on the Liberator.

He lost himself in diagrams until Harry Kim called his name. "Yes?" Avon said, astonished that he hadn't heard the young man approach.

"I'm taking down a landing party," Harry said, "and I'd like you to come along."

"Down there, you mean."

"I want to run some scans on those carvings. My theory is that maybe they're some kind of control mechanism. If we knew what parts of the tunnels you had passed through on the other side, what you might have touched, we might have some idea of how the system was activated." Harry grinned. "If this isn't a load of--"

He used an expression Avon wasn't familiar with but the meaning was clear. Interesting theory, and he could hardly refuse. He was their only source, after all. It didn't really matter that the thought of leaving the ship gave him the cold shivers.

#

Avon managed to get a moment with B'Elanna in her quarters after the away mission briefing. He hoped he'd been correct in his assessment of her as an ally. He didn't want to refuse to help his rescuers, but at the same time he wouldn't leave the ship unless he had some kind of backup. He said, without preamble, "B'Elanna, I need a weapon."

She didn't say anything at first, but looked up at him with a measuring gaze.

He had asked once. He didn't know if he could ask again.

She said at last, "Tuvok will issue you a phaser, you know. Do you want something else?"

He nodded once, sharply. He needed rather than wanted, but he wasn't going to quibble, if she gave him a gun. His heart was pounding; he wished he had some way to switch off his body's autonomic responses. It wasn't that he had no confidence in Harry's intelligence and resourcefulness, it was only--

B'Elanna walked over to her storage area, touching his arm briefly in passing, and said, "I have a small handblaster from my old ship. Will that do?"

"Yes." He watched her rummage in a drawer that was out of easy reach, filled with some dark utilitarian clothing, miscellaneous technical objects, a gleam of metal that looked like a blade. At last she unearthed a small gun, checked it over, and handed it to him--he had automatically stepped towards her when he saw it.

"That's the firing mechanism. That's the power gauge, for intensity and range. Short range is best, under 25 meters." She indicated a recessed area in the gun's butt. "This is where the capsules are stored. You can't recharge this thing like a phaser, it has to be reloaded, but right now it's full."

"Thank you," Avon said, tucking the gun into the inner pocket of his jacket. The solid lump seemed to slow his pulse just with its weight against his chest. He gripped her shoulders and kissed her, a kiss that lasted longer than he had intended.

B'Elanna stroked his cheek when they separated. "I want it back after the mission. It was probably against regulations to give it to you."

He appreciated that. If he survived he would--Avon interrupted his own thought, admonishing himself for needless melodrama. "Of course. I just find it better to be cautious."

In the transporter room, Tuvok did indeed issue him a phaser. Though Avon knew no lifeforms had been detected on the planet after his arrival, he approved of the security officer's prudence. The phaser was unfamiliar against his hip, heavier than a Liberator gun; he resisted checking to be sure a nonexistent power cord was attached. Instead of a teleport bracelet he wore a small illuminator on his wrist.

Harry glanced at both him and the security guard/physicist Ensign Kelff before facing the transporter console. Avon looked away quickly, struck by a memory of Blake checking for the presence of each one of his companions before teleporting up--his eyes had lingered on Avon for an uncomfortable extra few seconds--when had that been? Where--

Harry said, "Energize."

The transporter process felt different than teleport. Avon opened his eyes into darkness and for a moment panicked. The familiar activity of gripping his weapon and scanning the area for danger recovered his sense of normality, and after that Harry and Kelff tossed down emergency lights.

"I don't remember this place," Avon said. He switched on his wrist light and looked around; the precise dimensions of the room were lost in darkness. The floor was slightly gritty with dust.

"This is the largest chamber," Harry said, "where we found you."

Kelff said, "Harry, I'm going to run those baseline scans in the tunnels now. I'll report in half an hour."

Harry waved an acknowledgment to her and walked over to join Avon, opening out his tricorder. "I think this is the exit end of the transuniversal opening. It's a fascinating phenomenon, even if it doesn't get us home."

Avon holstered his phaser and forcibly brought his attention back to the young man. "From the evidence you presented at the briefing, I think you might be right. This is a one-way trip." He walked in a circle, trying to remember being here, but nothing was familiar.

"I'm not surprised you don't remember this. You were out cold when we found you."

"That must have been a pretty sight," Avon remarked, closing the uncomfortable subject of his refugee status. Eventually, he would have to face it, and Harry had potential as an ally, but just now, in this place--"Let's get started."

"There's a ramp to your left that circles the chamber, up to a kind of gallery," Harry said. "All the tunnels open from there."

Avon followed him, still wary but maintaining outward calm in the dim lighting. Harry's voice ahead of him was an anchor of sorts, less tangible than the gun B'Elanna had given him, but useful nonetheless.

"I would have thought they'd want an expert like you in good shape, to work for them."

It took Avon a moment to fully realize what Harry had said, and why. If he answered casually, there would be nothing to alert the young man that he wasn't ready to discuss this topic yet, if ever. But if he answered at all, he would be discussing it already. He'd given the Captain some information about the Terran Federation, and Blake. If he were in their position, he would want to know a great deal more, but no-one had pressed him. And if they'd wanted, they could have left him to die....

"Good shape was not an option," Avon said. "They had only two. Memory erase would have damaged my skills, and...I wouldn't do it freely." Because of Anna. "They offered me the chance to work for them in the first place, as an alternative to Cygnus Alpha. A prison planet," he explained, and found himself smiling wryly in the dark. "Did I tell you I was sent up for bank fraud?"

"Really? Money for the rebellion?"

"Money for me and someone else to get out of the Federation. I was unsuccessful, obviously." Cygnus Alpha had been the better choice; at least he would have had an illusion of freedom. "I met Blake on the prison ship."

Harry didn't sound shocked by Avon's revelation; not only B'Elanna but half of Voyager's crew had been Maquis rebels, Avon had learned, a reassuring fact. "Why didn't they just kill you when they caught you? What did your Federation want from you?"

"Blake. And Orac, probably, an advanced computer we had. And the teleport, the Federation had been trying unsuccessfully to build a working model for years."

"Sometimes I think the whole Delta Quadrant is after our transporters," Harry said. He stopped and shone his light at a dark opening.

Avon rested his back against stone, trying to relax. He spoke without conscious intention. "Don't let anyone take prisoners, then."

"You didn't give them anything without a fight," Harry said, operating his tricorder.

"That's irrelevant, Harry." Avon took a step into the nearest opening, shining his light at the wall. As he'd seen at the briefing, the carvings looked like random squiggles.

"If I were you, that would make a lot of difference to me."

"Oh, it did. I always thought it would be nice to know how it felt, to have someone break my fingers. Are you getting any interesting readings?"

"Not yet." Harry began walking along the gallery path. Avon followed, hand unobtrusively on phaser. "Adjusting a tricorder," Harry said, "is an art. Sometimes you end up with a perfect portrait of what you're looking for, and sometimes you get a can of paint dropped from seventy-five stories up."

"I wasn't in these tunnels, remember," Avon said. "You've already confirmed that, from the lack of a blood trail or skin traces."

"But I'm betting the place you came from was a virtually identical set-up." Harry continued to scan.

"I don't know. Look, Harry, I don't think I can help you."

"You're a good sounding board, Avon."

Avon blinked. "Only because I'm speaking from ignorance. This is outside my field."

Harry's communicator badge chirped; Ensign Kelff reported in. Harry then reported in to the Captain before walking into the nearest tunnel. Nagged by unease, Avon followed.

Dim memories sharpened in the narrow space. Unable to straighten fully, he was forced to place his fingers on the wall, for balance. They walked, hunched over, for some time. He could feel the alien markings distinctly. "Harry," he said.

"Did you find something?"

"Perhaps these symbols--perhaps they're a map."

"You could be right," Harry replied. "I'm certainly not getting any of the readings I'd hoped for."

"Dropped paint, then."

"Yeah, I guess so." Harry stopped, forcing Avon to stop as well.

His heart slammed against his ribs. "What?"

"Kelff was supposed to report."

At that moment Harry's communicator chirped. "Kim."

"Harry, it's Kelff. I can't reach the ship, there's some kind of energy buildup."

Avon said, with certainty, "It's happening again." The most likely intruders were his former captors. He touched the gun inside his jacket and drew his phaser.

"Kelff, find us. Turn your light off. Be careful. We're retreating to the gallery."

"Right. Kelff out."

Avon could almost feel Harry's impatience as he hurried towards the tunnel opening. Avon definitely did not want to be trapped in there, armed or not; when the tunnel widened, he passed around Harry, taking the lead.

Harry tried calling Voyager on the run, but received no response. He grabbed Avon's shoulder, pulling him up short. "Let me go first," he said quietly, inching around him.

Avon seized the young man's arm. "Hell, no. They probably sent the mutoids out, just in case the thing didn't work."

"Do you know how to disable a mutoid?" Harry asked.

"They have to be killed. Thoroughly," Avon added. "Are you prepared to do that?"

"If necessary, yes. I'll go first." Harry dropped to the ground and crept out of the tunnel. Avon followed, as closely as he dared. Down in the center of the chamber, dense black against the lights they'd thrown down, was a mutoid, moving towards the ramp.

Harry stopped when there was a good view and crouched. Avon could now see another mutoid, circling the chamber, passing in and out of flickering shadows. Were there only two? He could not see Ensign Kelff. Hopefully she knew how to stay out of sight.

Harry's fingers touched the back of Avon's hand, then pointed to the second mutoid, who had moved up to join the first. In rough synchronization, the two mutoids marched rigidly onto the ramp, up into darkness. Avon's heart thudded sickeningly against his ribs as he braced the phaser on his arm. Distantly, he appreciated its balance and comfortable gripping surface. The mutoid must feel their body heat even at this distance, Jenna had been tracked with uncanny precision--

Harry fired. His target jerked; its arm flailed once; its pararifle flamed. Avon realized that he had fired as well when the second mutoid discorporated in a flare of orange, but then he lost his balance and fell. Why--shot. He still aimed at the remaining mutoid and forced down the firing stud.

It kept coming. It would kill them now. No time to look at the wound at his hip.

"My phaser won't--" Harry hissed. The mutoid slapped him away. Not firing again. It couldn't? Harry grabbed its feet. It kicked out. Harry sprawled, coughing.

Avon rammed the useless phaser upwards. No strength in his injured leg; not high enough. The mutoid's arm slammed down and the ground smacked his shoulder blades, with sickening pain...broken. Something. Collarbone.

"Over here, Ugly!" Harry. The mutoid shoved him reeling a dozen feet away. Idiot. Not him.

It wanted its prisoner. Him. Gun, damn it. Hand into jacket. The mutoid snatched his shoulders, yanked Avon upright. Stabbing pain. White vision. Slow motion. Hand in pocket. Something hit the mutoid and they toppled. If possible, falling hurt worse. His numbing fingers twisted the gun in his pocket, mutoid on top of him, gun stuck, what the hell, he pressed the firing mechanism with the side of his hand.

Wet implosion. Green in eyes. Silence.

"Hah," Avon said, pleased. He'd been right. He had needed the gun. He was trapped under the dead mutoid; he could feel wet shards of its feeding tube digging into his chest. He clenched his jaw as Harry and Kelff--she had attacked the mutoid near the end, he realized--heaved the corpse off him.

Harry was speaking; Avon had to refocus his attention to understand. "...energy burst blocked the weapons...something else came through...."

Kelff said urgently, dragging Avon by the feet, "...residual energy...can't get ship...hide...."

No time to pass out, then. Oh well.

After the three of them had taken cover in one of the tunnels, Kelff ran out again to find Avon's phaser and the mutoid's pararifle. Harry set his communicator to send a constant signal and investigated Avon's wound.

It didn't hurt as much as it might have, it even seemed humorous. Shock, no doubt. Harry took the knife Kelff had given him and slit the waistband of Avon's trousers to get at the injury, which seemed even funnier.

"Not here," Avon snickered.

The light disappeared. "What?" Harry said, abstractedly, and applied pressure. "Does this hurt?"

Avon stopped laughing abruptly. "What the hell do you think, fool?"

"A plasma weapon, looks like. Not too much bleeding. Avon," Harry said sharply. "Pay attention."

"I'm here," Avon snapped irritably.

"Stay awake for me, all right?"

Speaking took too much effort, but he moved his right hand enough to slap Harry's forearm.

"That was pretty weak, Avon. I'm going to flick on my light again." In the dim glow, Avon saw that the side of Harry's face was reddened and already beginnning to swell; he moved cautiously to peel back Avon's eyelids.

"Stop."

"Sorry, can't. Your head smacked into the ground pretty--okay, what did I hurt?"

"I said--"

Kelff appeared then. She shoved the two weapons at Harry and immediately began digging under Avon's jacket, horribly jostling the broken collarbone.

"Left," he gasped, when he realized what she was looking for. Stupidly, he'd forgotten about the gun. She found the pocket and emerged, brandishing the weapon.

"This is Bajoran," she said to Harry. "Controlled bursts from capsule loads, I think it will still operate."

"It worked before," Harry said. "Okay, keep a watch."

Kelff vanished again. Avon took a couple of shallow breaths and said, "Collarbone."

"Broken, huh? Which side?"

"Left."

Harry slapped his communicator again and received no response. "There's not much I can do until we can get you up to sickbay."

"I know that," Avon said, irritated. Actually, if he didn't move too much, his injuries were bearable, nothing like the spiking agony of a boot grinding on broken fingers. "Help me up and give me that pararifle," he said, all in one breath.

Once his vision had cleared, he braced his left arm across his body and picked up the pararifle with his right, pointing it down the tunnel. Next to him, Harry rested his phaser on his updrawn knees, pointing at the ceiling.

"How do you think they figured out about the interdimensional transport?" Harry asked in a low voice.

Avon wrenched his mind into the proper pathways. "Maybe they didn't."

"Probably they just sent the mutoids after you, and they accidentally triggered the same thing you did."

"Time delay." He couldn't figure out why pursuit had been delayed.

"It's a big place."

"Mutoids can follow a blood trail...they feed on blood products...something must have happened."

"And we don't have any prisoners," Harry said, sounding disgruntled. "The highest stun setting should have taken out an elephant."

So that was why the young fool had not obliterated his target. "A mutoid would self-destruct."

"Oh." Harry's fingers brushed his arm. "Sorry, Avon."

Avon stared down the tunnel, straining his eyes in the dark. "There's no reason you should trust what I say."

"You're one paranoid guy."

There was no adequate reply for him to make, so Avon remained silent.

"You still there?"

"Yes." An echo of a sharp sound reached them. Avon caressed the barrel of his weapon. Another sound, then rapid footsteps moving towards them, lighter and surer than a mutoid's gait.

"I picked them off," Kelff said quickly. "In the chest tube things." She set two more pararifles on the gritty tunnel floor.

"Good job, Kelff," Harry said. "Now if we could only get off this planet...."

#

In sickbay, Avon carefully rotated his shoulder under the Doctor's scrutiny, then lifted up. Two hours of broken bone had been quite enough for him, and he was perfectly glad to put his health in the hands of a sophisticated computer program. "Excellent," the hologram said, poking along the regenerated clavicle. "Any pain?"

"Sore," Avon admitted. He was exhausted as well, but strangely peaceful. He felt as if he had passed through what the ancients had called a trial by fire. His alternatives had narrowed to one: he was going to stay here. His eyes were drawn to the opening door; B'Elanna entered, carrying a bundle of clothing. He tracked her progress across the room.

"Can we have him back, now, Doctor?" she asked, peering around his shoulder. She set the clothing on the biobed.

The Doctor ran a scanner over Avon's hip and thigh. "One moment, Lieutenant." He looked at Avon and said, "I prescribe food and lots of rest. You've hardly recovered from your last little adventure."

"Is he free to go?" B'Elanna asked impatiently. "The Captain wants him for the debriefing."

Avon reached for his shirt and shrugged it on. B'Elanna elbowed the Doctor out of the way and began to fasten it up for him, obviously in a hurry.

The Doctor gave an exasperated sigh. "Avon, you are free to go," he said, and stalked off to his office.

With his departure, B'Elanna said glumly, "I'm on duty this evening."

Avon asked, quietly, "What does Janeway want from me?"

B'Elanna returned to fastening up his shirt. "While you and Harry were in here, the opening flared again. Chakotay and Tuvok are going down as soon as the transporter is functional again, to have a look."

Avon slid off the biobed and reached for his trousers. "It's got to be closed off."

"That's what the Captain is debating right now. There aren't any lifesigns this time, but that could change. We can't hang around here picking up straying mutoids, and there's no other way to survive for anyone who accidentally stumbles through."

"I was thinking more of the danger to your Delta Quadrant," Avon confessed, putting on his boots. "We'd better go."

B'Elanna cupped her hand around the back of his neck and pulled him down to her for a brief kiss. "Come and find me in Engineering afterwards."

Avon caught her hands, then let go. "I will."

#

Avon found his way to the briefing room without difficulty, the first time he had walked Voyager's corridors without escort. He garnered only passing glances from the crew, and a smile from Kes as she passed him.

Janeway sat with Chakotay to her right hand, Tuvok to her left, like a Tribunal; she waved Avon to a seat. He took a chair next to the First Officer and said, "You wanted me?"

"Did Lieutenant Torres fill you in on what we're discussing?"

"I think you're right. The transuniversal opening must be closed off."

"Even though that would prevent you from ever returning home?" she asked.

He replied, "That's not an issue. Do you want an invasion fleet pursuing you? For this ship, they would."

"We don't know yet if a ship could pass through," Chakotay said.

"I'd rather not find out. How do you plan to block the opening when you're not sure how it works?" Janeway was looking at him, a steady, evaluating look. Very like Blake. Avon strangled the thought and said to her, "What else do you want from me? I'm giving you my opinion, but I don't have much technical help to offer at this point."

"I thought the idea of being stranded here might worry you, and while you're on my ship, you're my responsibility."

Avon stared at her. The roughness and speed of his own voice surprised him. "Sentimentality is not one of my weaknesses. Even before I was captured, I didn't expect to live out the month. I would prefer to stay with Voyager, where I have a better chance of staying alive."

Tuvok asked, "Do you wish to accompany us when we return to the planet?"

"Why? There's nothing I can contribute." Why should he put himself in the line of fire, when there were perfectly capable security officers all over the ship, assuming Kelff was typical?

"I take it that means no," Chakotay said, smiling. "It's about time for us to leave, Captain."

"You're dismissed. Avon, stay here for a moment."

The two Starfleet officers departed. Avon stayed, feeling belligerent. He'd made his decision and he wanted to go to sleep, not bare his soul to Janeway. "Do you grill your crew on personal matters?"

"When I need to, yes. I'd like to thank you for all your help."

Avon stood up. "You saved my life," he said, with ill grace. He didn't like owing that debt, but he would not renege, either.

"Our pleasure. What will you do if Chakotay and Tuvok bring back a prisoner?"

He had deliberately not been thinking about that. What if one of his interrogators had been sent after him? Or one of the human troopers? He would not hesitate to kill any of them, but he felt sure Janeway would see that as murder, and he needed her good opinion. How much did revenge against impersonal thugs matter to him?

"I don't know," Avon said. "Will that be all?"

#

Avon did not remember his dreams when he awoke, but he felt they had been strangely serene. Sometime during the night he had decided to leave whatever prisoner might be brought to Voyager in Janeway's hands. If he ever changed his mind, there were always convenient accidents...but, frankly, he didn't really care. A Federation lackey wasn't worth killing, and the killing would accomplish nothing. He was not Blake, he would not be driven by pain towards his own destruction. He was far, far, from the Federation now. He would have a new life.

Avon had a feeling there weren't going to be any prisoners, anyway. The Federation would know when to cut its losses.

B'Elanna opened her eyes when he shifted over and touched her face, then closed them again, not having really awakened, but knowing he was not an enemy. He cupped his hand against her cheek, taking the opportunity to study her features in detail. He brushed his mouth along her eyebrow.

"B'Elanna," he said softly. She didn't stir, even when he pulled her into his arms, her solid weight anchoring him to this new place. The strength of muscles hidden under the softness of her skin, and the unpredictable force of her temper, excited him, made him curious to see how she used those assets to attack the technical problems she saw every day. And philosophy aside, she aroused him with her unrestrained passion, drew him out of himself and away, caused him to remember pleasures he had long tried to forget.

B'Elanna would help to ease the feeling of being forever cast adrift, a feeling he was careful not to acknowledge too closely. And he would have work here, all the research he cared for, the holodeck, the warp drive...the unnameable ache would soon fade. And he was free.

Free. He would wake B'Elanna up, slowly and with great attention to details, and then he would go to see what the day held for him.

#

Avon took a bite of the luscious purple fruit Neelix had pressed on him when he'd come to breakfast, alone. He'd left B'Elanna sprawled across his bunk, half-asleep, grinning like a dinosaur. He forced down a matching smile and took another bite. The fruit was delicious, not in the least like plums. She was probably on shift by now. He would go down to Engineering soon.

A hand gripped his shoulder, but before he could react, it squeezed once and let go. "Congratulations," Tom Paris said, dropping into the seat on Avon's right.

"What for? Surviving Harry's landing party?" Avon asked, as Harry took a seat across from him.

"You have won the pool, my friend," Paris said, with a lazy grin. "For me, that is." He poured a handful of disks onto the table.

"Replicator credits," Harry said. "And Tom's going to share, aren't you, Tom?"

Avon had no idea what the two men were talking about. He picked up his tea.

"Fifty-fifty," Paris said.

Avon swallowed. "Seventy-thirty." He picked up another purple fruit.

Harry laughed. "He did do all the work, Tom. Look at him, he's glowing."

Suspicion dawned, and with it mortification, but Avon said nothing.

Paris sighed theatrically and began to make two piles. "I can keep the satisfaction of having outguessed Chakotay, can't I? And he's known B'Elanna longer than I have."

Hypothesis confirmed. He wondered if B'Elanna knew about the pool, and considered with interest what she would do to the participants, when he helped her to find out. Avon set down his fruit, carefully. He picked up his tea mug again. "Any other pools I should know about?"

"I'm sorry to interrupt," said the captain, from behind him. "B'Elanna has some new information on the transuniversal opening."

#

Avon crossed his arms and leaned back against a work table. Janeway stood attentively, a short distance away, watching him in a way that made him uncomfortable. "I understand."

"Do you want to go back?" B'Elanna asked him, eyes on his face. "There will only be one chance, just as the opening implodes."

She obviously didn't appreciate the force of her own charms, Avon thought with faint, inappropriate amusement. "No. I said I was staying. I'm staying."

Janeway said, "I could ask for volunteers. Someone could go with you--"

"That's insane," Avon said, pacing over to confront her. "You're not sending anyone, with or without me. The Federation might have left that planet by now, and your volunteers would be trapped there. Perhaps I wasn't clear on how unpleasant the Terran Federation happens to be, and how little there is anyone can do about it." A horrid thought struck him. Avon raised a hand to prevent Janeway from interrupting. "If they did manage to locate a ship, the chance of finding Blake--if he's still alive--is infinitessimal. You can't be thinking that you should involve yourselves in that. You don't even know--" He felt his voice growing in volume and stopped, turning away from the captain.

B'Elanna went to a console and began to bring up readings. Avon went to peer over her shoulder. Janeway said, "On this ship we've all been cut off from our homes, our families. You can understand why I find your choice hard to believe."

"My family is dead." His brother had died, and later Anna had died, trying to achieve the freedom that Avon had received by sheerest chance. "As for 'home,' I've always thought it to be an antiquated concept."

B'Elanna said, "I had hoped we could get a message through to your people, but I can't see a way of doing it."

Something twisted in Avon's stomach, but he ruthlessly suppressed it. "I'll help you, B'Elanna. With the closure."

She glanced up, a hint of worry in her eyes. "You're sure."

He took a step back from her. "Yes, I'm sure. Are we finished with this discussion, Janeway?"

She stood with her hands on her hips, looking at him with an expression he couldn't quite define. Finally she nodded, one swift bob of her head. "All right. Notify me when you're ready to proceed."

#

In the off-watches, there were fewer people on duty, and thus they were easier to avoid. B'Elanna obviously understood that this was Avon's reason for taking the shift opposite hers in Engineering, as they prepared for closure of the transuniversal rift, but to his great relief she did not bring it up in conversation. He suspected, however, that she had warned her staff to leave him alone for the time being; he'd only had to snarl once, at Neelix, who had no business in Engineering, anyway.

Avon had never claimed to be a physicist, but he learned enough that week to carry on an intelligible conversation with the Vulcan who was performing the onsite preparations. Determined to avoid even the appearance of sentimentality, Avon himself did not go down to the planet again. With Voyager's elaborate sensor net and simulations equipment, he didn't need to; in fact, he would get a better view of the proceedings than he would have had in the caves.

One evening, he woke and noticed that his right hand no longer ached. He swung his pajama-clad legs over the side of the bunk and rubbed at the palm with his opposite thumb. Still there was no pain, even the faint pain to which he'd become accustomed. Cautiously, he stretched his fingers, then opened and closed the hand. Nothing. That was good. His last physical reminder of the past was gone. He got up and went into the head.

B'Elanna's hairbrush was lying next to the sink. Avon had hardly glimpsed her for the last three days, though they shared the bed for at least two hours when the shifts overlapped. He would not mind being able to see her again, once this was all over, and Voyager continued its interrupted journey.

The door opened, but it was only B'Elanna. He finished washing his hands and brushed at a few drops of water that had spattered the green silk he wore, the spoils of the replicator credits he'd gotten from Paris.

"You don't have to go in tonight," she said. "We're going to close the opening tomorrow morning."

"Good," Avon said, dropping into a chair and crossing his arms. "I'd like to see it happen. From the ship, of course."

"Anybody would want to see it," B'Elanna said. She picked up a small sculpture from a table, then put it down again. "Avon, I'd like us to work on the same shift, after the opening is closed. Is that all right?"

"I'd like nothing better."

"I just wanted to make sure," she said, stepping closer. "I usually can't tell what you're thinking."

Someone had said that to him before. Blake? No, it had been Anna, in one of her puckish moods, trying to torment him, unintentionally slicing him open like a knife. He didn't think B'Elanna would ever tease him like that. "Ask me then," Avon said, frowning.

"Do you want to go on with us being together? Or do you want a little time to yourself?"

"Straightforward as ever. I'd rather not be alone with my thoughts, if that's what you're asking," he said, unable to prevent a quick, crooked grin from crossing his face.

"That's what I was asking," B'Elanna said. She sat on the arm of his chair, and he abruptly felt her body heat like an aggressive touch. "Since I haven't seen you much this week, I haven't had a chance to tell you that you look ravishing in green silk."

"Flattery will get you everywhere," he responded, both surprised and amused. "Since we're being so direct this evening, may I ask if you are trying to seduce me, Torres?"

"You can ask." She ruffled her fingers through his hair, something she appeared to like and he was pleased to allow.

Avon looked up at her. "Are you trying to seduce me?" He placed one hand on her thigh, as if steadying her on the arm of the chair.

"Oh, yes. It's been a long week. And finding you here, every time I come off shift, in green pajamas, hair all mussed, all warm and sleepy--"

"Tell me more," he said.

#

The bridge was not the best place to watch the closure of the transuniversal opening, Avon thought, wishing for his snug cubicle in Engineering. The viewscreen was larger, but the readouts at the Engineering station here were less elaborate. And, he admitted to himself, the atmosphere of Voyager's bridge reminded him too much of Liberator's flight deck for comfort, even though the focal point was Janeway's chair rather than Jenna's station, and the low upper bulkhead and sleek design bore no resemblance to Liberator's alien use of space.

Until now, Avon hadn't realized how accustomed he'd grown to spaciousness and golden-orange light, hexagons and odd curves. He liked the glossy efficiency of his new ship, though. He liked the intelligence of its crew. He was more suited for this type of environment than for the life of a rebel. He'd enjoyed the challenge of life with Blake, but here, no-one had asked him for more than he was willing to give.

He leaned back in his seat and glanced around the bridge. Tuvok was focused on the weaponry; a modified torpedo would carry a resonator device that would create backlash to implode the transuniversal opening. Harry's station was across an aisle from Tuvok. Near the viewscreen, Paris rested his hands on the flight console, his detached yet artistic air reminding Avon of Jenna. Chakotay sat next to Janeway, chin on fist, watching him, Avon realized. He met the stare for a moment, not sure what the First Officer was trying to tell him. Chakotay nodded, and turned to murmur something to Janeway. Avon glanced away, spotting Ensign Kelff intently monitoring a station behind Harry.

"Are you ready, B'Elanna?" Janeway asked.

B'Elanna had been sitting silently next to Avon, reading over her calculations once more. She glanced at him before saying, "All set."

"Mr. Tuvok, fire when ready."

"Aye, Captain."

The planet on the screen glowed blue-white in the light of its cooling sun. The view tightened as Harry's scanners followed the torpedo through the halo of atmosphere and into clouds. Abruptly, mountain peaks sliced into view. The torpedo spiralled sickeningly, angling for entry to the system of caves. The light vanished as the scanners readjusted, tunnels flying by so quickly Avon felt a little ill; then there was a flash of some color he couldn't describe, then the image blinked out.

"How anticlimactic," Avon said.

"Continue monitoring, Harry," Janeway said. "Welcome aboard permanently, Mr. Avon."

He nodded briefly in acknowledgement.

"That's it, then," Chakotay said. "Shall I keep the research going, Captain?"

No, Avon thought.

"Yes," Janeway said. "We still might be able to get a faster way home out of this. Harry, it's your project."

"Aye, Captain."

"Would you like to give him a hand, Avon?" she asked.

"No," Avon said, meeting her eyes steadily. "It's not my field."

"He means we need to get back to Engineering," B'Elanna said.

"Then I guess you'd better go ahead," Janeway said, smiling. "Tom, take us out of orbit."

 


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Alicia Ann Fox

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