Disclaimer:  Still Paramount’s

Rating:  PG-13

Notes and Acknowledgments:  This story could be considered as a reflection of sorts on my recent journey through Central America and the people we met there, in particular, one young girl on whom Tala is based.   Although I know she will never read it, this story is dedicated to Ana.  Just as I have touched her life, so she has touched mine.
My thanks, as always, to Shayenne, who has an unerring talent for finding all the holes in the plot and pointing them out to me in the kindest possible way.
 

HOSTAGE


By Mary S.
 
 
 

           Darkness surrounded them as Captain Janeway and Commander Chakotay began to walk back to their shuttle after a final gathering with local officials.  Although tired from long trade negotiations with the Iltarrans, they were both pleased with the outcome.  Voyager would be well-stocked when they finished re-supplying at the end of the week, a welcome change after all they had been through lately.

           For over a week, the ship had been traversing an area of space that played havoc with a number of systems, in particular transporters, replicators and holodecks.   The engineering teams, led by their harried chief, had been trying for days to find a solution, but each time they thought they had solved the problem, a new one cropped up.   Eventually, in a very rare admission of defeat, B’Elanna had come to her captain thirty-six hours earlier and declared that the only suggestion she could make at this point was to get the hell out of this sector as soon as possible!

           The captain was only too willing to give the order until Chakotay had reported that, with supplies as low as they were, they would be better served to open negotiations with Iltar, a nearby planet whose officials had already contacted them.   She was reluctant, feeling very vulnerable with no transporters or EMH, but really there was no choice.  Transporters wouldn’t keep them from starving if the food ran out and the replicators, already precarious, were to go down completely.

           She had nodded to Chakotay.  “Very well.  Contact them.  Let’s hope our luck has changed for once.”

           Apparently it had. The Iltarrans had proved to be an intelligent, gracious people, very like themselves physiologically, although for the most part dark-complexioned.   They had been quite intrigued initially with Kathryn’s pale skin, blue eyes and auburn hair.   She had found them pleasant to deal with and had been perfectly willing, despite Tuvok’s reservations, to take Chakotay with her to the official banquet celebrating their new friendship

           Kathryn glanced around now as they walked in comfortable silence.  It was such an attractive place, as were its people.

           The evening was warm, with a light breeze wafting a delightful  scent, apparently from the flowering trees lining their path.  Unconsciously, her step slowed as she sniffed the air, then turned to her companion.

           “Smell that?” she asked.  “What is it?”

           Chakotay paused, head tilted.  “I don’t know.”

           “Whatever it is, it smells heavenly.”

           They continued to stroll along, enjoying both the walk and each other’s company.  Their senses lulled by the peaceful setting, neither was paying much attention to their surroundings.

           Suddenly, a group of nearly a dozen men leaped out from behind the trees, instantly surrounding the captain and commander and seizing their arms.  Within seconds, their hands were bound behind their backs, gags were tied over their mouths and their commbadges torn off and tossed aside.  Quickly, the men hustled their captives between the trees, through a scraggly row of bushes, then heaved them both into the back of a cart.  Scratchy blankets were thrown over them, hiding them completely as the cart began to jolt along a rough road.

           Behind, a disembodied voice could be heard echoing faintly through the trees.  “Voyager to Janeway…”
 

                             ********************************
 
 

           The sun was just peeking over jagged hills when the cart finally slowed to a halt.  As the blankets were yanked aside, Kathryn and Chakotay lay blinking in the dawn, blinded by the sudden light after so many hours of total darkness.  Hands reached in to pull them out of the cart, supporting them as they wobbled uncertainly, their muscles stiff and cramped.

           Both glanced around, trying to determine where they were and what was happening.  They stood in the midst of a group of dark, rough-skinned humanoids, most of whom were thin to the point of gauntness, all dressed in drab, coarse clothing.   Some, they could see, were clearly in need of medical attention.  However, despite their miserable condition and pinched faces, their eyes were filled with determination and resolve.

             Kathryn’s heart sank – she had a nasty feeling about this.

           The crowd parted to allow an elderly man to approach.  Leaning heavily on a gnarled stick, he slowly hobbled forward before coming to a stop in front of them.   Silently he examined his captives as they gazed back at him.   His hand flew up in a quick gesture toward their faces.  At once, the gags were removed by unseen fingers.

           Kathryn shook her head, trying to find her voice.  “Thank you,” she was finally able to whisper hoarsely.

           The man stared at her, then extended one wizened hand to barely graze her hair.  She jerked back reflexively.  At once, her shoulders were seized from behind, forcing her to remain still.   Beside her, Chakotay moved to stand closer to her.

           “Leave her alone!” he snapped, his voice filled with worry.

           One of the men abruptly pushed him aside, causing him to stumble and nearly fall.  The mood of the crowd, until then merely curious, suddenly became threatening.  They surged forward, shoving the prisoners back and forth between them as they muttered ominously.  The captain kept her gaze on the old man, silently willing him to restrain his people.

           Whether he understood her she didn’t know, but again his hand swept up and all motion ceased.    Silence momentarily reigned once more until the man spoke in an authoritative voice.

           At once, the captives were led forward into a large cave where they found a number of women and a lot of children.   That was when the smell hit them, a large number of unwashed bodies combined with the unmistakable odor of latrines.    Although Chakotay managed to maintain his composure, Kathryn nearly gagged, only controlling her roiling stomach through sheer willpower.

            Invisible fingers loosened their bonds, allowing them to free their hands.  Slowly Kathryn rubbed her fingers, trying to restore the circulation.  Beside her, Chakotay did the same.

           The old man sat down, indicating they should follow suit.  As they sank to the floor, a young girl stepped forward shyly, proffering a jug of water.  Gratefully, they drank, swallowing with relief as the cool water eased their parched throats.

           Kathryn nodded her head in thanks before speaking.  “Will you tell us why you have brought us here?”

           The man gazed almost pensively at her, then began to talk, drawing simple pictures in the dirt and using his hands to explain his words.  Chakotay leaned forward intently.  After a minute, he replied, speaking slowly and gesturing with his arms.

           Although communication was slow and laborious, eventually Kathryn and Chakotay learned a ghastly truth:  Iltarran society was based on slavery.

           They stared at each other in confusion and horror, hardly able to believe what the old man was saying.

           Kathryn was the first to speak.  “It can’t be true!  There was no indication at all!  Chakotay!  Are you sure that’s what he said?”

           The commander turned to the man and very carefully drew two stick figures, one crouched on the ground in front of the other.   The other nodded and added a whip to the hand of the one standing.   There could be no doubt.

           Chakotay sighed and looked at his captain.  “It’s true, Kathryn.”

           “Then…these people are…”

           “…probably escaped slaves.”

           “But what do they want with us?”

           He turned back to the man, pointed at himself and Kathryn, and looked a question.  The man waved his hands, signifying they were prisoners, then drew more figures in the dirt, indicating himself talking to a soldier.

           Chakotay nodded slowly.  “It seems pretty obvious.  They’re holding us hostage, probably to try and force the authorities to give in to their demands.”

           Kathryn stared at him.  “What demands?”

           “I would expect most likely personal liberty, an end to slavery, the sort of demands people have always made when they’re not free to live as they wish.   I imagine we’re a heaven-sent opportunity to force the government to acknowledge them and make concessions.”

           Kathryn looked at Chakotay with dismay – her worst fears were confirmed.
 

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           The hours passed slowly.   Food of a sort – flattened pieces of bread accompanying a watery stew – was given to them, served by the same young girl.   Apparently, she had been assigned to look after their basic needs as Kathryn noticed she was always in sight and keeping a watchful eye on them.   As an experiment and also because her bladder was threatening to burst, Kathryn beckoned her over, hoping she could communicate enough to indicate her need.

           At first, the girl seemed utterly mystified by her efforts.  Beside her, Chakotay was trying very hard not to smile; exasperated, Kathryn elbowed him.

           “I don’t know why you think it’s so funny.  After all, you have to pee, too.”

           “True, but I don’t have quite – uh, the limitations that you do.”

           She scowled at him.  “Rub it in, why don’t you?”

           Grinning openly, he turned to the girl, and with a few quick gestures, indicated what they wanted.    Apparently, he got through as she suddenly brightened, then seized Kathryn’s hand and pulled her up.    Picking up a firebrand, she lit it, then led the captain further into the cavern.  The smell worsened as they passed several openings to smaller caves.  The girl entered one and stepped to one side, raising the torch, before waving Kathryn inside.

           If the smell had been bad before, here it practically knocked her over.  Kathryn tried to hold her breath as best she could, but she couldn’t avoid inhaling the dreadful odors.   The girl stood patiently, clearly waiting for the captain to get down to business.   Kathryn sighed – obviously, privacy was not a big concern here – and dropped her pants.

           On their return to the cave, the girl reached for Chakotay’s hand, apparently assuming that he would also wish to pay a similar visit.  The captain grinned wickedly.   Serve him right if the girl didn’t give him any privacy either.   “Hold your breath,” was her only piece of advice as they disappeared into the gloom.

           When they returned, Chakotay’s face was flushed, and he seemed to be having a hard time looking at her.    Despite herself, Kathryn burst out laughing. “What’s the matter, Commander?   Suddenly found some ‘limitations’, did you?”

           He tried to gather what shreds of dignity he had left.   “It’s not funny, Kathryn,” he replied, aggrieved.

           She remained unsympathetic.  “Look on it as a new cultural experience.”

           He stared at her in disbelief.   “Cultural experience?!”  His mouth twitched and she knew his sense of humour had overcome his distaste.   “I suppose.   But don’t you dare tell any of the crew, especially B’Elanna, or I’ll never live it down!”

           He turned away, muttering to himself about insensitive captains.   She watched him fondly, knowing he was trying to lift her spirits.     She sighed, and turned back to find the girl watching them both very carefully, with a concerned expression on her face.   On impulse, Kathryn smiled at her and reached out a hand to pat her arm.   She had only been doing what she was told, after all.   The girl visibly relaxed, tentatively returning Kathryn’s smile.   Time to make friends, decided the captain, and called to Chakotay.

           “How much do you understand of their language?” she asked abruptly.

           “Nothing really of the actual words.  But body language is pretty much the same wherever you go – as you’ve already seen.   Are you suggesting we try to learn?  Maybe teach them ours?”

           “Might as well, we have nothing else to do anyway.   And once we can communicate, even a little bit, maybe we can persuade them to let us go.”

           “Can’t hurt to try, I guess.”

           Kathryn waved her hand at the girl, indicating she should come closer.  At once, the child complied, sitting down close to them.   The captain was touched by her instant trust.   These were decent people underneath; they were only doing what they had to, in a desperate attempt to better their condition.   She pointed to herself and spoke slowly,  “Kathryn,”
then looked at Chakotay.  He in turn gestured at himself, repeating his name.   Together they looked at the girl hopefully.  She stared back, uncomprehending, then suddenly her face broke into a huge smile.   She waved her hand at herself.  “Tala.”

           Just to be sure, they repeated the exercise, each pronouncing the other’s name.    From there, it was easy.   Kathryn or Chakotay would point to something, Tala would tell them the word in Iltarran, and they would repeat it in Standard.    By the end of an hour, they had each acquired a basic vocabulary of some twenty words.   By the end of the day, they were able to conduct a very simple conversation.

           It didn’t surprise Kathryn at all that Chakotay was much more adept at picking up Iltarran than she.    While she could easily wrap her brain around the most complex scientific theory, languages had always proved more difficult for her.   He, on the other hand, had little trouble learning and retaining strange words and sounds, almost intuitively understanding their meaning.    They complemented each other so well, she thought as she watched him.   He was speaking now with one of the men, apparently trying out his latest lesson.   Judging from the smiles, there were more than a few missteps, but she sensed also a measure of respect from their captors.   At least, they weren’t unkind people, only very determined.   Given the circumstances, she could hardly blame them.
 

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           Night fell, and after one more trip to the makeshift latrine, they were taken to a niche at the side of the cave and shown a rough bed made up of a few ragged blankets.   The girl curled up nearby, obviously ready to assist them if either roused during the night.   Kathryn and Chakotay were both quite exhausted by the long day, and although they tried to keep watch in turn, before long, both were sound asleep, each rolled up in a blanket.

           It was hours later when Kathryn awoke suddenly, completely disoriented.   She was cold, her body ached from lying on the hard ground and she couldn’t think where on earth she was.   She groaned as she remembered all that had happened.   Although they were trying to make the best of it, she and Chakotay were in a bad position.   She remembered with chagrin Tuvok’s admonitions about both of them being off the ship at the same time; she knew she would be in for a severe lecture when they returned to Voyager.   If they returned to Voyager.   No, she mustn’t think like that.  Keep a positive outlook was what she had been always taught in this kind of situation.

           Nearby, Chakotay stirred and rolled over.   She turned her head to look at him, but in the dim light, could make out only the barest shape.   She reached out a hand, needing to touch him and felt his fingers grasping for hers.   Wordlessly, he gripped her hand tightly, giving her reassurance.   He was there, beside her, just like always.  She sighed with relief, then shivered as the cold seeped through her.

           Chakotay felt her tremble, and sat up.   He tugged on her hand, his meaning clear.   For an instant, she debated whether to accept his invitation, but she was really becoming quite chilled.   With a sigh, she threw protocol out the window – this was a survival situation, after all – and crawled over to lie next to him.   His arm slid around her shoulders as he settled her against his warm body.   She sighed again and let herself relax, her head coming to rest on his shoulder.   God, he felt good!   Tomorrow she would have to re-assume her captainly demeanor, but tonight, for a little while, she would indulge herself.    Her eyes closed on that thought and within minutes, she was sound asleep once more.

           Slowly, Chakotay let his hand stroke her hair and back, his heart at peace.   He would treasure this time with her, just as he did all their stolen moments.    Soon he slept, too.

           Tala lay very still, watching her charges.   There were undercurrents here, she could tell, although just what they were, she couldn’t discern as yet.   However, she was almost certain that the strangers were a bonded pair.   She wondered if she should tell the leader, then decided not to, not just yet anyway.
 

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           On Voyager, the scene was quite different.    A full shift was on the bridge, working frantically to try and discover what had happened to their captain and first officer.

           When, over thirty hours earlier, no answer had been received to the ship’s hail, the duty officer, Mr. Rollins, had immediately alerted Commander Tuvok.   He, in turn, contacted the planetary authorities, requesting that a ground search be conducted at once.   However, for reasons which were as yet unknown, the search had not commenced until first light.    The entire crew had chafed at the delay, but without official permission to join the hunt, permission that had yet to be granted, they were restricted to using ship’s sensors in what had so far been fruitless efforts to locate the command team.    Iltarran physiology was too similar to human to allow them to discern any difference, particularly with the added problem of atmospheric interference.   Despite repeated recalibrations, the sensors tended to cloud at the most inopportune moments.   At one point, B’Elanna had even resorted to hitting the control panel while she rained down Klingon imprecations on it, but to no avail.   Now Harry was trying once more to adjust the sensors a micrometer at a time, ‘fine-tuning’ Tom called it.   So far, all he had managed to do was raise the level of frustration on the bridge.

           Tuvok had retreated to the ready room in an effort to communicate privately with the minister of trade, who had seemed more amenable to his request to allow a landing party than anyone else in the government.  However, he too was not having much success and was beginning to suspect that the minister was employing what Mr. Paris succinctly described as ‘stalling tactics’.

           He rolled his eyes at yet another obstacle put forth by the minister, in the nicest possible way of course.   Even Vulcan patience had its limits, and had but the minister known, he was very close to testing those limits.   The commander straightened his already rigid spine, repeated several calming mantras to himself, and launched into his next logical argument.

           The minister smiled very kindly and ignored the logic completely as he explained that unfortunately, the landing party couldn’t be sent just yet.

           Tuvok gritted his teeth silently and began again…
 

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           In the last hour before dawn, when the body’s rhythms are at their lowest point, a series of loud explosions jerked everyone in the cave upright in their beds.   Several of the men leaped up and dashed outside while others gathered together in the center of the cave.

           The sound of more explosions, closer now, accompanied the men as they ran back in, shouting instructions.   Very quickly, it became obvious that they were going to have to make a run for it.

           Tala gripped the hands of Janeway and Chakotay, and led them towards the cave mouth.  Behind them they could hear children wailing and women crying out in fear, sounds which were drowned out periodically by more loud blasts.   The entire group seemed to be in chaos, people running here and there at random, with no one in charge to organize an evacuation.

           Kathryn stopped, digging in her heels to halt Tala’s flight.   She looked quickly around, then shouted to Chakotay that she was going back to make sure everyone got out and he should collect as many as possible to come and help.    He nodded, shoved Tala at Kathryn, then headed outside, grabbing anybody he could find, yelling at the people not to panic.

           Gradually, one by one, he was able to gather a small group and lead them back into the cave where Kathryn was sorting out children by age, encouraging the older ones to help the younger, and trying to make sure that each group had at least one adult with them.   It was slow going at first, as no one could understand what she was trying to do.   She cursed her lack of fluency in the language, then remembered what Chakotay had said about body language.

           Looking around, she grabbed the woman nearest her with one hand, and two terrified little girls with the other, thrusting them at each other.   Then she found a boy behind her, added him to the group and pushed them all towards the mouth of the cave, waving her hands to indicate they should stick together.   Tala seemed to grasp what she was attempting and yelled a few brief instructions.  The woman stared at her as if she were crazy, but after a moment, took the children and led them away.

           Kathryn breathed a sigh of relief and turned around to gather up another group.

           By the time she had accumulated a third batch of children, the remaining adults were catching on and had begun to make up their own groups.

           Chakotay returned with four of the men just as she collected the last few.   She pointed to the meager supplies, gesturing to indicate they should try to carry as much as possible.   The noise was now so loud and continuous that no one could hear anything.   Showers of dirt were falling from the ceiling and Chakotay knew they had, at most, only minutes to spare before the whole cavern collapsed.

           He snatched up what he could in one arm and grabbed hold of his captain with the other, almost dragging her out of the cave.   Behind them streamed Tala and the rest of the children, trailed by the remaining adults.

           Outside looked like a scene from hell.   In the flashes from the explosions, they could see that great holes had been gouged in the landscape, which was dotted here and there with dark shapeless forms – bodies, they suspected.   The noise was indescribable, assaulting their ears to the point where they had trouble remaining on their feet.

           Quickly, Chakotay assumed the lead, his innate sense of direction steering them along an unseen path, which led them away from the cave down a narrow gorge.   In the darkness, unable to see, they blindly followed him, each clutching the clothing of the person ahead, praying they would escape undetected.   How he knew where he was going, Kathryn had no idea.   But with each passing minute, the sounds grew fainter until finally, they were able to whisper to each other and make themselves heard.  At that point, Kathryn stopped, anxious to do a head count and find out just how many people were with them.   Chakotay made his way back to her just as she finished.

           “How many do we have?” he murmured in her ear.

           “Twenty-five including us,” she replied grimly.

           “That’s all?!?”  He was horrified.   There had been at least three times that many in the cave, he was sure.

           “Maybe some of the others escaped in a different direction.”  She glanced around.  “In any event, we’re not out of the woods yet.  I think we should keep moving.  Agreed?”

           He nodded and resumed the lead.   As one, the group fell into single file and silently followed him.   Kathryn and Tala brought up the rear, checking for stragglers.
 

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           The sky was lightening by the time Chakotay called a halt.  He had spotted a large overhang and steered his little band into it, in an attempt to keep them hidden from their attackers.   They huddled together, trying to remain as silent as possible.   Kathryn told herself she shouldn’t be surprised  to discover that the children seemed to understand very well that they must at all costs remain quiet.   Obviously they had done this before.

           Eventually, Chakotay crept over to her and whispered in her ear that he was going to take a couple of the men to scout around.   Under no circumstances short of a direct assault were they to move until he returned.  She stared at him, her eyebrow raised, but his face remained quite serious.

           “I mean it, Kathryn.  Don’t try to pull rank on me.  I know, much better than you, exactly what we’re involved in here.”

           She nodded her head in agreement, recognizing the truth of his words.  Sometimes she forgot just what all those years Chakotay had spent in the Maquis signified.   He gave her a quick smile, then slipped into the open.

           It seemed like forever before he and the others returned, although in fact, it was probably no more than half an hour.   He came in as silently as he’d left, suddenly appearing at her elbow as she tried to reassure one of the women.    She moved with him to one side of their shelter.

           “What did you find?  Did you see who’s chasing us?  Are there any of the others out there?”

           Chakotay held up his hands.  “Whoa there.  One question at a time.   We didn’t see anyone else, either friend or foe.   What we did find was a small wooded area further down the stream, with several caves behind it.  I think it would serve us fairly well, for the time being anyway.   I would suggest we move at once.  This isn’t much of a hideout and the longer we stay here, the more likely we are to be found.”

           She nodded decisively.  “Agreed.   Let’s get going.”

           Chakotay made his suggestion to the men who had already come to the same conclusion.   In minutes, the little band was on its feet and heading down the path, with Kathryn and Chakotay bringing up the rear.   It was a measure of the trust their captors now placed in them that only Tala stayed near them.  In fact, it didn’t occur to either of them that if they wanted to, they could easily slip away.   Somehow, in the hours since the first explosions, their captors had become their friends.  They wouldn’t abandon them now.

           As they walked, Chakotay picked up several large branches and began to sweep the dirt path, attempting to obliterate their footprints.   His efforts wouldn’t bear close inspection, he told Kathryn, but hopefully would be good enough to avoid attracting attention.

           An hour later, they were gathered together in the largest of the caves.  Kathryn wasted little time in organizing different teams to find and gather food and water, set up areas for sleeping and eating, and sort out which children belonged to which adults.   She had already realized that there was a large number of orphans, and in the confusion of their flight, even more youngsters had been separated from their parents.   For the sake of expediency, she suggested to the adults that they simply adopt whatever children they were already looking after.  It seemed the easiest way.

           She herself had two boys, aged about eight and ten, one girl about five and, of course, Tala.   The latter was proving invaluable as an assistant.  Quick and intuitive, she seemed to know what Kathryn wanted before she knew herself.    Already a bond had formed between them, as Kathryn found herself turning to the girl repeatedly for help in one area or another.   She was so eager to please, her eyes lighting up at the opportunity to make herself useful.   Kathryn found time to wonder what had happened to her family – was she an orphan, too?   It certainly seemed to be the case.   However, before she had a chance to ask, another problem arose and chased the thought from her head.   It was only that evening, with everyone settled in for the night, that she finally remembered.

           Chakotay was sitting near her, the children as well as several adults gathered around him, as he told a story.   Tala sat next to him, translating as needed.   Watching them, Kathryn became aware of one of the women settling beside her, a soft smile on her face.  She glanced around, her eyebrow raised, then on impulse, decided to try out her Iltarran.

           Slowly, she phrased her question.   What had happened to Tala’s parents?

           Despite her limited vocabulary, the woman understood her meaning.  Her eyes clouded, as she attempted to explain that the child had come to them an orphan, no one knew from where.   She had simply appeared one day, starving and wretched, like so many.   And like every other former slave, she had been accepted into the group without question.   Kathryn nodded her head, then sighed.

           The woman patted her arm, then indicated that she and Chakotay were now her parents.   Kathryn was a little startled at this, but on reflection, thought that maybe she wasn’t too far off the mark.   She didn’t know what would happen to any of them.  And it was probably a rash thing to do.  But this child needed to be loved, anyone could see that.   She crawled over to sit next to her and put her arm around the girl’s shoulders.   Tala looked up, sudden delight transforming her face, then sighed happily and snuggled into Kathyn, wrapping her arms tightly around her.   Over her head, she caught Chakotay’s worried gaze.

           He finished his tale and announced it was bedtime.   In the flurry of everyone finding their beds, he managed to ask in a low voice if Kathryn realized just what she was doing.

           She tossed her head and replied yes, she did.   And wasn’t it he who had told her once that he couldn’t sacrifice the present for a future that might not happen?   Well, she was following his advice.   If all went well, she planned to take Tala with her when they returned to the ship.

           Chakotay stared at her, stunned momentarily into silence.   Finally, he found his voice.  “You’re going to do what?!”

           “I said,” Kathryn began in low, intense tones, “that I want to take her with us.   What’s the matter with that?”

           “Kathryn!  No!  You can’t just arbitrarily remove her from her home!  The Prime Directive is very explicit on that point!  You know that!”

           “Home?!  You call this a home?!  For heaven’s sake, Chakotay, she’s an orphan!  Her family is gone, destroyed!  I want to give her a new family, us!”  She waved her hands agitatedly.  “Even that woman over there is telling me that we’re her parents now!  I can’t leave her here!  I can’t!”   Her voice fell to a whisper.  “She needs so badly to be loved and cared for.  I, we, can do that.  Don’t you see…?!”

           Chakotay’s brow furrowed but he said no more, knowing only too well how stubborn his captain could be.   He sighed, then lay down on the floor, reaching for Kathryn.   She was checking her charges, making sure everyone was tucked in tightly under one of the few blankets.   Tala lay in the middle, the little girl curled up against her on one side and the two boys on the other.   Kathryn stretched across them to pat her head, then settled herself beside Chakotay.   His arm came around her as he pillowed her head on his shoulder.

           Despite the uncomfortable conditions, both fell asleep quickly.
 

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           The following day found the group settling in nicely to their new home.   The men spent much of the morning both checking for any possible pursuit and searching for additional sources of food.    The women dug several fire pits and set up a secure food cache.   At midday, everyone gathered to report their latest findings.

           So far, there was no sign of their attackers or of anyone else.   A good-sized patch of wild yam-like root vegetables had been discovered, as well as quite a few small mammals which could be trapped.   And the stream held a species of fish rather resembling trout.    They wouldn’t starve in the immediate future.

           Chakotay announced that he wanted to explore farther into the gorge that afternoon, to see where it led and what other resources it might hold.   Kathryn remarked that she would like to go too, since everything here seemed to be under control.    Tala looked up at that, a hopeful expression on her face.   Kathryn smiled at her, then explained that they couldn’t both leave the younger children.

           “How about if I go today, and you tomorrow?  Would you like that?”

           The girl nodded.  “Oh yes, Kat’rin.”

           “Good.”  She scrambled to her feet.  Tala followed them outside, then suddenly threw her arms around Kathryn and hugged her hard.   She hugged her back, telling her she wouldn’t be gone long.   The child loosened her hold and smiled.   “I will look for you soon.”

           Kathryn’s hand came up to caress her hair as she repeated that she would be back later.   Then she turned and followed Chakotay and the men down the path.
 

                                         =^= =^= =^= =^= =^= =^=
 

           The attack, when it came, caught them completely off-guard.   One minute they were scrambling over large boulders and the next, they had been seized, gagged and blindfolded before they could utter a sound.

           Once more, they were carried willy-nilly across rough terrain. Kathryn had no idea how much time had passed before she was dumped unceremoniously on the ground.   Her blindfold and gag were pulled off and her hands untied.   She sat up slowly, blinking in the dim light of yet another cave.   A strong sense of déjà vu overcame her.

           “Don’t you people ever think to ask first if I would like to accompany you?!”  she snarled at the Iltarran nearest her.   The man looked somewhat startled and stepped back.   She felt movement nearby and turned to find Chakotay sprawled beside her.   Thank goodness they were still together!

           “Are you okay?” he asked, his eyes concerned.

           “I’m fine, if a little fed-up.  You know, Chakotay, this is getting really tiresome!”

           “I agree, believe me.”  He paused, looking over her shoulder, then straightened up.  “I think the person in charge is coming now.”

           Kathryn turned to face where he was indicating.   The individual standing in front of her was one of the most depraved-looking beings she had ever seen in her life.   His face, dark-complexioned like all Iltarrans, was scarred in several places.    His jaw, despite being sunken in several folds of flesh, had a stubborn set to it.  But most of all, it was his eyes – hard, indifferent, totally uncaring about anyone other than himself.   Even as she watched, his expression changed to that of a leer as he took in her features and hair.   Kathryn got a sinking feeling.   Bad as their situation had been before, she hadn’t felt personally threatened.   This man looked as if he would like nothing better than to eat her up for breakfast.

           Her chin came up and she glared at him.   He chuckled evilly, said something to his companions which made them laugh as well, then stepped close to her, and grasped her jaw.   His other hand reached for her hair, but before he could touch it, Chakotay had moved.   He pulled the man’s hand off Kathryn’s face, then pushed her behind him before folding his arms and staring very hard at the other.   His meaning was clear.   This woman was his and not to be handled by anyone else.

           The man tensed as if preparing for a fight.   Chakotay readied himself for an attack that never came.   Someone made a comment, the man hesitated, then straightened and turned away.   Behind him, both Chakotay and Kathryn breathed sighs of relief.   He reached back to her, holding her in place until the man had disappeared outside, before turning around to face her.

           His demeanor was somber.  “Kathryn, listen to me – and don’t argue.  You don’t leave my side for an instant for any reason whatsoever.   Even when you have to pee, I come with you.  I’m sorry, but you’re not safe here.”  He paused, trying to marshal enough arguments to convince her of the truth of his words.   However to his surprise, she nodded her head at once in agreement.

           “You’ll get no argument from me.   There are very few people in this galaxy who scare me, but that man definitely ranks right up there.”  She shivered slightly and took his arm.   “Believe me, I have no wish to face him alone.”

           He smiled down at her, relieved to have her acquiesce so easily, then frowned as he realized that someone who could frighten Kathryn Janeway would be a formidable enemy.   He sighed and led her to a corner where he could keep her out of sight.   “Let’s put our heads together and try to figure out a plan of escape.”

           She nodded again, willing to let him take the lead.   Chakotay had much more experience in this kind of situation than she did.

           Silently, they sat and watched as people came and went.  After a while, they realized that there were no children, and only two or three women, poor, sad-looking creatures who moved about silently, trying to stay out of the way of the abusive men.    One came over and offered them a cup of water.  Other than her, no one came near them.

           Night fell and the men gathered around a large fire near the mouth of the cave.   The women brought out food and drink, serving the leader first and then his henchmen.   The talk grew loud and boisterous as the flagons were passed around.   Several times, Kathryn felt the leader’s eyes fall on her.  Each time, she huddled closer to Chakotay until she was practically buried under him.

           Suddenly, the man sprang to his feet, pushed aside several of his fellows and made his way towards them.  Chakotay straightened, making sure Kathryn was tucked well behind him.   The man barked several orders, his men jumped up in turn, and in seconds, had seized Chakotay and dragged him aside.

           Slowly, Kathryn raised her head to see the leering face of her enemy looming over her.   She gasped slightly, her heart pounding, then gritted her teeth and climbed to her feet.   She was a starship captain, she reminded herself.  Time to start acting like one.

           Her chin came up and her back stiffened as she stared at the man, showing her contempt for his bullying tactics.   He reached out to grasp her hair, but this time she was ready for him.   In a flash, she ducked and kicked out as hard as she could, aiming for and connecting with his groin.

           He fell pole-axed to the ground, as the entire crowd stared at her in astonishment.  For long seconds, there was no sound and then the cave reverberated with howls of pain and fury.    She crouched into a defensive position, her fists raised.   No one moved; even the men holding Chakotay had loosened their grip as all their attention was drawn to their wounded leader.    Chakotay jerked his arms free and darted to Kathryn’s side, his hands also coming up.

           The group swayed indecisively, not sure what to do in the face of such an unprecedented situation.   On the ground, the man moaned with pain, conscious but quite unable to move.

           Suddenly, a movement by the door caught everyone’s attention.   An Iltarran officer stood there, several soldiers behind him, their weapons pointing at the crowd.   He gazed around him with a sneer, then walked forward to where Kathryn and Chakotay stood side by side, ready to defend themselves.

           The officer handed them each a commbadge, then spoke.  “Captain Janeway, on behalf of the Iltarran government, we are here to return you to your ship.”

           She stared at him in disbelief.   Just like that – it was all over?!  No, it was too easy!

            One of the men in the crowd darted forward suddenly – a shot rang out and he dropped to the ground, killed instantly.   The rest gasped and shrunk back against the walls of the cave.   The officer glanced indifferently at the body, then turned to her.   “Shall we go?”

           Chakotay lowered his arms, then reached for her hand.  “Come on, Kathryn, let’s go home.”

           She glanced up at him, then took a deep breath and began to walk to the mouth of the cave, Chakotay beside her.   The officer and his men followed them out, then led them to a ground vehicle parked a few hundred meters away.  Quickly, they were placed inside, the doors were sealed and the vehicle moved off at high speed.

           Nearly an hour passed before they finally came to a halt.   Hands reached in to help them out, and they turned around to find themselves staring into Tom Paris’ cheerful countenance.

           “Boy, am I ever glad to see you two!”

           Kathryn and Chakotay could only stare at him, too shocked to speak.

           From behind them the minister of trade stepped forward, beaming from ear to ear.

           “Captain!  Commander!  I am so pleased to see you both!  I must say, you’re looking in remarkably good health, considering your ordeal.”

           The captain found her voice.  “How did you find us?”

           “Oh, it was quite a complicated process, let me tell you!”  The man was positively glowing with pride.  “Fortunately, greed always outweighs common sense.   We were able to bribe a renegade band to locate you and then contact us.   We won’t pay them, of course.  In fact, even now they are all being taken into custody and will be returned to their owners once they have been suitably punished.   As for your kidnappers, you’ll be relieved to know that we shall soon hunt them down and exterminate them for the vermin they are!”

           The command team stared at him in undisguised horror.   Kathryn started to protest, then stopped as Chakotay gripped her hand.   “No, Kathryn.  We can’t.”

           “But…”   She fell silent, knowing he was right, then turned to her pilot.   “Tom, let’s get the hell out of here!”

           “Uh, sure, Captain, whatever you say.”  He turned and led the way to the Delta Flyer.

           Silently, they entered the little ship and sat down as Tom powered it up.    Only after they had lifted off did Kathryn speak.  “Perhaps we can send them a warning somehow...”

           Chakotay looked over at her sadly.  “We don’t even know where we were!  Besides, trying to find them would also be a breach of the Prime Directive.  You’re a Starfleet officer, Kathryn.  You have to honour that!”

           “There must be something we can do!  Chakotay!  We can’t just leave them…!”  Her voice stopped on a despairing note as he shook his head.

           She looked away, her head bent as she clenched her fists.

           The journey continued in silence, broken only after they had docked and stepped out of the Flyer.  The captain met her tactical officer with a face of stone.

           “Mr. Tuvok.  Prepare for immediate departure.”

           “Captain, we have not yet finished loading all the supplies…”  His voice trailed off at the look on her face.

           “Do it!” she growled, then turned on her heel and strode out of the bay, Chakotay right behind her.

           Five minutes later, Voyager broke orbit and resumed a course for the Alpha Quadrant at maximum warp.
 

                             ********************************
 

Epilogue:
 

           Kathryn stood in near-darkness gazing out a viewport in the mess hall.   In her hand she held a forgotten cup of coffee, now grown cold.

           Her heart was in turmoil.

           They’d had no choice.  They had to leave.  The Prime Directive was quite specific on that point.  No matter the circumstances, they could not interfere in the cultural development of another people.  Period.

           Tala’s face swam before her, as she felt the pain all over again.    The Prime Directive versus one young girl.

           She’d been going over it and over it for hours now, and was no closer to an answer.   Should she have left, as in fact they had done, or should she have tossed it all aside and gone back for the child?

           Her head was throbbing with yet another tension headache, and her shoulder muscles ached.   She absently reached up to rub tiredly at the back of her neck, even as she registered the sound of the doors opening.  Her hand dropped as she tried to school her features into her captain’s mask, then turned to face whoever had come in.   When she saw it was only Chakotay, she breathed a sigh of relief, and let her facial muscles relax.

           He came over to her, a look of concern on his features.  “Kathryn, you should be in bed and sound asleep, not drinking more coffee,” he told her abruptly.

           She sighed again and turned back to the viewport.  “I can’t sleep, Chakotay, my brain is in such a muddle.  And my head hurts,” she added petulantly.

           He reached over, took the cup out of her hand and set it down on a table.  Then he stepped behind her and placed his hands on her shoulders, resting them for an instant before digging his thumbs into the stiff muscles of her neck.

           Kathryn groaned as his strong fingers found the knots, loosening them one by one.   Her head fell forward as he worked around her neck, then moved to her shoulders.

           “Ohh, that feels good!” she moaned softly.

           “You should have called me.  You know I’ll do this for you whenever you need it.”

           “Yes, but…I didn’t want to bother you.”

           “Kathryn!”  He sounded exasperated.  “Sometimes I think you must have a masochistic streak in you.   It’s no bother for me to rub your neck!”

           She moaned again but didn’t answer.   She was perfectly well aware that Chakotay would do whatever he could for her.   And that was why it was sometimes so hard to ask.

           He relaxed his hands, then turned her around to face him.  “Is that better?”

           She nodded, smiling gratefully.  “Yes, thank you.   Much better.”

           She made to move away, but he held her in place.  “I think there’s more bothering you than stiff muscles.  Come and sit down.”  He took her hand and pulled her over to sit beside him on the nearest couch.   She gazed down at their joined hands, wondering where to start.

           He saved her the trouble.   “It’s about Tala, isn’t it?   You’re upset because we had to leave her behind.”

           Her head snapped up to face him.  “It’s more than that, Chakotay!  I – I didn’t even get a chance to say goodbye.   She doesn’t know what happened to us!   She probably thinks we deliberately abandoned her!”

           He slid an arm around her shoulders and pulled her into his side.   “Kathryn, she knows how you feel about her.   I don’t think she would believe you’d abandon her.   She’ll be worried, of course, but by now, they’ll have realized that we were probably kidnapped again.   They know how uncertain everything is.  You can’t beat yourself up over this.  There wasn’t anything else you could do.”

           Kathryn straightened to gaze up at him with determined eyes.  “Oh, but there was, Chakotay!  I could have gone back and tried to find her.  I could have protested to the minister, the government!  I could have made a big fuss! But, oh no!  Instead, I followed the Prime Directive like a good little Starfleet captain!”   Her voice dripped with self-loathing.  “You know, sometimes I really hate this uniform!”

           He smiled sympathetically.  “I know the feeling.  Very well, in fact.”

           She glanced up at him.  “Yes, I suppose you do.”

           They sat in silence for some minutes, each reflecting on choices they had made and how those choices had affected their lives.

           Eventually, Kathryn sighed and leaned her head against his shoulder.  “It hurts, Chakotay.  No matter what I tell myself, it still hurts.”

           He wrapped his arms tight around her and pulled her close.  “I know, sweetheart.  And it will hurt for some time to come.  That’s the price we pay to Starfleet and the Federation.”

          Kathryn remained silent for a few minutes.  “There aren’t any easy answers, are there?”

           “No,” he replied gently.  “There never are.”

           She nodded, then buried her face in his neck.   “This feels nice.   Do you mind staying with me for a little while?”

           “For as long as you want me, Kathryn.”

           Her body relaxed against him as she closed her eyes.  “I don’t know what I’d do without you,” she mumbled softly.

           Chakotay brushed his lips across her forehead, then rested his chin on her head and looked out the viewport at the passing stars.

           Silently, Voyager flew on, an infinitesimal speck in the vastness of space.

THE END
 

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