Rocketship Voyager

BY : Odon
Category: Star Trek > Voyager
Dragon prints: 348
Disclaimer: I don't own Star Trek Voyager and aren't making any money off this fanfic.

Title: Rocketship Voyager

Author: Odon

Fandom: Star Trek Voyager

Rated: PG-13. Adventure.

Summary: First serialized in the 1954 September to November editions of "Incredible Tales of Scientific Wonder", here is the classic space opera that inspired the 1990's UPN television series.

Disclaimer: This is a work of fanfiction using characters from Star Trek: Voyager which is the property of...well I can't be bothered rewriting this disclaimer every time they split or merge, so just look it up. Excerpts are quoted from "Lost in the Stars" by Kurt Weill, "Mr. Sandman" by Pat Ballard, "Divine Comedy" by Dante Alighieri, "Desiderata" by Max Ehrmann, and the Jataka Tales. This story is written for entertainment purposes only, and no financial profit will be received for this work.

Send feedback to odon05@hotmail.com. Archiving is welcome, but please try and contact me first. My thanks to Dark Tidings for the beta work.


 

ROCKETSHIP VOYAGER

A thrilling Tale of Transgalactic Adventure by K. C. Hunter.

First of Three Parts.

Once they had been bitter enemies. Now they were stranded on the far side of the galaxy, and must work together to survive!

 

Chapter I: FASTER THAN LIGHT

Through the trackless void between Jupiter and Mars hurtled the cigar-shaped vessel that was UNRS Voyager. A thousand feet of gleaming hull and glowering rocket-tubes, sleek gun blisters and swept-back wings, spinning radar dishes and slender antennae. A vessel built for peace but ready for war, now halfway from one to the other.

Buried deep within the rocketship was the control-room known (for reasons lost in the vanished past of the pre-Atomic era) as the Bridge. At the helm was Tom Paris, a dashingly handsome Space Lieutenant with a bold shock of sandy-blonde hair. His steady hands gripped the control and thrust levers; his earphones were attuned to the maneuvers relayed from Astrogation.

To his left sat Hyun Kim, a callow ensign from the megacities of Pan-Asia whose almond-shaped eyes took swift readings from the electroptical board that monitored everything from life-support systems to hull integrity. An alteration in the oxygen-helium mix of the synthetic atmosphere, a shift in balance off the rocket's axis of thrust, a flux in the electromagnetic fields of the Cochrane Drive: all could spell disaster if not reacted to decisively.

Around them was a horseshoe-shaped array of scopes and telescreens, where commtechs scanned the electromagnetic spectrum and radarmen kept an omni-directional watch for any rocketship or meteorite. But it was the man lying on an acceleration couch with his eyes closed to the distracting sight of those screens who first detected the danger. Tech Lieutenant TuV'k—whose dark skin and sharply-pointed ears presented a satanic visage to those unfamiliar with the serenity and mental discipline of a Martian Adept—wore the copper skullcap of an eloptic field amplifier on his shaven head, wired into the Hieronymus Machine that projected his extrasensory perception across the immensity of Outer Space.

"Object on intercept course," he warned. "Mr. Kim, sound General Quarters."

"GENERAL QUARTERS! GENERAL QUARTERS!" blared the bullhorns on every deck of Voyager. "ALL HANDS MAN YOUR BATTLE STATIONS! OBJECT ON INTERCEPT COURSE! SET MATERIAL CONDITION ZEBRA THROUGHOUT THE SHIP!"

Men and women tumbled from capsules where they had been resting after months of combat and raced for their assigned station. Those already on duty strapped on safety webbing or anchored themselves on the handgrips recessed into every surface—an essential feature on a space-vessel which could change in an instant from constant acceleration to the weightlessness of free-fall. As each compartment was manned its collision-hatches were sealed, isolating them in case of a catastrophic hull breach.

"Captain on the Bridge!" someone announced. A scuttle-hatch in the deckplates had swung upward to reveal a bouffant of Titian hair surmounting grayish-blue eyes that scanned the Bridge the moment they came level with the tween-deck. Fingers tipped with clear-polished nails gripped a handhold, and with a practiced movement a slender figure sprung onto the deck: a handsome woman in her late-thirties, the austerity of her space-black uniform failing to conceal the feminine curvature underneath. She had the short stature of a veteran spacer, and her voice cracked with the authority of one used to command.

"Tactical Psionics, report!" ordered Captain Kathryn Janeway.

"Unknown object approaching incredibly fast," replied TuV'k. "Gun batteries loaded and radar-locked. A-missiles primed in tubes Three, Five and Seven."

"Adjust our heading, Mr. Paris. See if it follows. Ship's status, Mr. Kim?"

"All decks secure, ma'am. All stations manned and ready."

"The object is altering course," said the Senior Radarman, peering into the hood of his scope. "Matching velocities with us. That's no meteorite."

"Steady as you go, Mr. Paris." Captain Janeway strapped herself into an acceleration couch, swung the lap console over her chest and keyed the intercraft. "Bridge to Astrogation, give us a look at our visitor. It seems determined to have a look at us, after all."

Thermoscopes and electronic telescopes tracked and locked on target, and the resulting image relayed to the telescreens on the Bridge. Magnification was unnecessary: the intruder Brobdingnagian in its dimensions. At first they could not comprehend what they were seeing. It was as if someone had erected a vast wall in Space to block their path. Then details became apparent: parallel surfaces forming the shape of an enormous cube, covered in a latticework of girders, transit-tubes, sensor antennae and radiator panels. A triumph of function over form, assembled without thought to aesthetics like an industrial plant of the 20th Century.

"What do you make of it, TuV'k?" asked Janeway. "Could that be a Jovian vessel?"

"Negative, Captain. Its appearance does not match any vessel encountered by Spacefleet."

"Motive power?"

"Unknown. I can detect no emission trail from a reaction drive."

"It's massive!" exclaimed Kim. "Radar measures its size at almost seven cubic miles. There could be thousands of people living on that thing!"

"It must be a generation ship," said Janeway, her scientific curiosity aroused. The nuclear rocket and the contraterrene drive had opened the Solar System for exploration and settlement, but travel to other stars remained the mere speculation of science-fiction writers. A journey to even the closest star was beyond the lifespan of any human crew, but in theory it was possible if the vessel was large enough to house a self-sustaining colony within its own bulkheads. Could this be Humanity's first contact with an interstellar species? How many years (centuries even!) had they been traveling? "Sparks, try hailing them."

"On which frequency, ma'am?"

The question threw Janeway for a moment. Did these extraterrans even use radio?

"Start with the Intersolar Distress Frequency," she said, "then use your discretion. Try Terran-English, Esperanto, High and Low Martian... anything you can think of. Maybe these aliens have been monitoring our broadcasts like in those old scientifilms."

The commtech never had a chance to try any of them. A shockwave rippled through the Bridge that hurled the crew against their safety webbing. A radarman who had unbuckled his restraints to pick up a dropped grease pencil was thrown clear across the deck. He got to his feet, turning the air blue with curses... then gaped in astonishment as he found himself standing halfway up the bulkhead, as if Voyager had been toppled on its side.

Kim stared at his board, unable to believe what the gauges were telling him. "Captain, we appear to be caught in some kind of... gravitation beam!"

"I need a better description than that, Mr. Kim!"

"I can't explain it, ma'am... an intense gravitational field just appeared out of nowhere! It's somehow focused on Voyager... it's dragging us towards that cube-ship!"

'He's talking nonsense', thought Janeway. Gravity could not be switched on and off like an electromagnet. Yet the repeaters on her lap console told the same story; every gravimeter had jumped into the red zone. "Helm, any heading; just get us out of here!"

Paris slammed forward the thrust lever and felt his couch shudder as the hydraulics absorbed the shock of acceleration. Emitting more radioactive energy in a microsecond than was expended in World Wars Two and Three, the Cochrane Drive hurled Voyager against its confinement.

"We're free!" Paris exclaimed. "We're moving, we're..." His jaw dropped. "By the Twelve Moons of Jupiter!"

The cold pinpoints of distant stars had blurred into incandescent blue lines streaking across the telescreens, while the rearward-pointing electroscopes showed those same lines shifting to a crimson red before vanishing into a blackness darker than the far reaches of the void.

'We're moving so fast that light-waves can't catch up,' thought Janeway, stunned at the implications. 'That's impossible... WE'VE CROSSED THE THRESHOLD OF LIGHT SPEED!'

Only one thought motivated her. They had to stop, before Voyager got so far from Earth they could never return!

"TuV'k!" shouted Janeway. Automatic restraints had pulled her tight into the couch; she hit the release button and twisted herself around against the G-forces to face her Tactical Psionics Officer. "Find out where that gravity field is coming from and get us a firing solution!"

Beads of sweat glistened on his ebony features as TuV'k tried to shut out his extrasensory awareness of the mind-warping speed at which they travelled, to focus all his attention on the alien colossus. His dark eyes stared sightlessly at the bulkhead as his hands roamed across the ballistics integrator, adjusting dials and Vernier scales. Janeway held her breath as if even a single exhalation might distract him from his task.

"I have a solution," gasped TuV'k, "but at this speed I would not advise__"

"FIRE!"

The rocketship rang like a carillon as the torpedo tubes hurled their atom-tipped missiles into Space, the dirigible rockets blazing to life the moment they were clear of the hull. The telescreens flared with a terrible radiance and pain burst in Janeway's skull as the couch smashed into her and then there was only blackness.

 

Chapter II: FREE-FALL

Captain Janeway woke to a nightmarish sight.

She was completely naked, impaled like a butterfly on a slender needle descending from the incandescent glare of a luminous ceiling. Around her were members of her crew, equally nude and floating inside membranous sacs pierced with needles and tubules. Janeway kicked; struck out with her fists, lashing helplessly against the slick amorphous material that enveloped her. Her struggles drew the attention of a giant metal spider, its eight eyes glowing a baleful red as it scuttled across the ceiling towards the helpless woman and said: "Please state the nature of the medical emergency."

"You're the Autodoc—you tell me!" snapped Janeway. "Get me out of this stupid bag!"

"Voyager is currently under null-gravity conditions," the robot replied in the grating tones of its voder-vocoder (whoever designed their Autodoc had not placed much emphasis on a bedside manner). "That pressure balloon is protecting you from infection by floating blood and other atmospheric contaminants. Furthermore there is a risk of catastrophic pressure loss. While I would remain impervious, the effects of explosive decompression on you would be most unpleasant, albeit short in duration."

"We're in free-fall?" Janeway suddenly realized the floating sensation she felt was not due to medication; it was because her body was weightless. Normally the thrust of the Cochrane Drive held the crew pressed against the deckplates but that was a pseudo-gravity, lasting only as long as they were under acceleration. "Then we're adrift in Space. Where exactly are we?"

"In the mess." Voyager's messdeck could be converted into a casualty ward if required. It had happened several times over the past couple of months, but this was the first time Janeway had been here as a patient. "Sickbay is no longer operational. A fire broke out at__"

"I mean what's our location in OUTER SPACE?!"

"I'm an Autodoc, not an astrogator!" the robot retorted.

Keeping four of its limbs attached to the ceiling with sucker-tipped hooves, the Autodoc lowered the other four down to Janeway's pressure balloon where they inserted through the air-lock valves and blossomed into an array of micromanipulators and photocell receptors. Tell-tales and tubules were removed, the vampire gauge plucked from her chest with the delicacy of a girl picking a flower. An electro-scalpel cauterized the puncture wound while simultaneously another manipulator shone a light in her eyes to study pupil dilation.

"No concussion. You'll be fine."

"Good." Janeway grabbed the manipulator and used it as leverage to tear open the thin veil of fluorocarbon plastic. The oxygen pump shut down as it registered the drop in pressure, and all of a sudden she was bathed in the ozone smell of ultraviolet radiation which could not quite mask the acrid stench of blood and burnt flesh. Janeway flinched as cold fingers seized her arm, though the robot's tactile sensors ensured the digits were exerting just enough pressure to restrain her without bruising the skin.

"Captain Janeway, just where do you think you're going?"

"To the Bridge, of course."

There was a clicking of relays as the Autodoc consulted its compassion-protection algorithm. Eventually it replied: "I cannot permit you to leave at this time."

"Unhand me, you tinpot tarantula—that's an order!"

"I should remind you that I am exempt from the Second Law of Robotics in the absence of higher medical authority."

"Then get the Chief Medical Officer!"

"Dr. Fitzgerald is no longer functioning. Resuscitation was attempted via electro-stimulus and mechanical ventilation with no success. I have filed him as deceased from shock and third degree burns at 1447 Shiptime. Corpswoman Jia Li is filed as non-operational due to inhalation of noxious fumes. Her condition appears stable but she is unresponsive to stimuli. There are three rescue teams who are operating beyond my visual range. Space Lieutenant Paris was designated to assist me as he is listed as having emergency medical training, however he left this room 13.09 minutes ago without telling me where he was going or allocating a replacement medical assistant. Most inefficient!"

Janeway stopped struggling. "Fitzgerald is dead? How many casualties are there?"

"Eleven personnel are filed as deceased, one patient is comatose, twenty-three other patients also required hospitalization, and nineteen casualties were treated and released from my care. According to a Zeroth exemption in my triage algorithm I refrained from allocating time-resources to Ensign Ahni Jetal who is filed as deceased from shock at__"

"You let her die!"

"Jetal was trapped on Deck Twelve. At the time I was required here to perform an emergency surgical procedure on Ensign Hyun Kim. I designated Kim's treatment a priority and relayed instructions by intercraft to the crewman attending Jetal, but he was unable to stabilize her."

"Hyun?" Janeway twisted in the Autodoc's grip, staring about her until she located the young ensign lying in a clamshell restraint that had been lashed to the floor.

"I should remind you that my abilities are limited," the Autodoc said in a somewhat querulous tone. "I was designed as a short-term emergency supplement to your medical team. I recommend you arrange for a replacement medical staff at the earliest convenience."

"That might take a while. Give me a list of the deceased."

A line of paper tape chattered out of a slot in the Autodoc's chassis. Janeway tore off the tape and scanned it intently. As a university graduate, she had enough fluency in machine languages to understand what she was reading.

Space Commander Cavit had died from the injuries he had received on Vesta, slipping into death unnoticed while his biomonitor was damaged. Dr. Fitzgerald had died of asphyxiation when a battle-shorted instrument panel had overheated, starting a fire in Sickbay. Space Lieutenant Star'Di had survived months of peril as a shuttleboat pilot, only to break her spine and then drown in a floating bubble of engine lubricant.

There was Timothy Lang, the Negro sergeant who had saved her life on Ceres. Commissary Officer Mbuangi, with two wives and seven children back in the Reunited States of Africa. Chief Engineer Hans Ziegler from Peenemunde in East Germany. CPO Dragan Horvat from Yugoslavia, and Air Tender Tran Lee from a tiny hamlet in South Vietnam.

There was Ensign Ahni Jetal and Computerman (F) Lyndsey Ballard and... Spaceman Second Class Frank Darwin? Just who was he? A combat replacement no doubt, killed before she ever had a chance to meet him. Two months ago, Voyager had a crew of 141 plus a 40-man platoon of space marines. She had shepherded them through an intersolar war losing three shipmates and fourteen marines and considered herself lucky. And now this.

"What's the current status of Voyager?"

"I'm a doctor, not a damage control officer. With the death of Space Commander Cavit, Tech Lieutenant TuV'k is filed as Acting Captain until you are fit for duty. I have informed the Bridge that you have regained consciousness, however I cannot certify you as fit for duty. I had to strap three ribs and conduct a tri-dimensional X-Ray of your skull. You need to remain here for recuperation and observation."

"Give me some Dexedrine and I'll be as right as rain. Now unless you have a Zeroth exemption for the Third Law of Robotics, I suggest you get out of my way."

"Is that a threat?" The Autodoc spun its upper turret to bring a bell-shaped nozzle in line with the captain.

"Are you threatening me, you wretched robot? Sedate me and I'll have you dismantled!"

"Actually, I was going to suggest you get dressed. Unless you're planning to establish a nudist colony on Voyager?"

Janeway raised her hands in mock surrender. "Fine, get on with it."

She grimaced as a spray of blue foam shot from the nozzle and splattered across her naked chest. It was freezing and the Autodoc did not bother lessening the impact on sensitive areas. The foam started to set the moment it made contact with her body heat, hardening into a dermaplastic skinsuit. It occurred to Janeway that the result was hardly less titillating than if she had chosen to walk around in the buff. She resolved to change to a uniform as soon as possible.

The Autodoc used its manipulator arms to rotate Janeway in mid-air, moving the spray across her back and buttocks, then down her legs to her feet. While it worked the door swung open to admit Lieutenant TuV'k.

"TuV'k, get this mad machine off me!"

"Mr. TuV'k, kindly talk sense into my patient! The captain is not yet in a condition to resume her duties." Its task completed, the Autodoc released its grip and skittered away to check on the other patients, though it kept a wary photocell pointed in Janeway's direction.

"You must rest, Captain." Even with the legendary mental disciplines of his race, the Martian was fagged. There were dark hollows under his eyes and grime smeared his usually immaculate uniform. "The immediate danger has passed, and you have not gone off duty since our battle with the Valjean."

"And how long have you been on duty?" asked Janeway, glancing at the two-dial chronometer on the bulkhead. One dial was synchronized to the atomic clock on the Computer Deck, the other adjusted to the standard time of the nearest space station or planetary LowPort—in this case the Vesta colony. Had it only been forty-seven hours since they had brought that traitor Chakotay to heel?

The thought started unpleasant scenarios running through her mind. "The prisoners, are they secure?"

"They are secure and uninjured. I checked on them personally. I have maintained the guard on Cargo Bay 2 even though we do not have personnel to spare." They had left most of their marines on Vesta to assist the evacuation, with only a token force on Voyager to guard the prisoners until they could be handed over to the authorities on Earth.

He handed over a sheaf of damage report forms. Janeway flicked through them, picking out the matters of life-and-death for a spacer: life support, hull integrity, power maintenance, electromagnetic field integrity, radiation shielding, communications, astrogation...

"Where in Space are we, TuV'k? How far out from Sol?"

"We appear to be somewhere on the Galactic Rim. Astrogation has still not fixed our position."

'That can't be good,' thought Janeway. The stellar cartographers kept an up-to-date catalogue of every star visible from Earth. All they had to do was take spectrostellographs of whatever stars could be seen from the astrodome, then compare their spectra to those listed in the catalogue. Only three stars were needed to pinpoint their location in Outer Space. So what was taking them so long?

Tom Paris returned with a pretty yeoman, the bright-red tatters of a decompression shelter-balloon still clinging to her body. Janeway interrupted his efforts to chat up the grateful damsel so she could get some idea of where they were.

"I tried to have a word with the girls in Astrogation, but Hansen threw me out on my ear." Paris brought his head close to the captain and whispered, "Jenny told me she can't hear her sister."

The Delaney twins were an experiment in using telepathy to communicate with vessels in deep space. While Jenny Delaney worked as a chartsman on Voyager, her sister Megan resided in a Spacefleet PsiDome on Mars. In theory, there was no limit to the range of telepathic communication, but no-one had ever tested that outside the Solar System.

Janeway kept her expression neutral. "Despite what the psychotechs claim, the Science of the Mind is not an exact science. Return to your duties, gentlemen. And next time you decide to play the hero, Mr. Paris, tell the Autodoc where you're going first."

"Try to get some sleep, Captain," said TuV'k before he left. "You will need all your strength in the time ahead."

Sleep did not come. Alone with her thoughts, Janeway had nothing to do but mull over the decision that had led to the deaths and injury of so many of her crew.

'I should have given the order to fire the second they locked on that gravitation beam. Or I should not have fired at all. They hadn't fired on us... maybe they were just curious about us. We could have negotiated, talked them into taking Voyager back to Earth...'

Janeway cut off that train of thought. "Never second-guess your decisions," her first captain had told her when she was fresh out of Spacefleet Academy, "because others will be only too willing to do so. Make your choices and move on."

She had to resist the urge to pick up the intercraft phone and give orders, demand reports, demand action. The last thing her crew needed was a captain nagging her subordinates from the comfort of a hospital ward. Instead Janeway made the rounds of the wounded: raising morale, making light of her injuries, fobbing off the questions she was unable to answer. Where are we? Who brought us here? How do we get back home?

She leaned over the clamshell litter that was keeping Hyun Kim immobilized. "Fight on, Mr. Kim. That's an order."

"Umma...," he moaned, not opening his eyes.

The young North Korean bore little resemblance to the inscrutable fanatics that Janeway's grandparents had described to her as a child: brainwashing UN prisoners and throwing their lives away in human wave attacks. Instead Kim had talked of his mother's kimchi and learning the oungum, of games of tag played on the endless slidewalks of Pyongyang, of mass dances beneath the rainbows that formed under the city-dome.

'I will get him home,' Janeway swore to herself. 'I will get them all home, no matter what.'

A voice crackled from the intercraft. "Astrogation to Captain Janeway."

Without moving from the patient it was attending, the Autodoc shot out a telescopic arm, snatched the wireless handset from its cradle and passed it to the captain.

"Janeway here."

"Tech Lieutenant Hansen, ma'am. We have established Voyager's position."

Janeway braced herself for bad news, noting the uncharacteristic quaver in the voice of the blonde ice queen who ran Astrogation with Teutonic efficiency. But nothing could prepare her for what followed.

"Captain, we are over 70,000 light-years from Earth. We're on the other side of the galaxy!"

 

Chapter III: THE MAQUIS

The deck was pitch-black but for the glowing arrows of radium paint that pointed the way to air-locks and decompression kits. Captain Janeway clicked on the flash-lamp strapped to her wrist and swept its beam around her. She saw shattered light-tubes, gray bulkheads lined with pipes and ducting, globules of hull-sealant left by the damage control teams, and floating blobs of water that Janeway assumed were from fire-fighting efforts until she noticed their greenish tinge. Algae that was essential on a spacecraft, to make food and convert carbon dioxide into oxygen. How much had they lost?

She had peeled off the skinsuit and was back to wearing the zip-fastened coverall that was the most practical clothing for null-gravity conditions; space-black in color, with red shoulder-boards bearing the four gold stars of a Spacefleet captain. On the left sleeve was a shoulder patch showing a winged rocket over a trio of colored circles (green for Venus, blue for Earth, red for Mars) and beneath it the words: To Boldly Go Where No Man Has Gone Before. It had been the motto of Spacefleet since its foundation in 1966, when the only space exploration Humanity had to boast of was the Big Wheel space station, a struggling colony on Luna and the Martian fiasco.

Janeway's tread was more cautious than bold as she picked her way down the Stygian passageway, placing her feet carefully so the magnetic-heels on her boots would keep her stuck to the deckplates, until she came upon a pair of space marines standing guard before a massive steel hatch stenciled with the words: CARGO BAY 2.

At the sight of their captain the two men brought their submachine guns to port-arms. On Janeway's order they undogged the hatch and the three of them entered, threading through a spiderweb of plastiform mesh that interlaced the cargo bay. Bound to the ringbolts that lined every surface, the mesh stopped their cargo from shifting during acceleration or null-gee. The plundered wealth of the Asteroid Belt: high-grade steel and tungsten alloy from the atomic mills of Ceres; radioactive ore pressed into lead containers, seized from the spacedocks on Pallas; sacks of gold dust from the mines of Psyche. Janeway and the marines passed this fortune without a glance, working their way to where an open space had been left over the cargo-loading hatches. Open but not unoccupied, for as they entered this area they were confronted with a cacophony of abuse.

"Traitors! Space pirates! Federation lackeys!"

"Cut us down, you b***ds! How long are you going to keep us like this?!"

"Spacefleet swine! Why don't you just air-lock the lot of us?!"

Instead of cargo, men and women were heat-sealed between the layers of mesh, suspended helplessly above the deck where all they could do was shout at their captors. Yet it was this confinement that had proved their salvation, as the force of the decelerating rocketship had been absorbed by the elastic webbing. Thirty-six Maquis fanatics, ready to wreak havoc on Voyager.

Opening the hatches to the vacuum of Space would be one solution. It was time to find another.

Ignoring hurled insults and spittle, the space marines clambered hand-over-hand through the bound prisoners to one particular man. Unlike the others his demeanor was serene, his eyes closed in meditation. The marines disconnected his waste and feed tubes, then cut him free with their vibroknives.

"Leave him alone!" shouted a fierce-eyed brunette with the body tattoos of an Amazon of Venus. "Where are you taking him? Chakotay! CHAKOTAY!" Taking no notice of her cries, Janeway and the marines dragged their prisoner through the hatchway and slammed it shut behind them.

The Captain's Cabin was a welcome oasis of tranquility, albeit one so small the marines had to stand outside the door. On a rocketship every square inch was rationed and even a captain's personal quarters had the bare minimum: a memex-desk for the avalanche of paperwork that plagued any modern leader, racks of book-spools on subjects ranging from astrogation to xenobiology, a telescreen in the shape of a mock porthole. A sleeping capsule, vacuum toilet and refresher were discreetly hidden behind foldaway panels, and on the deckhead a scuttle-hatch with retractable ladder provided ready access to the Bridge above.

Janeway had done what she could to make the place more homely: a Venerian climbing orchard, a null-gee coffeemaker (an antique GE Nebula she had picked up for a song on Deimos), and a videograph of a handsome man in a tan zipsuit, a puppy gamboling at his feet. Fixed to the bulkheads were framed 2-Ds of her idols: Marie Curie, discoverer of radium and the first woman to win the Nobel Prize; the aviatrix Amelia Earhart; and in pride of place above the door—the astronaut Shanna O'Donnell, the first human in Space.

In the pioneering days of space exploration, the only means of escaping Earth's gravity had been crude rockets fueled by chemical reaction. It had been crucial to save every gram of weight, and so women were used to pilot them due to their smaller stature. Studies conducted during the Second World War had also shown that women could cope better than men with extremes of temperature and long periods of isolation.

Even when larger rockets driven by atomic energy were built, married couples were preferred for emotional stability on voyages that could last years. There was Friede and Wolf Helius, who stayed behind on an airless Moon so their compatriots could return safely to Earth. The Norwegian explorers Magnus and Erin Hansen who launched the first deep space mission to Pluto, the legendary ninth planet of the Solar System. Their daughter Annika had been born on the journey, and now served as Voyager's astrogator.

After extensive computer and psychological tests, two hundred men and women had been pair-bonded for the Mars Expedition Fleet. And when others were calling for nuclear retaliation on the aborigines who massacred those ill-fated colonists, it was the Japanese linguist Hoshi Sato who averted war by performing the first Martian-Terran melding-of-minds, the telepathic connection required to create true understanding between human and alien.

But the mores of society were starting to change. When the scientist Zephram Cochrane invented the electromagnetic field technology that enabled the safe use of contraterrene, the Solar System finally became open to large-scale colonization, and women were once more seen in their traditional role as child-bearers to be cosseted from danger. A recent UN committee had recommended that only men be accepted for promotion to command rank "due to their natural authority", though women should continue to be included in crews "for reasons of psychological stability".

'Natural authority! That's what happens when men are raised in community crèches by robots, instead of at home by their mothers,' Janeway thought bitterly. 'They want us to be cheerleaders instead of partners in the opening of the Final Frontier. Not on my watch!'

Leaving the prisoner floating to inhibit any aggressive intentions, Janeway strapped herself in behind her desk, grimacing as the webbing tightened on her damaged ribs. The only thing she found annoying about space travel was the need for all these safety belts. She hadn't worn them groundside since her fifteenth birthday, when Father taught her how to fly the family car.

Unlocking the safe with her palmprint, Janeway took out an air-tight cylinder of pre-ground coffee, leaving the door open for ready access to the Colt .51 recoilless she also kept in there. She connected the cylinder to the Nebula, screwed on a drink bulb, switched on the pumps that enabled percolation in the absence of gravity and retracted the lead shielding from the radium element. As she waited for her coffee to boil, Janeway studied the man whose identity she was familiar with even before her marines had dragged him from the radioactive ruin of his rocketship.

Chakotay wore the synthileather clothing and WW3-surplus gear typical of a civilian spacer. His coppery skin and Indianesque profile would have been a familiar sight to her ancestors who settled the American West, yet Chakotay had been born in an asteroid mine a hundred thousand miles from Earth.  Like many youths raised in the Spartan conditions of the Belt he had left for the inner worlds at the first opportunity, and like many Belters he found the shining lights of the megacities soon paled beneath their disease, high gravity and excessive bureaucracy.

So Chakotay had joined Spacefleet, winning fame in the pacification of Venus and the rescue of the Ares IV expedition, rising to the rank of Space Commander with an assured career path ahead. Then had come his unexpected resignation and public defection to the Maquis cause. As captain of the atomic rocketship Valjean, he had wreaked havoc for over a month until Janeway had brought him down on Vesta. If she had been one of the freelance bounty hunters circling the conflict like vultures around a corpse, she'd be a rich woman now. There was a hefty price in radioactive metal on this man's head.

"Can I offer you something?" asked Janeway. "I run a dry ship for the most part, but there's coffee in that Nebula. The real thing, not synthokaf. One of the privileges of being captain."

"I'll have a cigarette if you don't mind," replied Chakotay. His voice was softer than she would have expected from a rebel. "The air-renovators on your rocketship are a lot better than those in the asteroid mines."

She could have refused, not least because cigarettes were being sold at the outrageous price of a dollar a packet; tobacco was a luxury when every acre of arable land was needed for food crops. But her mother had raised her to be a gracious host, so Janeway slid open a drawer in her memex, pulled a deck of Spaceport Classic from its spring clip and floated it across to him. "Be my guest."

Chakotay's hands were steady even though his eyes were red with fatigue. Snatching the packet out of mid-air he tapped the lid, causing a cigarette to pop out of the dispenser hole. He broke off the ignition tip and pushed the burning ember into another hole in the bottom of the packet where a tiny fan spun into life, drawing oxygen across the ember to stop it being smothered by its own smoke in the absence of gravity, while sucking the ash into an asbestos catch-pocket so it wouldn't float around the room and get in people's eyes.

"You need our help," he said.

"I beg your pardon?"

Chakotay savored the tobacco for a moment, then blew the smoke towards the nearest air-renovator. "We're a long way from Earth—a very long way. On the far side of the galaxy, I hear."

"Who told you that?" Janeway shot an angry look at the space marines. The Maquis prisoners were supposed to be kept in isolation.

"My father."

"Your father?" Chakotay's father had died when the Jovians first turned their attention on the Asteroid Belt. Spacefleet's failure to avenge his death and the 173 other colonists on Hygiea Station had prompted Chakotay's defection.

"He spoke to me in a vision," said Chakotay, realizing that elaboration was required.

Janeway knew from his dossier that Chakotay had taken up the spiritual beliefs of his Lakota ancestors. For some reason religions that had all but vanished on Earth had been taken up with fervor by those who lived offworld. It was just another eccentricity of these libertarian Belters, who believed that everyone should be guided by their personal morals instead of a centrally-imposed authority. How they justified such an attitude in an environment where a single error or act of malice could kill not only yourself but everyone else was a mystery.

"Your dead father told you that Voyager was on the far side of the Milky Way?" Janeway could not hide the skepticism in her voice. Like most people born on Earth she'd been raised as a Scientologist and found it difficult to take these wacky religious cults seriously.

"No, he told me to wake up and listen. When I got everyone else to shut up and do so, we could hear your damage control teams talking. The pipes in the bulkheads conduct sound."

Janeway's look could have melted the shielding on an atomic pile. "My First Officer, Aaron Cavit—a man I served with for over three years—is dead thanks to you. So you'll excuse me if I don't appreciate your twisted sense of humor."

"Thanks to me? Or thanks to a captain reckless enough to set off an atomic torpedo while we were travelling at supra-light speed?"

"I did what was necessary to protect my ship!"

"And I did what was necessary to protect my people."

"By inciting an intersolar war with the Jovians!"

The Jovians were the name the Tri-World Federation had given to the arcane aliens who inhabited the turbulent gas clouds of Jupiter (what they called themselves was anyone's guess). Thriving in an environment hostile to any anthropoid life, they lacked only the minerals that existed in abundance in the asteroids that orbited between their planet and Mars, to which they laid claim due to their ancient victory over Phaeton—the planet whose destruction had originally formed the Asteroid Belt. Without prior warning or declaration of war, a torchship manned by a suicide pilot traveling at three-gee's of constant acceleration had struck the space station orbiting the asteroid mines of Hygiea, instantly obliterating both vessels.

It had taken the Electronic Minds only seconds to arrive at a decision. Spacefleet had neither the strength nor the ability to attack Jupiter, or defend the widely-scattered space colonies at such a distance from the inner worlds. The Asteroid Belt would have to be sacrificed in the name of appeasement.

The Tri-World Federation was able to negotiate a two-month grace period to evacuate its citizens, offering financial compensation to the Belters, even amnesty for anyone facing criminal charges on their homeworld. The Belters had not proved open to reason. Taking their name from the French insurgents who resisted the Nazi jackboot, the more militant among them had formed the Maquis.

Spacefleet had been prepared for riots, protests, sabotage; even outright war. But this was a war they had never envisioned: where the enemy wore no uniform, where atomic demolition charges were hidden in the luggage of evacuees and a thirteen-year-old girl with a beam-drill could kill a space marine. The dead language of the war-torn 20th Century was resurrected once again: kamikaze, terrorism, population resettlement, guerrilla warfare.

In Outer Space the firepower and discipline of Spacefleet had proven superior, but the Maquis had used the Belt to their advantage, fleeing from one hollowed-out asteroid to another, mining them with contraterrene dust and launching ambushes with magnetic-launchers and torchship engines. The conflict had dragged on with both sides becoming ever more desperate and brutal as the deadline approached.

Janeway knew that atrocities had happened out of sight of Voyager's electroscopes: habitat domes blasted open to the vacuum and rocketships packed with refugees destroyed by tired and angry space marines unwilling to risk the death-trap confines of an air-lock. Soldiers from a world that had forgotten how to fight a war, dressed in bright-red space armor designed by the psychotechs to intimidate food rioters. A world that enforced peace through the threat of orbiting A-bombs, that entrusted questions of life and death to soulless thinking machines who knew nothing of the passions that drove men and women to die for a bunch of rocks they thought of as their home.

Her coffeemaker chimed and Janeway used the distraction to get a grip on her thoughts. She replaced the lead shield, unscrewed the drink bulb and attached a one-way valve, which she put to her lips and drew on avidly. Chakotay watched the process with mild interest.

"I need some additional crew members," said Janeway. "A dozen-or-so to make up our numbers until our wounded have had a chance to recover. We don't have the resources to waste on people who aren't willing to contribute to the welfare of this vessel." She left the threat behind those words unspoken. "On the other hand, those of you who help Voyager return safely to Earth will find their efforts taken under consideration in their sentence."

"That will be a great comfort when my friends are having their personality demolished by UN psychotechnicians. I want amnesty; not just for me, but for my crew. All of my crew."

"If amnesty is granted to the Maquis rebels it will be a matter for the Federation Council__"

"Outside the boundaries of Federation territory, the captain of a Spacefleet rocketship is the Tri-World Federation, and no-one's as far outside as we are now. I want them pardoned for any actions they took during the Asteroid War__"

"Resettlement," corrected Janeway.

"__and relocated on Venus or Mars__"

"Earth, I think. That way we can keep an eye on you." Janeway consulted the microfilm files in her memex. "I'm willing to offer parole to yourself and a select few who have useful skills. This Venerian half-caste, B'Elanna Torres? I see she has advanced engineering qualifications."

"All of my people have useful skills or they wouldn't be in my crew.  B'Elanna Torres is the best engineer you could have when you don't have a spacedock handy. Seska Pamyatnykh is a Computer Programmer First Class. Miguel Ayala and Kurt Bandera... good men to have at your side when your back is to the wall. Lon Suder is a crack shot, Matthew Hogan is a weapons techno, Michael Jonas is an excellent mole__"

"Mole?"

"Asteroid miner. You're going to have to find and harvest contraterrene for your Cochrane Drive, or were you planning to run this rocketship on vacuum? Just a single gram of CT coming into contact with any gram of normal matter is enough to annihilate your entire ship. It's not something you can entrust to an amateur, and it's not a job you do at gunpoint! I want equal status between my crew and yours—there's no way this will work otherwise. And while we're at it, I'd like my old rank back. It appears you could use a new First Officer."

"To Manhattan with that idea!" The thought of this traitor taking the place of the man he had killed made Janeway's blood boil.

Chakotay kept an impassive Indian face to her wrath. "I'm not going to be your Quisling while my friends are held hostage in Cargo Bay 2. Either we all work together, or not at all. There's going to have to be a certain amount of trust between us, Captain."

"YOU talk of trust... How do I know your people won't try to seize Voyager the moment you're free?"

"And man it with a crew of thirty-six? It would just be the reverse of the situation you're in now, except we'd be worse off. Do you know why Belters don't need Electronic Minds to tell them what to do? Because fools don't live long enough in Outer Space to cause a problem for anyone else.  There's no mollycoddling for morons, unlike on Earth." He took a final drag on his cigarette, slid the butt out of the packet and flicked it into the vacchute.

"Face it, Captain Janeway. If you're not willing to space us, then we're stuck with each other."

 

Chapter IV: LOST IN THE STARS

"Captain's Log: January 16, 2020. Contrary to my fears, the Maquis and Spacefleet crews are working remarkably well together. Some, however, are finding it easier than others."

"She's not just out of control, she's out of her mind!" Blood floated in tiny bubbles from the nose of Tech Lieutenant Carey. "Get this cailín dUsachtach out of my Power Room!"

B'Elanna Torres backed away, swearing in Portuguese and several Venerian dialects. A burly Machinist's Mate reached out for the girl. She ducked under his grasp, grabbed the recessed handholds in the deck, flipped upside-down and slammed a magnetic heel-plate into his jaw.

The impact in null-gravity sent them both flying in opposite directions, but B'Elanna self-rotated her body so she impacted on the bulkhead feet first, locking on with her magheel boots. Then while everyone was still gaping, she walked straight up the bulkhead and dived through the tween-deck hatch.

She found herself in the Central Passageway that ran up the spine of the rocketship to ensure quick transit for damage control teams—the so-called 'jerry tube'. The collision-doors had been latched open and the passageway was choked with spacers in brightly-colored coveralls, stringing power cables and breadboarding circuits. The Autodoc was scampering across the deckhead above them, a crate of freshly-milled machine parts clutched in its multi-jointed limbs.

"This is outrageous! It is not part of my programming!" the robot protested to everyone in earshot. "I'm a doctor, not a porter!"

"Make a hole!" shouted a slip of a girl towing a plate of radiation shielding that would normally require a crane to lift. Null-gee had advantages when it came to repairs, though most regarded it as nuisance. Tools had to be tied to the user with lanyards, while dirt and oil floated about getting into eyes and circuitry. But Voyager would not have gravity until they were under acceleration, and that would only happen once their captain was convinced her ship wouldn't fly apart in the process.

"Stop her!" came a shout from behind. Without turning to see who it was, B'Elanna grabbed a null-gee cable and pulled herself hand-over-hand along the jerry tube until someone seized her ankle.

"And where do you think you're going, missy?" growled a space marine.

B'Elanna stifled her initial urge to sink a boot into his face. The Terran was twice her body weight and if Maquis propaganda was to be believed, these space marines were constantly on the verge of psychosis from their amphetamine pills and hypnotic indoctrination.

"What's going on here, soldier?"

"This g*d**n jungle-creeper broke the Chief's nose and knocked out Ashmore!"

Everyone had stopped working to stare at her. B'Elanna felt the arboreal claws slide out of her palms and her third lung pump extra oxygen into her blood, readying her to run or fight. Someone put a hand on her shoulder and she whirled to confront them.

"What, this little girl?" At the sight of the handsome Terran smiling at her, B'Elanna retracted her claws a fraction. "That will be all, Corporal Rico. I'll handle things from here."

"I bet you will," someone muttered.

"Sorry? I didn't catch that, crewman."

"Nothing, sir!"

"Don't you all have work to do? Voyager doesn't magically repair itself, you know."

As the onlookers returned to their duties, Tom Paris cast an appreciative gaze on the cause of the trouble. The Maquis girl was slight in stature but highly feminine, her coverall tight to avoid snagging but with the front zip pulled well down to expose the body tattoos that illustrated her lifetale (he was surprised to see the crucifix of the Christian sects of Earth among them). Dark brown eyes studied him with a feral wariness, and her face had that exotic Venerian allure (but not too alien for discomfort thanks to her human blood) framed by the bob cut preferred by girls who had to wear space helmets on a regular basis. The beam-proof goggles perched on her head made her look like an aviatrix from those illegal comics he had devoured in his misspent youth, and her magheel boots were calf-hugging synthileather that went up over the knees—with matching wrist and elbow bands, Paris noted with approval. Too many spacers damaged their joints pulling over-enthusiastic maneuvers in null-gee.

"Saluton, mi nomigxas Tom Paris," he greeted her in Esperanto, the lingua franca of the Three Worlds. "Kiel vi nomigxas?"

"B'Elanna Torres," she answered. "And I speak Terran-English. The Society of the Sacred Heart saw to that. What do you want, space-jockey?"

Paris had thought his days as a rockrider on the Ceres run would give him common ground with these Maquis, but they only regarded him as a Federation stooge because he hadn't defected to their cause like Chakotay had done. Some he'd rather not have as shipmates at all. Jonas he wouldn't trust as far as he could throw him on a three-gee planet. Seska seemed friendly enough, but beneath the attractive face he sensed the cunning and ruthlessness that came naturally to a Russian. And that Suder guy acted like he'd kill you just for looking at him the wrong way. Still, he was determined to make friends with some of them. At least the pretty ones.

"Chow, actually. I've just gone off watch. The wardroom is still taped off but I hear they've finally got the messdeck up and running. Care to join me?"

B'Elanna glanced back at the hatch to the Power Room, which was now dogged shut. "Looks like I've got nothing better to do."

Sickbay had been repaired so the messdeck had returned to its original function. The casualties had been moved, the stewards had cleaned and radiation-sterilized every surface, and the white walls had been repainted to the gay apple green approved by the psychotechs as most suitable for morale (though Martian spacers always complained that it should be red). The blue glow of ultraviolet lights had given way to a blue haze of cigarette smoke. Wallscreens that usually displayed nostalgic landscapes of the Three Worlds now showed propaganda extolling the conquest of Space: a Von Braun ferry rocket blasting off from Johnston Atoll, astronauts assembling the Big Wheel space station, a huge glider landing on a polar ice cap of Mars. The Kosmokrator orbiting Venus was a grudging nod to Eastbloc efforts, but even as Paris watched someone changed the screen to a vidcast of last year's World Series.

He cast an eyeball over his fellow diners. The marines had formed their usual clique, playing pinochle with magnetic cards and shooting hostile looks at the Maquis who were mixing freely with the Spacefleet personnel. Two computers were playing chess on a tri-dimensional board. TuV'k sat alone, intent on an esoteric Martian puzzle. Hyun Kim had recovered from his surgery and was floating across the room above their heads, strumming a lute and singing:

"I've been walking through the night, through the day

Till my eyes get weary and my head turns grey

And sometimes it seems maybe God's gone away

Forgetting the promise that we've heard him say

And we're lost out here in the stars

Little stars and big stars

Blowing through the night

And we're lost out here in the stars."

Planting his magheels before the galley slots, Paris punched the order button. "Mess inspection, Cookie. I'll have beef fresh from the Martian ranges with corn, mashed potatoes and peas."

"Very amusing, sir." A wiry Filipino with the rating badges of a Cook First Class (Null-Gee Qualified) shimmered into view on the photophone. "The meat vats have to be recultured and Keshari says fresh vegetables won't be available for another week. I'm afraid we don't have algae either, sir. Half the tanks were shattered and Life Support confiscated whatever was left for CO2 conversion. All that's left is zymoveal."

"Yeast!" Paris grimaced. He had been raised on raw yeast mush in the Unemployment Barracks and had a visceral loathing of the stuff. "Only if it's been used to ferment glucose."

"Man does not live by bread alone."

A couple of minutes later a hatch opened and out slid a plastisteel container. A transparent lid showed the contents: a protein box still steaming from the high-frequency radiation used to cook it, a syringe of hot sauce (condiments made all the difference, Paris had learnt long ago), the usual vitamin and mineral supplements (the closest they ever got to the food pill of science-fiction), freshly-sterilized cutlery and a silver-colored squeeze-tube. Paris picked up the container and surreptitiously dropped a tenner through the hatch before it closed.

"Did he smuggle that from Earth?" whispered B'Elanna. "Maybe you should ration it."

"There's a vacuum-still hidden somewhere on board—or maybe outside on the hull—that our Master-At-Arms has yet to track down."

Once B'Elanna got her own meal they were preoccupied with the difficulties of finding an unoccupied table, strapping themselves in and then eating. The containers and cutlery were magnetic, but getting the food into one's mouth could be a difficult process. If the diner failed to concentrate, they would end up chasing their food around the messdeck with the handheld vacuum-sweeper that everyone dubbed the "phaser" because of its resemblance to a fictional raygun used in a popular space opera series. So it was only after they had finished eating that Paris tried making conversation. "What do you think of Voyager?"

"It's quite a ship."

"Intrepid Class," Paris said proudly. "Fifteen-deck tailsitter with variable-thrust Cochrane Drive—take you from Earth to Pluto in just over a month. She can take off and land on any planetary surface up to 1.3 times Earth gravity, has a psionic-guided weapon system, and the vacuum tubes on our Computer Deck have been replaced by transistors: they're compact, shock-resistant, and speed up our response time as we don't have to wait for the tubes to warm up."

"I already know the specs, space-jockey. Seska got them for us long before we came on board. You can thank those transistors you're still alive, or we'd have caught you with your pants down on Vesta."

"I'll drink to that."

"You read my mind."

With the aid of the moonshine Paris was able to coax out her story. B'Elanna's mother was an Amazon warrior from the Vepaja Morass, her father a lonely prospector from Brazil who had abandoned his native wife and child once it was time to return to Earth and his real family. B'Elanna had been raised in one of the convent schools that had sprung up across Venus as the Roman Catholic Church tried to proselytize new worlds to compensate for its fading influence in the old one.

On her fifteenth birthday—the symbolic Age of Ascension to adulthood for an Amazon—her mother had turned up with a war party, slaughtered the convent sisters, and dragged the children into a jungle of which they had no experience. Most never lived to be sixteen; falling prey to disease, the voracious wildlife, or the endless tribal warfare. Under the protection and tutelage of her mother, B'Elanna had managed to survive for three years until she finally had a chance to stow away on a Brazilian rocket-freighter with the help of a sympathetic crewman. "His name was Antonio," she said, a ghost of a smile lighting her face. "He's the one who got me interested in rocket engineering."

Antonio had been her first love, but B'Elanna had found out the hard way that such rocketship romances only last the length of the journey. The shining city of Brasília of which her father had often spoken proved as alien an environment as the jungles of Venus: a bland desolation of concrete buildings and open parks, devoid of the lush greenery she had known. Drifting on the fringes of society, she might have ended up an indentured worker in the uranium mines of the Andes had not the ruling technocracy of Brazil undergone one of those spasms of social conscience which inflict superpowers from time to time.

Half-castes like B'Elanna were now regarded as innocent victims of a regrettable era of colonialism. She had been enrolled in a government education program where she proved an exceptional student except for a tendency to lose her temper, which was dismissed as a legacy of her Venerian blood. A recruiter for a mining corporation sponsored a degree in spatial engineering at the University of San Paulo, and B'Elanna might have had a promising career had not the Jovians sent the entire asteroid mining industry down the vacchute.

"When you were in Brazil, did you ever go looking for your father?" asked Paris.

"I did," she replied. "I wanted him to see what I had become."

"He must have been proud that you were a spatial engineer."

"Oh, I didn't mention that. At the university, I also learned the martial art of Capoeira. It was a very short reunion."

Paris had to laugh and B'Elanna favored him with the same smile she had when talking of the long-lost Antonio. That looked promising.

"So, what's your story, space-jockey?"

Paris could have told her about his father, a World War Three ace with seven kills to his name... but they were not fighter planes but entire cities destroyed with H-bombs and radiological dust. Or their hand-to-mouth existence in the Unemployment Barracks after interceptor missiles and orbital A-bomb platforms made the United States Air Force obsolete. And how if it weren't for Spacefleet's desperate need for pilots for the evacuation of the Asteroid Belt, he'd be facing a court-martial right now for that incident on Deimos.

But he didn't. Girls liked a shoulder to cry on, but had little patience for a man who poured out his own troubles—those were for bartenders. Instead Paris turned the discussion to the mysterious cube-shaped spacecraft which had brought them all the way across the galaxy. B'Elanna listened with keen interest.

"You say TuV'k couldn't detect any engine emissions?"

"That's straight," said Paris. "Sounds like a Dean Drive to me, but I thought they couldn't get that to work." According to rumor (and the occasional crackpot on the tellycasts), Spacefleet had been working in secret on a reactionless drive and had somehow managed to instantaneously transport a submarine from the depths of the ocean to the orbit of Mars, killing the entire crew in the process. Realizing they had a weapon that any country could use to hurl enemies into Outer Space or objects down on defenceless cities, the whole project had been buried deeper than a Martian catacomb.

"Crank science. No-one's been able to get past Newton's Third Law."

"No-one's been able to crack the Light Barrier either, yet here we are."

"Well there are several theories on how you could. Imagine this is Voyager..." B'Elanna picked up her spoon, then reconsidered, replacing it with the squeeze-tube which was more appropriate to Voyager's shape. "Imagine this table is Outer Space." She slid the tube along the table. "Even using the Cochrane Drive, it would take longer than our lifetime to get to the next star system. If that cube was travelling at the speed of light (that's 186,282 miles a second), it should still have taken us over four years just to get to Proxima Centauri. And according to a Terran theorist called Einstein, any object that weighs more than a photon can't get near that speed in the first place."

"Yeah, he said the closer you get to the speed of light, the more your mass increases." Every space-jockey who dreamed of travelling outside the Solar System knew the constraints of the Special Theory of Relativity. "So you have to expend more and more energy for less and less result. You'd need an infinite source of power, and not even contraterrene can provide that."

"But what if you could work around Doctor Einstein's theory?" B'Elanna nudged the squeeze-tube just hard enough to break its magnetic base free from the table. "Say there was another universe operating adjacent to our own, a 'subspace' with different physical laws where you're not bound by the speed of light. Scientists are still divided on the subject, but there's a theory that the Universe was created by a cataclysmic explosion (the so-called 'Big Bang') and then expanded outwards from this single point of origin. Therefore if this subspace universe was younger it could also be a lot smaller, because that universe hasn't had the time to expand as much, you see? You could cross over to that universe, use it as a shortcut, then duck back into ours."

"So how do we get into this subspace universe?"

"No idea." B'Elanna snatched the tube before it drifted too far and squeezed a bubble of alcohol from it. It floated in mid-air between them, presenting a distorted view of her face. "Here's another possibility though. Instead of travelling to another universe, you create a pocket universe around yourself; warp Space into a bubble around your rocketship. Then you distort that bubble..." She flicked a finger through it, stretching the bubble into a teardrop shape for a moment before it returned to a sphere. "...so that Space is shrunk in front of your rocketship and expanded behind it, moving you forwards. That gets around the Special Theory of Relativity because Space itself is what's moving, not the rocketship. Though it wouldn't be a rocketship at all, actually. More of a starship."

She licked up the alcohol that surface tension had stuck to her finger. Paris leaned across the table and sucked the bubble into his mouth, not breaking eye contact with her.

"Warping Space? Is that even possible?" he asked. The only warping he knew was done with a mooring line when you wanted to dock a rocketship without wasting thruster fuel.

"Sure, that's what gravity does. Especially very intense gravity, like you get when a star collapses into itself. And here's something even Einstein said was possible. Back in Terra-1935, he and this guy Nathan Rosen theorized there could be tunnels in space-time..." Paris listened politely as she spoke of 'exotic matter' and 'negative energy density' and 'non-spinning wormholes'. It was a matter of faith among space-jockeys that the technos babbled on like this to make everyone believe they understood things they had no explanation for.

Realizing she was not getting through to her audience, B'Elanna produced the obligatory slide rule that all rocket engineers carried and pulled it open. "Look, just imagine this slide is 70,000 light-years long. Earth is here—on the right index, while Voyager is here—on the other end of the slide. That's a long way to travel, unless you can fold Space so that both points..." She snapped the slide rule together. "...are now adjacent in space-time."

"But can you fold Space like that?"

"Someone must have worked out how to do it, or we wouldn't be here. Up till now all these theories have been woolgathering; just a way of deluding ourselves that we won't be stuck in the same Solar System forever." B'Elanna shrugged. "It's a moot point. Whoever those aliens were, they're probably in the Andromeda Galaxy by now."

"Why not talk it over with the Glowing Gang?" Paris suggested, before remembering the altercation earlier. "Speaking of which... what happened between you and Joe Carey?"

"I've got a Master's degree in rocket science, and your Acting-Chief Engineer had me stripping asbestos off the heat vents because he says it's not safe to work on the Cochrane Drive!"

"Well a rocketship's power room can be a bad place for a pretty girl. They say there was this clumsy ensign on the Enterprise who got a high dose of radiation and ended up with three breasts!"

"Really?" B'Elanna looked skeptical. "The last time I heard that story, she had two heads! Did this ditzy dame have a name?"

"Dunno... Sonya, maybe?"

"That's funny, you'd think men would pay more attention to a girl with three maracas. Answer me this, space-jockey. How come everyone keeps telling me about some stupid girl whose name they never seem to remember, but I never hear the one about the dumb Terran who killed three people while hot-rodding a torchship on Deimos?"

Paris flinched.

"Can't seem to remember his name either." B'Elanna floated the squeeze-tube over to him. "Thanks for the drink, space-jockey."

"My name is Tom."

"Well I'm glad you made that clear. We wouldn't want every man barred from doing their job because of your goof." She unbuckled herself from the table, grabbed her food container, and pushed off in the direction of the recycler.

"Crash and burn, space-jockey!" gloated a Maquis at the adjourning table. "Don't feel bad. That dame's as prickly as a Martian cactus."

"Maybe." Paris was too experienced a Lothario to give up at the first knockback. "Half-Venerian, half-Brazilian, and raised as a Catholic schoolgirl. Could be interesting..."

 

Chapter V: THE BLACK STAR

Inside a hollow, soundproof sphere that filled almost two entire decks of Voyager, Captain Janeway stood in the center of a hemispheric ring of pod-like couches. Around her, the girls from Astrogation struggled with the precarious task of loading punch cards and tape reels in a null-gee environment, while an electronicist sweated away with a soldering iron on the cabinet-sized microcomputer that synchronized the 3-V projectors, high-fidelity speakers, odorophonic nozzles, and pneumatic feedback circuits of the ship's Illusionarium theater.

To Janeway's mind the Illusionarium was more trouble than it was worth. It was expensive to maintain, took up much-needed space, and broke down at regular intervals causing the exact morale problems it was meant to solve. The present generation of spacers were a pampered lot, she mused. In her grandparents' day, a television receiver showed a poor-quality monochrome image on a tiny cathode-ray tube screen; now they had full-color tri-dimensional with Sensurround couches to provide sound, scent, and even tactile perception. If one believed the publicity hype, Hollywood Megacity was developing tri-videos that would be indistinguishable from real life, with the viewer as a character within the story itself.

Spacefleet regarded such luxuries as a necessary evil, undertaken only after several outbreaks of so-called space madness: a catchall phrase for the stresses and phobias that were inevitable when you locked people in a metal can and cast them into a deadly vacuum whose infinity was incomprehensible to the human mind. And that was when the Three Worlds were only weeks or months away. How would her crew react once it sunk in just how far they were from home?

The electronicist switched off the vacuum-sweeper whose asbestos-clad hose had been sucking up any stray particles of hot solder. "It's ready to roll, ma'am," he said, reeling in the tools attached to his belt. "I'd like to know whose bright idea it was to install an entertainment device with an incompatible power system." The notorious unreliability of the Illusionarium was not helped by the fact that it ran on the 60 hertz frequency used in North America, whereas the rest of the ship used the 50 hertz required by its state-of-the-art Eastbloc electronics.

"That's fine, Petty Officer Nesterowicz. As long as it lasts through the briefing without breaking down." Janeway pressed down on her toes to break the grip of her magheel boots and floated towards a randomly-selected couch. It splayed open at the push of a button and she slid inside, pneumatic sensors adjusting its form to the shape of her body. A keypad whirred into position under her right hand, and the speakers played an advertising jingle until Janeway switched them off in irritation. "You can let the others in now."

The light above the door changed from red to green and the curved hatch hissed open. As the girls filed out there was a quiet gasp and a loud slap. Tom Paris floated through the entrance, rubbing his cheek. "So which vid are we watching this time?" he asked, pulling himself along the null-gee cable to his favorite couch. "I vote for The Adventures of Captain Proton."

"How about that new space opera series?" suggested Ensign Kim as he followed him inside. "A Trek Through the Stars."

"Come off it, Hyun! That show will never last."

Janeway cast an eyeball down the vid list taped to the back of her keypad. There were adventure sports (Pilot hypersonic planes through the storm clouds of Venus! Travel in an atomic submarine under the North Pole! Enlist as a crewman in the Transolar Rocket Race!), historical documentaries about long-extinct animals (Thrill to the man-eating lions of the African veldt! Caution: not recommended for children), public service vids that nobody watched unless ordered to and an 'educational' feelie (The shocking sybaritic rites of the Amazons of Venus!) that everyone watched and pretended not to, a haunted house mystery set in pre-Atomic England, and the usual space operas, quiz shows and melodramas. Janeway made a mental note to remove Insurrection Alpha from the vid library—no point in giving these Maquis any ideas. Should she remove The Green Hills of Earth as well? Would it be better or worse to be reminded of what they had left behind?

"Captain Janeway!" Startled, Janeway looked up to find her Chief Science Officer, Dr. Lewis Zimmerman, was hovering above her. His white coverall was gray with filth and his bald cranium sported an impromptu combover. "I must protest over members of my department being taken off their studies to carry out mundane tasks! Dr. Harren has five advanced degrees in theoretical cosmology, yet Mr. Chakotay has him working in the power relay room! My chief mathematician was reassigned to the Computer Deck just when he was on the verge of solving Fermat's Last Theorem, and my xenologist Samantha Wildman has vanished who knows where! And let's not mention what he's had me doing!" he raged, before proceeding to do just that. "I've just spent four irretrievable man-hours scrubbing the conduits in Waste Recycling! It was worse than when you shanghaied me to work in that field hospital during the Resettlement!"

"Let me guess: you're a doctor, not a doctor?"

"Exactly! I joined Spacefleet to study light rays and electromagnetic fields, not stick vampire gauges in people! Or scrub waste conduits!"

"And yet when you first came on board, you told me you were a man of unlimited talents."

"Talents which are being wasted! I've seen the report from Miss Hansen—there's a unique stellar phenomenon within this very solar system, yet I'm informed you have our electroscopes scouring the void for that cube-ship! You're throwing away a priceless scientific opportunity!"

"I haven't forgotten our scientific duties, Dr. Zimmerman, but my first priority is to get this ship back to Earth, not investigate every spatial anomaly we come across. Furthermore, I remind you of your contract, which states that while serving on a Spacefleet vessel you may be reassigned in an emergency to whatever duties are required by the ship's officers."

"Those duties could have been done by any rating! Do you think I can't see what is happening here? It's the same old story: pure science is a waste of time, so let's have the eggheads doing something useful for a change! I shall be making a full complaint to the Office of the Scientist General the moment this vessel returns to Earth!"

"Well you'll be pleased to know those mundane tasks you performed have helped bring that moment a little closer. Now if you would just take a seat, Doctor, you'll find your concerns will be addressed during the briefing. Dismissed." When he made no effort to move Janeway added, "That's Spacefleet for 'sit down and pipe down!' Now can you make your own way to your couch, or do you want me to give you a push?"

Dr. Zimmerman clenched his teeth, then self-rotated his body until he could grab a handhold, moving hand-over-hand to a couch directly opposite. Janeway wondered if the good doctor had a point—surely Chakotay could have put their Science Department to better use in the current circumstances? When your nearest neighbor was a million miles away, a spacer had to be willing to change a diaper, patch a spacesuit or program a computer with equal proficiency, so there had always been a disdain among Belters for the overly-specialized researcher who did not appear to contribute anything useful to the community. Even in Spacefleet she had to face the prejudice of the old-time jetmen over having gained her commission as a university graduate. The whole issue was frivolous to her mind—the conquest of Space was a team effort, whether it involved married couples or Joe the Jetman and Bill the Boffin. No doubt there had been plenty of competent men who thought that Goddard or Tsiolkovsky were wasting time with their rockets and space travel fantasies.

The object of Zimmerman's ire floated through the door, gave a polite nod to the captain, and took his couch. Chakotay now wore a black Spacefleet coverall with three gold stars on the shoulder-boards. It had irked Janeway to return his previous rank, but anything less would imply a lack of confidence in her new First Officer, which could affect his authority.

And there was no denying the man knew his job. He had proven adept at improvising repairs and getting the two crews to work together, and wasn't above enforcing discipline with his fists if needed—he had already decked one man who had the effrontery to address him as "Big Chief Chakotay" instead of "sir".

He was accompanied by B'Elanna Torres, though she had not been invited to this meeting. Chakotay had wanted Torres for the position of Chief Engineer, but while the girl had impressive credentials she hardly had the seniority to command the respect of the Glowing Gang. What most of the crew thought of as Voyager—its fifteen habitable decks—was only a fraction of its total size, the rest taken up by the engineering areas containing the heat radiators, the propellant tanks, the electromagnetic coils that entrapped their contraterrene and shaped the reaction jet, and the zero-length take-off rockets and ramjet engines for flying in atmosphere. The rough-hewn men who worked those deadly realms thought of themselves as the real crew, and everyone else as passengers. And just as women had a natural aptitude for nursing or astrogation, men enjoyed tinkering with machines and so the Power Room had always been a male domain. After what happened on the Valkyrie, Janeway was wary about putting a female officer there unless she had what it took to assert herself. There were too many men who were eager to project the faults of one woman onto all of them, and she could not afford to undermine her own authority in the current circumstances.

The other department heads trickled in over the next few minutes. Agritech Keshari, who tended the hydroponics garden and algae tanks that made Voyager self-sufficient in food and oxygen. Majel Barrett, the ship's Computer—her predecessors had made the calculations for the first rockets to launch into Space, in an era when the fair sex was thought to be too irrational for such precision thinking. Sergeant VanBuskirk, a squat muscular man of Dutch-Venerian stock who commanded their few remaining space marines. Joseph Carey as Chief Engineer. TuV'k in charge of Tactical Psionics (the department formed by the recent merging of the Gunnery, Missile and ESP divisions) with Ensign Vor'K present as his understudy.

TuV'k she had known since her student days on Mars, but Janeway feared that Vor'K lacked the requisite maturity for his job. The young ensign had been given a high esper rating by the Rhine Institute, but when dealing with the so-called Science of the Mind, it was far too easy for results to be skewed by emotions or wishful thinking.

She worried too about Ensign Kim. The position of Operations Officer would normally be held by a Space Lieutenant with several years of rocketship experience, whereas Kim was fresh out of the Academy. He had risen admirably to the task after Lieutenant Toporov was killed in a riot in Pallasport, but he was still a boy of 21—barely old enough to vote.

Last to appear was Tech Lieutenant Annika Hansen, who had just finished polishing the astrodome. The slightest flaw in the glass could lead to a navigational error of millions of miles, and she would delegate the task to no-one else. In Janeway's experience such women tended to overcompensate in their quest for perfection, but there was no-one else she would rather have plotting their course.

As always, her presence caught the attention of every man in the room. The blonde Norwegian beauty had the delicate features and statuesque carriage of those raised in a low gravity environment, and like other Spaceborn she disdained the clumsy space armor used by most astronauts, wearing only an elastic silver bodysuit that covered her curvaceous figure like a second skin. The chestplate that put pressure on her lungs so she could draw breath in a vacuum only enhanced her bust, and when wearing a bubble helmet and oxygen tanks she might at first glance be mistaken for the cover girl fantasy of a science-fiction magazine of the pre-Space era.

Close inspection however revealed differences that most men found disturbing. Her right arm ended not in a hand, but in a cluster of servo-mechanisms and micromanipulators, enabling delicate repair work that was impossible using the crude pincers of space armor. She bore surgically-implanted waldo nodes for the atomic-powered exoskeleton she required to function in Earth-like gravity. There were thermal-regulation wires woven through her skin, vampire gauges to monitor her biochemistry, and her chestplate held the switches and dials of a Haberman scanner so she could adjust that biochemistry like a mechanic would tune an aerocar. The Spaceborn regarded themselves not as astronauts but an entirely new species of Humanity, fully adapted to Outer Space via surgical modification and artificial prosthesis.

Janeway called the room to order, then listened with half an ear as the department heads gave their reports. As captain she had already received them—this meeting was to get everyone else up to speed. She paid more attention to the demeanor of those speaking, the reactions of the listeners. Who was paying attention, and who was letting their fatigue dictate a lack of it?

Hansen maintained her usual air of icy hauteur. Chakotay masked his thoughts behind the classic stoicism of the Red Indian. Paris looked bored, but that was normal for him during staff meetings—she knew he was paying attention. Kim looked a bit pale but seemed determined to soldier on despite his recent injuries. Dr. Zimmerman was scribbling away with an electrostylus, either taking notes or writing out his letter of protest. Carey kept glaring across at Torres, who had disappeared into her couch and seemed grateful to remain silent there.

'Lack of confidence coupled with a violent temper', thought Janeway. 'Not a good combination in a potential officer.'

She would have to make some field promotions soon, and Voyager needed officers who could solve problems instead of creating them. They still needed a Commissary Officer, a Morale Officer (a bland euphemism for the Chief Psychotechnician), and there was a chronic shortage of medical personnel unless you counted that irritating Autodoc. Keshari and Paris had medical training, but could not be spared from their current positions. A Pharmacist's Mate could be utilized at a pinch, but the experience and fine motor skills of a space surgeon were not something that could be taught with hypno-educator tapes. And of the two candidates for Morale Officer, one was a psychiatrist and the other a Dianetics auditor. The brouhaha that would erupt if one was promoted over the other was not something Janeway was looking forward to.

Still, she had a good crew despite everything that had happened. The only wild card was these Maquis. They had shown a willingness to pitch in and help, but chafed at Spacefleet procedures and paperwork. Most disagreements had been minor, but those were the ones that festered when people were confined together for long periods of time. Captain Janeway intended to make that time as short as possible.

"Well, ladies and gentlemen," she said when the last speaker had finished, "as the saying goes: there's good news and bad news. The bad news is we're a long way from home. The good news is that despite being dragged across the entire galaxy, we've ended up in a inhabited solar system." A sigh of relief made its way around the circle of couches. "Lieutenant Hansen, you have the floor."

"My department has conducted a detailed astrometric survey," said the blonde astrogator in perfectly enunciated Terran-English. She tapped the buttons on her keypad and the lights dimmed. In the exact center of the Illusionarium, a stereographic projection of the Milky Way shimmered into focus. Her audience could not repress a shudder at seeing how far they were from their own solar system, isolated on the Outer Rim with their backs to the void between galaxies.

"This is our current position, over seventy light-millennia from Earth," said Hansen. "The nearest Sol-type star is fifty light-years away—even with the Cochrane Drive it would be impossible to reach within our lifetime. However, through a combination of infrared photography and stereograph interpretation, my department was able to detect an artificial structure orbiting a star a mere two hundred million miles away."

"Is that all? Let's get out and walk."

The astrogator ignored Paris's impromptu commentary. Her slim fingers danced across the keys, and the Milky Way expanded around them, stars and comets hurtling past into nothingness as they disappeared from the projection zone, until all that was left was a black void surrounded by the smoky haze of distant nebulae.

"But there's nothing there..."

"Incorrect." At the turn of a dial the stereograph began to rotate, and as it did the audience saw something strange: stars that winked out of existence only to reappear, other stars distorting into rings of light around a perfect circle of absolute blackness.

"What in the name of L. Ron Hubbard is THAT?"

"That, Mr. Paris, is a black star," said Janeway.

"Actually Captain, the correct term is 'gravitationally completely collapsed object'."

"I prefer something that's less of a mouthful, Dr. Zimmerman."

"I've never seen anything like it!" exclaimed Kim. "How can a star not give off any light?"

TuV'k leaned over the side of his couch and spoke quietly to the young ensign. "Mr. Kim, that is a comment we would prefer not to hear from a Spacefleet officer. It makes the crew nervous."

"A black star forms when a star exhausts its nuclear fuel and collapses in on itself," Dr. Zimmerman was saying, "creating a supermass whose gravitational attraction is so strong even light waves cannot escape, making it invisible to the naked eye. Until now its existence has been purely hypothetical."

"If that's the case then you haven't seen anything like it either, TuV'k." Kim smirked. "Don't worry, I won't tell the crew."

"But you said there was a space station orbiting it," said Keshari. "If the gravity is as intense as you say, wouldn't it just get pulled in?"

"As long as the structure remains outside the gravitational radius of the black star, its centrifugal motion will counteract the star's pull. The structure can no more fall into the black star than our Moon can fall into the Earth." Hansen tapped a few more buttons on her couch's keypad and a hazy thermographic image hung before them: a space station that bore little resemblance to the Big Wheel orbitals they were used to.

"The structure is vast. Radar measures it as over fifteen miles along its major axis, girdled by an array of secondary structures of varying dimensions.  It appears to be a cylindrical space station of the kind theorized by Hohmann and Oberth in the early 20th Century. However the lack of observed rotation—and the fact that habitats appear to have been constructed around its exterior surface, not the inside where centrifugal force could be used to create pseudo-gravity—suggest the structure is a null-gee environment. It is either manned by robots, or beings like the Spaceborn who have adapted to such conditions."

"A riddle of a space station, orbiting an enigma," mused Janeway. "So, what's it doing out here in the middle of nowhere?"

"Obviously it's a scientific research station for studying the black star," pronounced Dr. Zimmerman. "The very nature of a black star makes it difficult to observe such phenomena at interstellar distances."

"Not sure I'd want to get close enough to see it," muttered Paris.

"The value to Science would be immeasurable, Mr. Paris. Gravity is the force that binds the Universe together. Its study is fundamental to understanding the nature of the Universe itself. There is nowhere that gravity is more intensely concentrated than a collapsed star."

"And you want us to walk up and knock on its door? How about we just contact this space station via radio?"

"And say what: Take me to your leader?" Zimmerman scoffed. "I doubt these aliens speak Esperanto. We've no way of translating any signals we might pick up, assuming they were even legible at this distance. We need the help of someone local, either through instruction or the Martian melding-of-minds."

"So we just need someone crazy enough to share his brain with TuV'k here."

"Thank you, Mr. Paris—that will do!" said Janeway in a sharp tone. Paris fell silent, retreating back into his couch under the captain's glare.

"Those aliens... or robots, maybe... do they know we're out here?" asked Kim, trying to change the subject.

"They will the moment we fire up the Cochrane Drive," said Carey.

"It is likely they know about us already," said Hansen. "Any rocketship or space station generates heat from the power and life support systems needed to keep it functioning. If we can see them on our thermoscopes, they can certainly see us."

"Then there's no point in dallying here. Miss Hansen, I want your department to plot a brachistochrone course at one Earth-gee of pseudo-gravity to that... structure, whatever it is."

"It is already plotted, Captain."

"Of course." Janeway gave a wry smile.

Chakotay spoke up. "Captain, I recommend we use a Hohmann trajectory instead. It might take longer, but we don't know how these extraterrans will react to a strange vessel blasting directly at them from out of the void. A more indirect course would conserve delta-V and give us time to finish our repairs and gather more intelligence about this region of Space."

There was a gleam in the captain's eyes that had been absent over the past few months of war and turmoil. "At Spacefleet Academy they taught us that establishing relations with an extraterran society is a slow and delicate process," said Janeway, "but over the years I've learned there are times you just have to jump in feet first. The longer we delay, the colder the trail to that cube-ship gets. Mr. Carey, start firing up the Cochrane Drive. The rest of you, return to your stations and fasten everything down. I want this ship underway in 90 minutes... that's 90 minutes and not one more!" Janeway repeated to quell the inevitable protests.

"Before you go," she continued, "there's one thing I want to make clear, and I want all of you to reiterate this to everyone under your command. We are not lost in Space. We are explorers of the final frontier of Man. This is a unique opportunity to make contact with life-forms and civilizations that Spacefleet has never encountered before, and might never have encountered in a hundred generations. So we're not going to tiptoe through the dark like frightened damsels. Let us go boldly into the unknown, like the Italian explorer Christopher Columbus when he sailed for the New World__"

"It's not a research station," B'Elanna interrupted.

Janeway looked at her in some annoyance. The Venerian girl had been quiet for so long Janeway had forgotten she was present. "I beg your pardon?"

B'Elanna's face flushed but she didn't back down. "Sorry Captain, but I don't think that's a black star we're looking at. Someone's created a traversable Einstein-Rosen bridge."

Dr. Zimmerman laughed. Hansen raised a skeptical eyebrow. Everyone else just looked puzzled.

"How did we get here in the first place?" asked B'Elanna. "Voyager was transported across the entire galaxy to where we are now in just a few minutes. That's not a faster-than-light drive; it's not anything that involves traversing normal Space. That black star must be the portal of an interstellar transport network."

"Young lady, I don't think you understand," said Dr. Zimmerman in a condescending tone. "Any object that falls into a black star is not coming out again. The intense gravitational force would shred it down to atoms. If even light cannot escape its gravity, then no rocketship can either."

"That's exactly the point: gravity! The cube-ship that brought us here, your helmsman said it had the power to manipulate gravity, to focus it on this ship like a beam." B'Elanna spoke faster, as if trying to get her words out before someone ordered her to shut up. "Let's suppose there was an alien race... they would have to be advanced far beyond us... suppose they had the technology to fold Space, using the most powerful gravitational force in the Universe to create a passageway between two disparate points in space-time thousands of light-years apart! In tri-dimensional space the entrance of the passageway would appear as a sphere, like a black star!"

"A passageway through what?" scoffed Carey. "Subspace? Hyperspace? That's just nonsense they make up for scientifilms!"

"Maybe we should listen to what she's saying," said Paris. "Show them that thing with the slide rule..."

"You try flying Voyager into that black star, Paris, it'll fold, spindle, and mutilate us!"

"Actually, the correct term is 'spaghettification'," chimed in Dr. Zimmerman.

"Then let us go boldly into the unknown like the Italian who invented carbonara."

"Oh that's right, space-jockey; make a joke out of this! I explained it to you in the messdeck! You need matter with exotic properties to stabilize the Einstein-Rosen bridge, something with negative mass... yes I know that violates known laws of physics but it's been theorized__"

"That's enough!" Captain Janeway didn't know whether to feel anger or pity for the girl, but she was going to have Chakotay's hide for a skinsuit for bringing her to this briefing. "I'm not going to waste our time on wild speculation. We can find out what that space station is when we get there, and the sooner the better." She glared around the room. "Well, why are you all still here? To your stations!"

"NOW HEAR THIS! ALL HANDS SECURE FOR ACCELERATION! SET MATERIAL CONDITION YOKE THROUGHOUT THE SHIP!"

Throughout Voyager hatches were dogged and collision-doors sealed. Null-gee cables were stowed and safety rails erected around hatchways that would become hazards in the presence of gravity. Petty officers roused sleeping spacers who grudgingly stretched safety webbing over bodies that had been adrift in the blissful comfort of null-gee. Everyone regardless of rank or rating looked about them for loose objects, no matter how small, that could become lethal missiles.

One by one, the calls came through to the Bridge: "Astrodome secure... Radar Room secure... Forward Torpedo Room... Aft Torpedo Room... Magazines One and Two... Dorsal Battery... Ventral Battery... Central Passageway... Sickbay... Computer Deck... Hangar Deck... Messdeck... Galley... CPO Mess... Wardroom... Main Radio Room... Emergency Radio Room... Auxiliary Control-Room... Science Laboratory... Life Support... Waste Recycling... Air Garden... Illusionarium... Gymnasium... Cargo Bays One to Three... Berthing Compartments One to Seven..."

"What's the hold-up in Engineering?" asked Captain Janeway. She was strapped down in her acceleration couch, scowling at the tell-tale lights on her lap console, one of which was still red.

"Burial," said Chakotay, sotto voce.

Janeway bit her lip. She had almost forgotten—the funeral rites of the twelve dead spacers (Jia Li had never woken from her coma) had been held over a week ago. A generation raised in the shadow of nuclear holocaust had learned to detach the disposal of the dead from the rituals of mourning, more so when a decomposing or radioactive corpse could contaminate the closed environment of a rocketship.

But spacers had their own rites; bodies were not set adrift in the void or launched into the Sun (which could be billions of miles away) but wrapped in dermaplastic and fastened outside the hull until they could be recycled as reaction mass for the ship's engines—or in the case of a torchship, placed where they would be cremated by the exhaust plume. What had been cold-blooded pragmatism in the early days of Space exploration was now a hallowed ritual.

'Those we loved are gone, these bodies are but empty shells,' thought Janeway. 'We consign them to the fire to be scattered across the stars. Ashes to ashes, stardust to stardust...'

In the control-room crammed up against the massive radiation shield that separated the habitable compartments of Voyager from its Cochrane Drive, men in sweat-soaked coveralls hunched over shining instrument boards, their gaze fixed on flow gauges, pyrometers, magnetometers, rad-counters and gamma-ray detectors; the TV eyes and electronic sensors that monitored areas too dangerous to station personnel, where only robots or remotely-operated waldos could carry out adjustments or repairs. A telescreen view of the reaction chamber cast the unearthly blue radiance that gave the Glowing Gang its name: a lethal genie trapped within the invisible confines of its electromagnetic bottle, dancing and swirling like a fiery elemental, the monstrous energy released by the collision of matter and anti-matter.

At the Chief Engineer's station, Joseph Carey clutched the red-lit lever that if pulled would jettison the Cochrane Drive and its contraterrene fuel-trap with explosive bolts and booster rockets. No-one knew if that would actually work in practice. Such methods might have served for atomic engines, but a contraterrene-powered torchship was an entirely different matter. Everyone in the Glowing Gang suspected that if those electromagnetic fields faltered for so much as a microsecond, they'd all be obliterated before anyone could even think about pulling a lever.

'And the Space Commander wants to put that crazy Venerian in here,' thought Carey. The last thing he wanted was the lads distracted by women. Such power was not to be taken lightly. As a child, he had watched the sky glow from across the Irish Sea as England burned, and the energy confined in the Cochrane Drive made a fusion bomb look like a firecracker.

A light flashed red above a lead-lined hatch stenciled with the warnings: HIGH RADIATION AREA and NO MAGNETIC BOOTS BEYOND THIS POINT. Carey heard the chug-chug of pumps as high-pressure hoses went into action. The light turned green and the hatch hissed open. Three figures stepped out of the decontamination chamber; slick with detergent, grotesque in their lead-and-cadmium armor, their suction-boots squelching on the deckplates.

"We lost Ballard," said one of them. His voice was overly-loud and metallic, projected through the speaker grill from the man encased inside. "Her tether must have come loose."

It took Carey a moment to remember who he was referring to. Lyndsay Ballard, the dead computer tender. Now her corpse would drift forever, incorruptible in the vacuum of Space. "Keep it to yourselves," he ordered, without taking his eyes off his board. "If anyone asks, she burnt up with the others. Are we all clear on that?" There was a general murmur of affirmation. His lads were a tight-knit group; he knew none of them would speak out of turn. Carey waited until the three men had been helped out of their rad-suits and strapped into acceleration couches, then keyed the intercraft.

"Power Room to Bridge. Ready to engage thrust. Throttle control transferred to helm."

"My course is set for an uncharted sea," quoted Captain Janeway. "Mr. Paris, you have the conn."

With an intense expression that bellied his usual demeanor, Tom Paris unclutched the flywheel and in obedience to Newton's Third Law of Motion—for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction—the thousand-foot rocketship began to turn in the direction opposite to the flywheel's spin. When the correct position was reached he locked the gyros, waited for Astrogation to verify their heading, then flipped the switch to turn control over to the robot-pilot. As the preprogrammed tape began to spin in its reel, Paris keyed the PA toggle on his intercraft. "Now hear this! All hands, brace for acceleration! Engaging thrust in ten seconds... Nine... Eight... Seven... Six..."

There was nothing to do but wait as the numbers counted down. The Cochrane Drive would fire automatically on the exact millisecond and for the exact amount of time that had been calculated by Astrogation. Paris would only take over if something went wrong, which now that he thought of it was highly likely. His palms felt damp on the levers and his stomach was doing skew-flips. Had their mismatched crew of Spacefleet and Maquis misfits goofed somewhere? A stuck solenoid, a misaligned component, an unsecured latch? Were they about to go up in the biggest blast since Manhattan Island?

"...Five... Four... Three... Two..."

Paris was drawing breath to shout "One!" when he was slammed back into the acceleration couch. Something small and metallic smacked into his cheek hard enough to draw blood, clanked off the deckplates and instead of floating free, rolled along what was now the floor until it dropped into a crawl space from where it was later retrieved after a good deal of effort and cursing by the shamefaced crewman who had failed to tighten the nut properly in the first place.

 

Chapter VI: AMAZONS

Hail Mary, full of grace,

The Lord is with thee,

on Venus and among the stars...

B'Elanna Torres had been confined to quarters. Her quarters were a six-foot long capsule that a Jap wouldn't sleep in, yet she was expected to rest and even entertain herself there. Not that the capsule was short of amenities. Ultraviolet lamps and a hypno-sleep light were fixed into the ceiling, the mattress had a built-in automassager, and there were book-spools and music-tapes slotted into the sponge-rubber padding that lined every surface. The psychotechs were supposed to screen out anyone who suffered from claustrophobia or pathological solipsism, but B'Elanna couldn't help wondering how many cases of space madness were caused by the inability to get out and run around whenever you wanted. Perhaps these Terrans didn't see the need, raised as they were in air-conditioned megacities that always felt too cold to her, using photophones to talk and slidewalks to walk and illusionariums to experience lives they were too lazy to live themselves.

Blessed art thou among women,

And blessed are the fruit of thy womb, Jesus of Terra...

The music included Noisy Rhysling, the post-atomic melancholies of Starr Anthim, Venus Exotica that didn't sound like anything she had heard on her homeworld, and a tape labelled Songs of Space which for some strange reason included Also sprach Zarathustra (what did Nietzsche's ramblings have to do with Outer Space?). From the girly pin-ups and book-spools of trashy adventure tales set on 'frontier Mars' and the 'exotic jungles of Venus', she concluded the last occupant of this capsule had been a male Terran, most likely a space marine. As she was now using his quarters, he had either been left behind on Vesta to force Belters onto the evacuation rockets at gunpoint, or his expectations of adventure had come to a sudden and unwanted end.

Holy Mary, mother of God

Pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death...

Someone knocked on the outside of the capsule. B'Elanna quickly hid the rosary under her mattress, shoved a bookphone in her ear and adopted a bored expression.

"Who is it?"

"Chakotay. I need a word."

The privacy screen slid open to reveal Chakotay standing on the short ladder that allowed access to the capsules, racked three high on either side of a narrow aisle. He wore Spacefleet dinner dress, the custom-fitted jacket and trousers fresh out of the ship's mecho-tailor. The technology that enabled an electro-mechanical milling machine to produce a custom-made replacement part from a block of steel could also be used to make clothing, using a pre-programmed pattern adjusted to the wearer's measurements. Most of the Maquis had been happy to exchange their filthy and irradiated synthileathers for a brand-new coverall, though some had made a point of removing the Spacefleet shoulder patch. Chakotay had kept his patch, B'Elanna noticed, but his jacket was bare of medals and on his feet were a pair of moccasins that made an incongruous contrast to his formal attire.

"Did you hear the story about the ensign with three breasts?" asked B'Elanna.

"All I keep hearing about is the Venerian with no brain."

B'Elanna sat up shouting, "Lieutenant Carey is an OWWW!" as she banged her head on the capsule's ceiling, trailing off in a string of curses. Chakotay informed her that Carey had never been groundside on Venus, so was unlikely to have had intimate relations with a mudsucker eel.

"I thought I'd earned your loyalty, B'Elanna. Pulling stunts like this make the Maquis look bad—me especially, because I keep having to defend your actions."

"I didn't notice you defending me at the senior officer's briefing."

"I know when to speak up and when to shut up. If you had a theory about that black star, you could have told me afterwards instead of trying to show up Zimmerman and brass off the captain."

"I'm sorry, did I interrupt her speech? I heard all that let-us-boldly-go-where-no-man-has-gone-before from so-called explorers in the Vepaja Morass. There were little girls like me there already, but no-one ever named schools on Terra after us."

"I don't want to hear it!" barked Chakotay. "Right when I've finally gotten everyone working together, you assault two people and get these Spacefleet people riled up at us! Now I've got a captain who wants you court-martialed, when I'm trying to convince her to make you Chief Engineer!"

"I've already been hauled over the atomic pile by the captain. She gave me another speech and told me to get my engrams cleared. The Dianetics auditor saw my tattoos and started lecturing me about how Catholicism was a conspiracy by aliens to control the Human Race, so I told him he peddled a quack psychology cooked up as a money-making scheme by a megalomaniac pulp novelist." B'Elanna fell back onto her mattress. "At least no-one's using your religion as a therapy tool, Chakotay."

"So, were you planning to spend the entire trip in this pod?" Chakotay asked. B'Elanna didn't answer. "If you want to be any kind of engineer on this rocketship, you're going to need the support of the Glowing Gang. You might want to put some effort into bonding with them instead of handsome space-jockeys." He ducked as B'Elanna threw her bookphone at his head.

"I am not going to bond with any of these idiots! If I have one more Terran male ask me about the mating rites of the Amazons, I'm going to break his jaw!"

"Then change the subject. Talk about soccer, how boring the weather is now it's controlled by Science, the practical applications of folding space."

B'Elanna just stared at him.

"Spacewarp drive," said Chakotay. "Can you make it work?"

"You... you can't seriously believe I can invent and build a supra-light drive in Voyager's machine shop! This is real life, not Captain Proton!"

"We're fifty light-years from the nearest Sol-type star," said Chakotay. "So how did that space station get here? When that star collapsed the shockwave would have destroyed any planet in its habitable zone. No civilization would send out a generation ship to travel for centuries to a solar system they can't colonize. Either your theory is correct and that's an interstellar portal, or these aliens can travel faster than the speed of light. If we could get hold of a drive unit, you could reverse-engineer it."

"And just what are we going to buy it with: mirrors and glass beads?" B'Elanna ripped a pin-up from the ceiling of her capsule: a National Geographic 2-D of a female Venerian bedecked in jewels, a sword harness, and not much else. "Beautiful, isn't she? The famous Amazon warriors of Venus. Do you know what diamonds are, Chakotay?"

"Sure. They're used as an abrasive in asteroid mining tools."

"On Venus they're jewels: starfires, we call them. Terran traders would buy whole acres of jungle with those shiny chunks of crystalized carbon, clear the ground with slave labor and grow food crops under sundomes to ship back to Earth. My mother boasted of her hoard of diamonds. She must have slaughtered and enslaved half the tribes of the Vepaja Morass to get them. She thought she could use them to buy modern firearms and the traders were happy to string her along. I tried to tell her they're worthless because you Terrans can make diamonds in a laboratory; you don't have to dig them out of the ground anymore. She didn't listen; she just ended up doing their dirty work. That's what happens when a primitive culture meets an advanced technological society."

Chakotay could have told her something different. The Amazons he'd fought had been covered in blood, not diamonds, screaming like banshees as they swarmed through the Edenglass, hacking down settlers with their double-bladed scimitars. They had spent months searching for the culprits with 'copters and amphibious-tanks and orbital platforms; all the technology of Terra useless against an enemy that hid in the swamps and jungles. Eventually Spacefleet had defoliated everything in a twenty-mile radius around the New Earth colony, and that had worked well enough until the never-ending rains turned the ground into a quagmire infested with bloodworms and mudsucker eels.

Memories came flooding back... heaving gold ingots over the side as their swamp-tank sank into the mud... the siren song of the Shambleau calling him into the darkness... slaves screaming under the electrolash of a Nigerian overseer... two armies pausing in battle to watch his duel with Ke'Shaan at the Cytherean Gate... Von Stauffen lying back against the A-bomb as it ticked down to oblivion, saying in his clipped Prussian manner, "Meine Herren, I think it is time you left." The cultural engineers preaching their grandiose schemes while mutant children begged for scraps in the LowPort... Ke'Shaan tearing herself from his arms to stride to the gibbet with her head held high. "Venus is not a goddess of love, Ch'Kotay. On this world, one embrace's death." He wrenched himself back to the present with an effort.

"Those aliens aren't going to hand over their technology to a bunch of savages who can't even make it out of their own solar system," B'Elanna was saying.

"I wasn't suggesting we ask politely."

She gave Chakotay a skeptical look. "You think Miss Bold Explorer is going to engage in space piracy?"

"I think this captain will do whatever needs to be done to get her crew home," said Chakotay. "What do you know of the Valkyrie disaster?"

"Just the Hollywood tri-vid. Meteorite kills everyone in the male berthing compartment, captain goes nuts, the girls take over and wacky hijinks ensue."

"I doubt Captain Janeway remembers it that way." The disaster had involved murder, mutiny, radiation sickness and a lottery of death right out of the horror tales. "She was on the crew that brought the Valkyrie back to Equatorial Station. They were lucky to escape court-martial."

The verdict of the board of inquiry was that no mutiny had occurred: the senior officers had succumbed to space madness and the crew had confined them for their own safety. Two officers had died trying to retake the ship and one had committed suicide, so Captain Qu had been the sole remaining witness against the accused. Months of solitary confinement in an air-lock had left their toll, and Qu's belief that he was an omnipotent being who could change the Universe with a snap of his fingers had not left a good impression.

"I'm going to have dinner with the captain now," said Chakotay. "I think she wants to mend some bridges. So if she agrees to let you out of this capsule, I want your word that you'll fix things up with Carey."

"Dinner with Janeway, huh? You always had a thing for redheads."

"I'm waiting for an answer, Torres..."

"YES!" shouted B'Elanna. As Chakotay continued to stare at her she mumbled, "I mean, yes sir..."

"I'll hold you to that."

Chakotay shut the privacy screen and dropped his moccasin-clad feet onto the deck. It wasn't an Amerindian thing; moccasins were more comfortable than magheel boots now that Voyager had returned to pseudo-gravity. The ship was only accelerating at one-gee so that repairs could continue, but it still felt like he had lead weights on his feet after all that time in free-fall. And moccasins had the added advantage of making less noise on the deckplates. Spacers valued their sleep.

His feet might have been too quiet. As Chakotay made his way through the berthing compartment, a stall slid open and out stepped a stark-naked girl, her pale skin and auburn hair gleaming from the refresher.

"Comrade Chakotay," she greeted him, as casually as if she had been fully dressed. "I've been looking for you."

"Hello Seska," replied Chakotay, feeling an inexplicable embarrassment. There was little room for privacy on a spaceship, and berths were no longer segregated by gender after what happened to the Valkyrie, but they had been lovers when he first joined the Maquis, until he became her captain and had to break off the relationship. The need for genetic diversity in the tiny Belt colonies had caused spacer women to adopt the pragmatic morals of the ancient seafaring Polynesians, and he could not help wondering who was sharing her affections now.

"Look what I found." Seska stepped past Chakotay, her nude body tantalizingly close in the narrow space, and used her palmprint to key open a locker. From it, she removed a small bundle of Martian leather, bound with a cord. "I believe this belongs to you."

Chakotay took it reverently from her hands. "I thought I'd lost it back on Vesta! Where did you find it?"

"Janeway's marines stripped the Valjean of anything that might be of intelligence value. I was able to convince my kinesic-interrogator that the items were purely personal. After we were set free, I was able track it down in Waste Recycling before it got burnt up as reaction mass."

"Thank you," was all Chakotay could say. That a Communist who had renounced all religion had been willing to spend hours sorting through the trash to find his sacred bundle meant a lot to him. He pressed his fingers against the leather pouch, verifying the contents by touch. The items inside were private, not to be shown even to this woman with whom he'd shed blood and shared oxygen. A fish carved from asteroid rock by a boy who had never seen an ocean. A love knot from the girl who had made him a man—so he would remember her name, she said, but he had forgotten it anyway. The eagle feather he had stolen as a feckless youth from a well-guarded aviary on Earth. The bloodstained cloth Ke'Shaan had used to bind the wound she had given him. A half-melted stembolt from Hygiea Station.

Love, death, pain, regret, counting coup. Medicine for a vision quest.

He would have to find a place to meditate, Chakotay thought; somewhere with a view of the stars. The astrodome would be ideal, but Hansen guarded it against all intruders regardless of rank, ostensibly to prevent damage to the delicate instruments and photographic plates (he suspected the real reason was to stop amorous spacemen from distracting the legendary beauties of Astrogation). Perhaps he could find a suitable porthole, but there were precious few of those on a rocketship for the simple reason that there was seldom anything for a crew to look at until they reached their destination.

Seska was taking her time getting dressed, displaying her svelte curves for his appreciation as she slipped into shorts and a shirt and pulled on her calf-boots. Hailing from the polar city of New Leningrad, Seska was the end product of an economic system that conscripted its best minds into science and industry while the West saw their talent wasted in advertising and entertainment. Despite the early lead the United States had in the Space Race, by the 1980's the Sino-Soviet Union was racing ahead in the fields of electronics, computer technology, and the safe production of atomic energy. Seska's specialty was cybernetics, the interaction between humans and machines. A report she submitted on the Electronic Minds had resulted in her exile to the Asteroid Belt. "The Presidium didn't like the suggestion that they were no longer running things," she had told Chakotay.

Whether this tale was the truth was another matter. Seska had proven adept at gathering intelligence about Spacefleet activities during the Asteroid War: tapping computers and photophone lines, interrogating prisoners and (Chakotay suspected) drawing on a network of spies and fellow travelers working for the Soviet KGB. No-one queried her success. Too many Belters had their own murky pasts and dubious associations. Chakotay had even wondered if B'Elanna wasn't secretly working for the Brazilian government.

For all the talk of the Jovian menace, everyone knew that the greatest threat to peace in the Solar System was Earth itself. The orbiting A-bomb platforms of Spacefleet had made wars of conquest obsolete, but not the pressures that caused them. Cold War hostilities threatened to erupt anew on other worlds, while young superpowers like India and Brazil were flexing their might. Africans and Asians who had been freed from the yoke of colonialism were establishing colonies on Venus and Mars, seeking to depose civilizations they viewed as primitive or decadent. Famine loomed on Earth with over seven billion people crammed into megacities and not enough arable land to feed them. Scientists had invented the birth control pill but it had little effect on the morals of society. It was more politically expedient to support off-world emigration than unpopular measures of population control.

All of these interests were threatened by the Tri-World Federation: an organization where Earth, Venus and Mars held equal political status, backed by the military power of Spacefleet. There were plenty of countries who had been eager to help the Maquis give the Federation a bloody nose. But despite all the speeches in the UN Council, the support had been lacking when it most counted. The Belters had been willing to put their lives on the line, but with the horrors of World War 3 still in the memory of most Earth citizens, the politicians had preferred to keep the conflict hundreds of thousands of miles away.

"What's going to happen to B'Elanna?" Seska asked.

"I don't know yet," said Chakotay, "but let me handle it."

"I've been talking to the Voyager crew." Seska stepped close to him and lowered her voice. "None of them are happy about this fix their captain has gotten them into. There are a number of comrades here from progressive countries. With the right encouragement and the support of the Maquis, they would be ready to back you."

'Conspiracy is as natural as breathing to these Reds', thought Chakotay. "Back me in what, exactly?"

"Should you want to take control of Voyager. People feel better when there's a man in charge."

"I'll remember that next time you tell me what I should do."

"You're a soldier!" snapped the Red redhead, her nostrils flaring. "I've seen Janeway's record. She's a scientist. She never came up the ranks the hard way like you did."

'And that's why I underestimated her,' thought Chakotay. He had hoped to take Voyager by surprise while her crew was assisting the evacuation of the Vesta colonies. Instead, Janeway had attacked with a boldness that surprised him, right up to the moment an atom-tipped torpedo ruptured the hull of the Valjean. The thought of all those who had died because of his mistake made Chakotay's response harsher than he intended. "If I ever hear you talk that way again, I'll personally throw you in the brig for mutiny!"

Seska's eyes went wide. "You'd put me in the brig... after all we've been through?" Chakotay didn't answer. "That uniform has got you thinking you're one of them again. Just remember—when your cause needed help after Spacefleet betrayed you, my people were the ones who came to your aid."

"I remember," said Chakotay, "that when it came down to a veto in the United Nations, the Sino-Soviet Union chose to abstain."

"That was the Presidium's decision, not mine!" She placed a hand lightly on his chest. "I stayed with you till the bitter end, didn't I?"

'And why did you stay?' Chakotay wondered. 'Was if for me, or some enigmatic plan by your superiors in New Moscow? Do you even know yourself?'

"Then stay with me now," he said in a softer tone. "I'm trying to get this crew to work together. Don't undermine what I'm doing."

"Fine, just remember whose side you're on."

"There are no 'sides'. No Maquis and Spacefleet, no Eastbloc or Western Alliance. It's just us; stuck on this rocketship on the edge of nowhere. Splitting this crew into rival factions is going to get us all killed, and I, for one, would like to get home."

"And then what?" Seska shot back at him. "Do you seriously believe that so-called pardon of Janeway's is going to keep us out of a re-education clinic? When this rocketship returns to our Solar System, YOU need to be in command!" Without waiting for a response, the Russian girl spun on her heel and strode off down the aisle, her back straight with anger despite the womanly sway of her hips.

Chakotay watched her go, his face pensive.

 

TO BE CONTINUED



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