DISCLAIMER: Paramount, Viacom, whoever else these days, just borrowing, no harm intended...yaa dee dah...
AUTHOR'S NOTE: T/7, of course, graphic scenes somewhere in the middle, Borg children still on board, no canon episode referenced except for the one with the Science Fair, the Omega Particle episode and the Tsunkatse tournament ship episode.

Queen of Hearts
By DiNovia

Part Three

B'Elanna did not leave the cargo bay that night.

She worked on the Bassinet steadily, feverishly, until—at 0217—she connected the energy transfer interface to the support structure, fitted the insulated cover over the hardware, and stood back, perching her hands on her hips.

"It's done," she said, looking at the chamber. It was a brilliant design for which she could claim absolutely none of the credit, though she had added an upgrade here, a circuit configuration there. All that remained now was the testing phase and then the baby would have her own regeneration unit to sleep in until she was old enough to stand in an alcove like her siblings or until she was weaned from regeneration altogether.

B'Elanna shook her head and ran her fingers along one of the cold rails, finally able to truly appreciate Seven's vision for the chamber only now that it was sitting in front of her, solid and real. A fully adaptable Borg infant's regeneration apparatus that consisted of four "phases", allowing for the child's changes in growth, development, and needs. Add to that the fact that it drew power directly from Seven's alcove unit—which allowed her to monitor the technology even while regenerating herself—and B'Elanna realized she couldn't have done better. Not one bit.

Brilliant, she said, smiling slightly, feeling fully now the effects of an emotionally and physically trying day. It's done and she's brilliant and beautiful and…

She looked up at Seven's regenerating form for a moment, mesmerized by the long, dusky lashes that lay so gently along her cheeks and the strands of golden hair that still curled around her face. Her lips were full and slightly open, their color the softest shade of pink B'Elanna had ever seen. Long arms cradled the baby in the sling, giving the two of them the air of a post-apocalyptic Madonna and Child.

At that very instant, a deep emotion swept through B'Elanna's body like the QeHchor, a quicksilver river that ran through her province on Qo'noS. She felt now like she had when she was young, standing under the heated water of the river as it cascaded over a small outcropping of rock near her home…startled, frightened, and so damn alive she could feel the blood in her veins.

…and I think I've fallen in love with her, her mind whispered, finishing her interrupted thought.

B'Elanna's muscles froze, her body warring with her mind, neither one quite ready for the realization and yet neither one able to deny it. Relief battled with denial and insecurity with desire. The battle ended in the next instant, forgotten completely as she wondered what Seven's skin felt like, how it would be to hold her slender, pale body in her arms. She wondered how the stars would look reflected in Seven's eyes and how sweet her kiss would taste. In the safety of the chilled and quiet cargo bay, B'Elanna gave her hearts free reign for a few precious moments, letting the thunder roll and the river crash through her. She closed her eyes and gave herself permission to dream of something she knew she could never deserve, letting the dream shatter only when the cargo bay doors opened unexpectedly.

B'Elanna shot a look at the intruder, her wrath dying the instant she saw Mizati standing in the doorway, sleepily rubbing one eye with a balled fist.

"Mizati? Kiddo, are you okay?"

The little girl nodded and headed towards her personal storage unit.

"I could not sleep," she said matter-of-factly. "I forgot…something." She opened the top drawer of her storage chest and lifted out something small and flat.

"Forgot what? It's almost 0300."

Mizati regarded her friend speculatively for a moment then silently reached out a single hand, palm up, revealing the cause of her early morning mission. A battered playing card stared lifelessly up at the engineer. It was the queen of hearts with the addition of a silver crescent near the left eye, marked by a child's hand.

"It's Seven," said B'Elanna incredulously.

Mizati nodded. "I usually keep it in my pocket," she explained. "I must have forgotten it when I left with Naomi earlier."

"You really love Seven, don't you, kiddo?"

The little girl cocked her head curiously. "She is my mother. Is it not typical for a child to love her mother?"

B'Elanna discarded her first two responses, realizing that her personal experiences with her own mother had nothing to do with Mizati's question.

"Let's go sit down for a minute, okay?" she asked, holding out a hand to the little girl.

"Okay." Mizati took B'Elanna's hand and allowed the engineer to pull her into the rocking chair. The two of them sat in silence while B'Elanna worked out what she wanted to say.

Mizati sighed irritably.

"You are going to explain to me that Seven is not my mother and that if I continue to claim otherwise, both Seven and I will be hurt when it comes time for me to rejoin my family on Norkadia."

B'Elanna blinked. "Uhhhh…well, yeah." Somehow she hadn't expected Mizati to take the lead in the conversation.

"Captain Janeway already explained that to me," said the little girl. "She also said that she was bound to return me to my biological family if they came to claim me, regardless of my feelings for Seven."

"Uh huh," nodded B'Elanna, trying to picture the conversation. "And you said…?"

Mizati looked matter-of-factly at the Klingon. "I told the captain that I will not allow her to return me to a family I do not know. Voyager is my family now; any other claim is irrelevant."

B'Elanna smirked and shook her head. "And what did the captain have to say to that?" she asked, guessing the lecture that had followed that little outburst had been of the 'paint peeling' variety.

"She only smiled and said we would 'cross that bridge when we come to it.' In the meantime, I am to ask for Seven's permission to designate her 'Mama'." The wide-eyed Norkadian turned her plaintive gaze toward B'Elanna. "I did not ask for her permission earlier in the holodeck. Do you think she will say no?"

B'Elanna pulled the little girl into her arms, looking over her rounded shoulders toward the still features of Seven of Nine, keen eyes making note of the strain that colored an otherwise blank expression.

"I don't know, kiddo," said the engineer as she gently began to rock Mizati. "Let's find out tomorrow, okay? We've all had a very long day."

"0600 hours. Regeneration cycle complete."

Seven of Nine opened her eyes slowly, taking her time to become fully conscious. Her usual custom was to simply open her eyes and begin the day, but she recognized in herself a certain reluctance to adhere to her routine this morning and allowed herself the flexibility to do as she wished.

"Good morning, sleepyhead," said a soft, chiding voice.

Seven's eyes snapped open to see B'Elanna Torres sitting in the rocking chair with Mizati curled up in her arms, sleeping soundly.

"B'Elanna?" Her bright blue eyes clouded over with confusion and alarm, darting from B'Elanna to Mizati and back. "Is Mizati damaged?"

"She was just homesick, that's all," said the engineer softly, running her fingers along the child's cheek. She found Seven's eyes and pinned her with a pointed gaze—one that said she had seen the Borg's worry.

"She missed her mother," she added. For good measure.

Seven's features darkened and she began to reply, but B'Elanna raised a hand.

"Don't bother, Seven. I'm not buying it anymore and neither are you." The young Klingon sighed and softened her voice. "It's not logical or rational or…" She swallowed hard. "…or even obedient, Seven. Love just is, okay? You can't stop loving Mizati. And she won't ever stop loving you."

B'Elanna retrieved something from Mizati's hand and presented it to the Borg, lifting it in her outstretched palm. Seven looked at the flat object—a playing card—and recognized herself instantly in the crudely accessorized picture of the queen of hearts.

She gingerly lifted the card out of B'Elanna's hand.

"It is a representation of...me," she whispered wonderingly.

"Mizati carries it in her pocket every day. She came back to get it at 0300, when she realized it was missing."

The baby in Seven's arms chose that moment to sigh and stir, announcing her wakefulness with a sleepy giggle and a loud smacking of her lips. Seven looked down at the infant with a look somewhere between surprise and tenderness and something inside her shattered quietly, like sunlight tinkling across windchimes. She felt relieved and…lighter, somehow. As if the gravity of the ship had changed and she was no longer bound to the deck plating.

Seven scooped the squirming child out of the sling and held her up, a smile tinting her lips and dancing in her eyes. After a moment, she pressed her lips to the baby's forehead and settled her against her shoulder, allowing the little one to burrow as close as she desired.

"Seven...?" B'Elanna knew something had changed for the younger woman, something fundamental. But she didn't know what or how. She sat forward slightly until she realized Mizati was still asleep in her lap.

The eight-year-old stirred, rubbing one eye with a balled fist. She looked up at Seven sleepily, more than a little confused. Where were Naomi and Ensign Wildman? She looked around, instantly recognizing the cargo bay yet oblivious to how she had gotten there.

"Mama?" she asked.

The room stilled. B'Elanna looked at Seven, waiting, and Seven looked at Mizati, caught between two reactions. Finally, the lithe blonde kneeled in front of the rocking chair.

"Yes, I am here," she said, softly acknowledging—and returning—the child's love for the first time.

Mizati did not blink an eye, satisfied that all was as it should be—except, of course, for her current location. Before she could formulate the proper questions to ask, Seven held out a hand to her.

"It is time for you to regenerate now, Mizati. We will talk after my duty shift."

The little girl took the offered hand. "Yes, Mama," she said, smiling.

Seven turned to her Klingon friend.

"B'Elanna, would you—?" The young Borg held the infant out to the engineer.

"Sure." B'Elanna scooped the little one into her arms. "Come here, Batatita," she said, tickling the baby's tummy, making her giggle.

Seven cocked her head to one side, raising an inquisitive optical implant.

"'Batatita'," she repeated. "A small sweet potato. A descriptive designation and one that is strangely similar to the name I have chosen for my…this child."

The Klingon blinked. "A name? You've chosen a name? What? When?"

"I have been researching names and naming practices for some time, however, I have only recently begun to understand their true power and importance. Therefore—with this name—I have chosen to honor someone whose actions spoke of strength in the face of opposition, compassion in the face of prejudice, and love in the face of hatred."

"You're naming her Kathryn, aren't you?" smiled B'Elanna knowingly. "After Janeway."

"No," replied Seven. "Though I do see the reasoning behind such a choice."

"Then…who?" B'Elanna settled the infant expertly in the cradle of her arms. "Come on, Seven! The suspense is killing me!"

Vividly blue eyes softened with liquid tenderness and the light of a newly opened heart.

"The child's name is B'Etal Nueves."

Only the deepest, most primitive maternal instinct kept B'Elanna from dropping B'Etal in pure, unadulterated shock.

"B'Etal?" she whispered. "Her name is…?"

"B'Etal Nueves, named for B'Etal of the House of K'mDoQ, mother of Miral of the House of K'mDoQ, mother of B'Elanna Torres of the Starship Voyager."

Seven saw the disbelief and confusion in her friend's eyes.

"When your mother petitioned the House Council for permission to marry Enrique Torres, a Human," she explained, "B'Etal alone approved the match. When the House Council stripped Miral of her familial name and banished her for her choice, B'Etal alone continued to speak to her, against direct orders. When you were born, B'Etal alone attended your mother and you during the wan'Ihuq'wI, the Rite of Transition."

"Without your grandmother's intervention," concluded Mizati thoughtfully, having listened to the entire conversation with rapt attention, "it is quite likely that you would not exist today!" She looked up at Seven. "I like my sister's name, Mama."

B'Elanna felt tears well in her eyes and she turned away from Seven and the little girl, hiding the unfamiliar emotional response from them. She looked down at B'Etal, smiling through her tears, wondering how so seemingly small a thing as a name could make her feel so…happy…astounded…and loved. The power of a name was obviously something she, too, had underestimated.

"I like it, too," she said, giving the baby a finger to tug on.

Mizati stole a glance at her mother and then at her friend as silence enveloped them, full to bursting with things unsaid. She gave Seven's hand a tug to get her attention and then gestured with her eyes toward B'Elanna, releasing her mother's hand at the same time. She could not have been clearer about her wishes had she spoken them aloud.

Seven's eyes followed Mizati's gaze and then looked back, nodding slightly, hesitantly, suddenly bereft of the confidence she wore as armor. She stepped close to B'Elanna and reached out, placing her right hand—her Human hand—gently and carefully on her shoulder.

The effect was astonishing.

It was as if the heat of B'Elanna's skin became a living entity, rushing through the connection of Seven's fingertips to infect her systemically. The sensation careened like a river of light along her nerve endings and in her blood, making her head ring with the thunder of her own heartbeat.

B'Elanna turned, her wide chestnut eyes revealing that she, too, could feel what Seven felt. That she was not immune to it and could no more ignore its existence than the existence of gravity.


Dark fingers darted forward, gently silencing Seven with a touch along her lips. They moved, then, to the nape of the Borg's neck and cupped it, pulling her closer.

B'Elanna's intention was clear and precise. There was no doubt, no hesitancy, no fear.

Only a certain longing and a…


"Janeway to Seven of Nine."

Startled, B'Elanna and Seven leapt apart like teens caught in a forbidden embrace. Mizati, meanwhile, rolled her eyes and wondered how the Captain had ever survived to her current age with such an appalling sense of timing.

"You wished to see me, Captain?"

Kathryn Janeway smiled at her early morning visitor and gestured for her to sit down.

"Yes, Seven. And although I am well aware that you prefer to stand, I think you might want to sit down for this."

The young woman nodded, promptly and primly settling herself on the edge of the offered chair.

"I see," she said evenly. "This discussion is to be of a disciplinary nature."

Janeway frowned slightly and quirked a confused grin. "No, Seven. Not at all. Where on Earth did you get that idea?"

"78.33% of the times you have specifically requested that I sit in your ready room have been for disciplinary discussions. It was a 'safe bet'."

Janeway blinked.

"Well...I'll be more aware of that tendency in the future, that's for sure." She shook her head a little, hoping she would be able to have future conversations with Seven without wondering what behavioral statistic she was affecting. "However, I asked you here to talk about the children. Specifically Mizati."

Seven frowned much in the same way as Samantha Wildman did when discussing Naomi's few misadventures.

"Tell me what she has done and I will see that it does not occur again."

"No, no, Seven, it's nothing like that." Janeway stood and came around her desk to perch on the corner. "She hasn't done anything wrong. She and I simply had an interesting...talk...the other day and I just wanted to touch base with you, to see how this assignment is working out."

The sudden wariness that radiated from the Borg was not lost on the captain.


"Yes, assignment. I didn't really give you much choice in the matter, did I? Chakotay and I both ordered you to become and to remain the children's mentor and caretaker."

"Perhaps I felt it was an assignment—initially. However, I do not view it as such any longer. Any 'reassignment' of these duties would be met with resistance, Captain." She looked up at her own mentor with eyes as hard and cold as steel. "With force, if necessary."

Janeway took a slow, deep breath and leveled a 'Force 10' look at the woman she considered to be both student and friend.

"Are you threatening me, Seven?" she asked coolly.

The young woman did not flinch or waver. If anything, her eyes became darker, dancing with ice-blue flames.

"You are my Captain and the center of my collective. I am aware of the risks of such an action. You are also my mentor and my friend. Regardless of the risks involved, these things and your importance to me would—under normal circumstances—preclude me from threatening to use force against you. However, the children…have become…are my family. I do not wish to lose them."

Janeway considered Seven's words. "I think I understand your meaning," she said cautiously. "Placing the children in the care of another member of this crew would, no doubt, be painful and detrimental to everyone concerned. You obviously…care…about them a great deal. However, if Mizati's or the infant's parents or relatives come for them, what then? Are you prepared to let Mizati and the infant return to their people?"

Sadness flooded Seven's eyes before she could lower them from Kathryn's gaze.

"I…I do not know, Kathryn. The thought of that event causes me to feel certain emotions I am only now learning to manage. Anger…fear…pain…" She silently implored the captain with uncertain eyes. "Please do not ask me to deceive you. I cannot answer your query accurately."

At that moment, Kathryn Janeway realized that Mizati's perception of Seven as Mother was not a one-way street. Regardless of whether or not Seven could articulate such a conviction, she certainly believed it—right down to her very core.

Janeway leaned forward and put a comforting hand on the young woman's arm.

"Seven, I'm not asking these questions to cause you pain. That's the last thing I want to do when you are just discovering these wonderful relationships." Seven clenched her jaw and the auburn-haired woman sighed.

"I don't want to see you hurt," she continued finally. "Can you understand that? I only want to protect you."

"Like you did when iCheb was taken from me? When Ixan and Rebi returned to their family?" Seven's eyes were empty of ire and her voice was soft, but her words cut like a Klingon d'ktahg. "Like you protected me when One died?"

"Seven, I—" Kathryn straightened in alarm.

"You cannot protect me, Kathryn, despite your desire to do so. Even if you could, I would not wish it. I do not merely 'care for' my children; I love them. The form of protection you offer would require I sever that love and all that accompanies it for fear of personal damage."

Seven stood.

"You have been a great teacher, Kathryn. I have learned many valuable lessons regarding Humanity from you. However, B'Elanna Torres has taught me that love cannot be controlled or denied, regardless of what I wish. She has taught me that I can continue to disregard my feelings, leaving me only anger and devastation when events beyond my control affect my family, or that I can embrace what I feel without fear. Events beyond my control will still affect my family and I may mourn a loss, but memories of my love and happiness will temper the pain."

Seven took a breath and calmed herself, linking her hands behind her back in their customary position.

"As my eldest daughter, Mizati, would say, 'the equation is simple.' Which would you prefer, Captain? The memory of joy or its continual absence?"

Kathryn's mind wheeled. She wanted to run from the truth that cut so closely to the bone but she was, after all, in her own ready room. She couldn't very well leave.

"That is a valuable lesson, Seven," she said finally, her voice deep and sad.

Seven raised the implant over her left eye. "You are correct. Perhaps you, too, should learn from it." The young woman dismissed herself before Janeway could, stopping at the door just before she left.

"One more thing, Captain."

Not trusting herself to speak, Janeway raised both of her eyebrows in inquiry.

"Permission to add a name to the crew roster of Voyager?"

"The…" She corrected herself with a shake of her head. "Your youngest?"

Seven nodded precisely, completely unable to hide the smile in her eyes at the wording of the question.

"Granted," said Janeway. "What have you chosen?"

"B'Etal Seonaid Nueves," she said matter-of-factly, then turned and left.

As if it were perfectly commonplace to name a Raadamani/Borg child with a Klingon first name, an Irish middle name, and a surname consisting solely of the Spanish spelling of the number nine.


Lieutenant B'Elanna Torres jumped, her voice ringing out in the suddenly silent engineering department. She glared at the owner of the hand that had startled her out of her musings.

Vorik raised a curious Vulcan eyebrow but prudently removed the offending hand.

"Forgive the disruption to your thoughts, Lieutenant," he apologized. "I merely wished to know if you would like to proceed with the second phase of the diagnostic."

From the looks she was getting from the other wide-eyed crewmembers, B'Elanna assumed it wasn't the first time Vorik had attempted to get her attention. She scowled, hoping anger might mask the flush of embarrassment heating her cheeks.

Dammit, Klingon, what are you doing? Get a grip!

"Go ahead," she said, straightening from her console. "Let me know what you find, okay? Apparently the oxygen stopped on the way to my brain or something. I can't concentrate."

"Perhaps that is because your shift has exceeded 17 hours," noted Vorik.

Although no one would ever accuse Vorik, a Vulcan, of harboring anything but the purest logic for anyone, he did—sometimes—seem to harbor a little more logic where B'Elanna was concerned. Many thought it a residual effect of the pon farr he had once initiated with the chief engineer.

"17 hours." B'Elanna blinked at Vorik, seemingly unable to process that bit of information.

"17 hours and 23 minutes…to be exact."

"Yeah, well…there was the EPS manifold repair and the plasma injector realignment…" Seventeen hours? No wonder I feel like the bottom of a Targ cage.

"…and…and maybe I should just call it a night."

Vorik raised an eyebrow.

"It's not night, is it?" asked B'Elanna softly, hoping the others, who had gone back to their tasks, would not hear the question.

"It is 1430, Lieutenant."

B'Elanna put her hand briefly over her eyes then moved it upward to massage her ridges.

"Then I guess I have to get something for lunch before I call it a night," she muttered on her way out of the department.

Once the doors had shut behind her, the young Klingon leaned heavily against a handy bulkhead, shaking her head in disbelief. It had been nearly three weeks since she'd almost kissed Seven and she could still think of nothing else. All the work in the Universe couldn't drown out the sensations, the images in her mind. She knew because she'd tried.

A brief and brutal confrontation with a rogue Hirogen hunting party had given her a perfect excuse in the beginning. Everyone was pulling double shifts after the attack was over, trying to bring Voyager back up to running speed. Now, it seemed she was the only one still pulling doubles.

And half the time I don't even realize it.

She chuckled darkly and pushed herself off the wall, heading down the corridor. With any luck, she'd be able to pick up a small meal, go back to her quarters, and fall into the bed with no other thought than taking her boots off before she passed out.

"Deck 2," she said once inside the turbolift. She really, really hoped that the mess hall was quiet at this time of day. Unfortunately, her hopes were dashed as soon as the turbolift door opened and she heard a high-pitched screech coming from that direction. She briefly wondered what kind of animal Neelix was killing before the origin of sound clicked in her brain.

"B'Etal," she breathed, taking off at a dead run. She burst into the community room ready to do battle but—except for Neelix and his screaming charge—the place was empty. B'Elanna didn't wonder why.


The tufted Talaxian stopped his cooing and pacing to look up.

"Oh, B'Elanna! How are you?" He smiled as he continued to rock the unhappy baby, though his smile seemed to sag a little at the edges. "Can I get you something?"

"Let me take her," she said, reaching for B'Etal.

"But I've called—"

B'Elanna ignored his protests and took the baby, blanket and all. B'Etal continued to wail until she was settled in the Klingon's arms, whereupon she hiccuped twice, whimpered, then promptly fell asleep.

Neelix blinked, thunderstruck. "How did you do that?" He looked as though he thought B'Elanna could be either a devil or an angel. "She's been crying for hours! I tried everything I could think of to get her to sleep!"

"Hours? You've had her up here for hours?" B'Elanna thought she'd cry too if she had to stay in the mess hall for an entire day.

"Seven asked me to watch her. She and Ensign Wildman both had duty today and the children are in class with Commander Chakotay." A brighter smile passed over his features. "I didn't mind watching her. Lunch was a little slow today."

B'Elanna forced herself not to roll her eyes. Then she got an idea.

"Well, since I'm off duty now, I'll just take this little monster down to cargo bay 2, okay?" She looked around, spotting a bottle and a few toys lying on one of the dining tables. "I'll just grab her stuff here," she said, piling the things on the baby's feet. B'Etal remained undisturbed.


"Trust me, Neelix. If this kid wakes up again and starts howling like a stuck sehlat, your dinner rush is going to suffer. And I know how much you like to…uh…cook." She scooped up B'Etal's spare blanket and threw it over her shoulder, scanning the room for any straggler items. "I don't mind getting her out of your hair."


"See you later, Neelix," said B'Elanna cheerfully, heading out the doors.

When they shut behind her, Neelix sighed.

"But Seven is on her way to pick up the baby," he explained patiently…to no one.

B'Elanna Torres sighed as she settled herself into the rocking chair in the empty cargo bay. Although she had been dropping by to see the children…and Seven…on occasion over the last three weeks, she was careful to make those visits in the deep of the night, when they were all regenerating. But watching a child sleep and holding that child in your arms while she slept were two completely different things. Something B'Elanna hadn't fully understood until now.

It had been almost three weeks since she had held B'Etal. Or Mizati, for that matter. Three weeks too long. She found it extremely surprising that she could miss simple things, like the weight of B'Etal in her arms or the sweet smell of her skin. She wondered idly if her own mother had ever felt such things.

And Mizati…

Mizati in sleep was a totally different being. Although angelic while engaged in regeneration, B'Elanna found herself missing the little girl's brutal honesty, bright smile, and fondness for handholding.

"Humph," she grumbled, looking down at B'Etal, tracing the remains of her cranial implant with dark and gentle fingers. "What'cha think about that, kiddo? You think this Klingon's gone soft?"

B'Etal didn't answer…only smacked her tiny lips in a sleepy mimic of her suckling skills. B'Elanna nearly melted right out of the chair.

"Oh yeah," she whispered. "I've gone soft, all right." B'Elanna's grin faded into a sad frown as she thought of how 'soft' she'd really become. After all, she'd fallen in love with more that just a couple of kids. She'd also fallen for their mother.

A Borg, no less.

"Kahless," sighed the engineer, rubbing her forehead with her free hand. "Help me out here, kiddo, won'cha? I can't keep feeling like this." She closed her eyes and pressed her cheek to the baby's forehead, exhausted and more emotionally vulnerable than she'd felt in a long time.

"Help me, jupHom," she pleaded softly. "Help me forget about Seven before I do something stupid."

B'Etal slept on, completely oblivious to her guardian's quiet crisis. B'Elanna chuckled ruefully, slightly embarrassed by the confidences she'd just shared with an infant. Grateful that no one had overheard her foolishness, she leaned her head against the chair back and rocked herself to sleep.

Only when Seven was certain B'Elanna was deeply asleep did she slip quietly away from the archway where she'd overheard everything. She stopped briefly at the cargo bay doors and looked back at the Klingon for a long moment before finally leaving.

She walked purposefully and yet aimlessly through the corridors, wondering for the third time in her young life how the same muscle that sustained her biological functioning through the efficient distribution of blood to the rest of her body could be so easily damaged.

And why, once inflicted, the damage seemed impossible to repair.

Harry Kim loved everything about the gamma shift.

He loved the quiet of the bridge and the night watch lighting. He loved the throb of the warp core beneath his feet and the vast expanses of uninhabited space that flowed past the forward viewscreen. And he especially loved sitting in his chair.

Or more specifically, he especially loved sitting in Captain Janeway's chair.

A still-boyish smile crinkled his almond-shaped eyes.

Sometimes I think that's the only reason I want to get back to the Alpha Quadrant, he thought, gently chiding himself. So I can get my own chair.

He stifled a yawn just then and checked the ops monitor to his left just for show. He didn't expect to see anything interesting on it, he just wanted to seem as if he was doing something useful. It obligingly told him that holodeck one was in use, that 15 replicator rations had been used there in the last 90 minutes, and that the Doctor had issued a ship-wide memo regarding the most energy efficient remedies for the common hangover.

Tom's party at Fairhaven, he remembered suddenly, feeling a twinge of regret that he wasn't able to attend. Although there was nowhere in the Universe he'd rather be at the moment, Harry knew better than anyone else that the gamma shift was usually significantly less interesting than one of Tom's parties.

"Sir?" The young blonde at the helm interrupted Harry's musings, her fingers suddenly alive over her console. "I'm reading something on long-range scanners. Approximately 810,000 kilometers ahead, bearing 012, mark 30."

Harry stood. "A ship?"

Jenkins shook her head. "Unknown, sir. I'm getting conflicting readings." She made a few more calculations and attempted to strengthen the long-range sensors. "Whatever it is, it's on an intercept course."

"All stop," said Harry, glancing at the pilot. "Hail them."

"They're responding, sir," said the young Bolian at tactical.

"On screen," said Harry as he straightened his tunic.

The faces of two of the most Human looking inhabitants of the Delta Quadrant Harry had ever seen filled the viewscreen. Certainly, they had narrower features and perhaps a different cranial structure, but all in all, they looked Human. Even the male on the right, who sported golden eyes and long earlobes.

Apparently the similarities weren't lost on them, either. They looked at Harry and Jenkins and then at each other. Quizzical smiles pulled at their mouths.

"Kiir la-aas? Dai-mani ta?" they asked together. Their voices complimented each other, blending in a simple yet elegant harmony.

Harry smiled stiffly at the aliens. He continued to smile at them even as he spoke out of the corner of his mouth.

"What's wrong with the translator?"

Jenkins glanced up at the acting captain and shrugged as discretely as she could.

Great, thought Harry, still smiling though what he really wanted to do was roll his eyes. He cleared his throat and lifted one hand in salute.

"Hello," he said, over-enunciating almost criminally. "I am Harry Kim. This is the USS Voyager." He almost added We come in peace before catching himself.

The two aliens did not seem to understand Harry any better than he understood them. They winced at the sound of his voice but otherwise made no answer. After a strained silence, Harry made the motion to cut transmission. A chirrup later the aliens' faces were replaced by the view of their ship.

"Report," he snapped.

"The universal translator is online and functioning well within parameters. Apparently there is insufficient data for it to translate this particular language," replied Jenkins.

"Their vessel seems to be made up of a cluster of independent vessels functioning as one, sir," added the Bolian. "Each spherical unit is capable of disengaging from the whole without compromising its own or the remaining vessels' capabilities." His blue fingers swept over his console. "I detect weapons systems but they are not powered up." He looked at Harry. "There is no match in our database for these types of vessels."

"That's what I was afraid of," sighed the ensign. He looked at the captain's chair mournfully for a moment, then tapped his communicator. Before he got the request to speak to the captain out of his mouth, however, his brain seemed to take a detour.

"Computer, locate Mr. Neelix."

"Mr. Neelix is in holodeck one."

Harry smiled. Maybe his luck was turning around.

He took his seat and tapped his communicator again.

"Mr. Neelix, please report to the bridge."

After the briefest of hesitations, Neelix responded.

"On my way, Acting Captain Kim, sir!" he said, sounding about ten feet tall…even over the communications network. While he waited, Harry idly wondered if the diminutive Talaxian would salute him or not upon arrival.

And which of the two he would prefer.

B'Elanna Torres was the last senior officer to arrive in the conference room, having found it exceedingly difficult to pull herself out of bed on what was supposed to be a day off for her. In fact, she'd found it difficult to get out of bed on most days lately. Something she attributed—grudgingly—to the distance growing between herself and Seven of Nine.

The young ex-Borg—whom B'Elanna noticed was conspicuously absent from these proceedings—had retreated back into her "efficient" personality, restricting her interaction with the engineer to the wholly professional. Which hurt more than B'Elanna could ever have imagined.

I told you this would happen, Klingon, she growled inwardly. What made you think that she would ever want to be with you?

"Let's get started," said Janeway, unknowingly interrupting the young engineer's dark thoughts. She waited for B'Elanna to take her seat before beginning the meeting but Neelix beat her to the punch.

"This is all my fault!" said the agitated morale officer. "I should have kept my big mouth shut. I should have used this stupid brain before I said anything!"

B'Elanna scowled, covering her concern for the Talaxian with a typical Klingon reaction. She had never seen Neelix so hard on himself.

"What's going on?" she asked, looking from Neelix to Janeway and back.

"Mr. Neelix, I fail to see the benefit of placing the blame with anyone," counseled Tuvok.

"Well how would you feel if you'd—"

"Enough!" Janeway thunked her coffee cup on the table before her like a gavel. "No one is blaming anyone, Neelix. There is no way we could have prepared for this. We just have to move on from here."

"Move on from where?" asked Tom Paris, looking more than lost. B'Elanna was mildly relieved to see that she wasn't the only one in the room who didn't have a clue as to what was going on.

Janeway sighed and pinched the bridge of her nose for a moment. "The merchant vessel that Mr. Kim made first contact with at 0200 this morning is Pod Boi-Ovani..."

She took a deep breath and glanced briefly at her Klingon officer.

"...of the Raadamani," she finished quietly.

The color drained from B'Elanna's features so quickly that the Doctor became instantly alarmed.

"Lieutenant—" B'Elanna aborted his inquiry with a raised hand. She never took her eyes from Janeway's.


"They saw an opportunity to trade with us and intercepted our course. The universal translator had trouble with their language and rather than disturb Commander Chakotay or myself, Mr. Kim decided to call upon Neelix for assistance." Janeway looked at the Talaxian sympathetically. "That's when we discovered they were Raadamani."

"So that's it, then?" asked Tom. "They get to take Bet? Just like that?" Bet, short for Betty Borg, was the helmsman's nickname for the youngest member of Voyager's crew. Like many on board, he had grown rather protective of the remaining Borg children. The fact that the youngest of them had been named in honor of his ex-lover's grandmother was merely incidental.

He looked around the table. "Who's going to tell Seven?"

"I am."

All eyes turned to B'Elanna who stared blankly at the tabletop, her voice quiet and resolved. She finally lifted her eyes, finding the captain's and locking gazes with her. "It should come from me."

Janeway hesitated, making a quick mental note of the tone of B'Elanna's offer. Then she shook her head.

"I'm afraid it's not that simple," she explained. "This has become something more than just returning B'Etal to her people."

"How so?" Every fiber of B'Elanna's being was alert, her muscles clenching with murderous intent. Something in the captain's bearing was making her incisors itch.

Janeway nodded to her first officer.

"Once we determined who our visitors were and the universal translator had an adequate sample of their language, we were able to learn more about the Raadamani," began Chakotay. "Apparently they are in the midst of a civil war. One that they have been fighting for over 20 years."

"We can't interfere in the civil war of a non-Federation culture," said Tom, his brows bunching up over his eyes. "That's against the Prime Directive."

"Agreed, Mr. Paris," said Tuvok. "However, this circumstance is…complex."

"Pod Boi-Ovani can claim custody of B'Etal based on the fact that she is—or rather was—Raadamani," began Chakotay.

"But…?" The other shoe was dangling by a thread. B'Elanna felt it in her blood.

"But genetically she differs from this pod by a margin of 49%," said the Doctor.

"So?" said Tom. "She's not their kid. Or even a kid of their kid. What difference does it make?"

"It makes a lot of difference," said Harry, speaking up finally. "Particularly when their civil war is based on racial and genetic disparities."


"I have talked with the Lead Pair of this pod extensively regarding their war," said Tuvok, addressing B'Elanna. "Because they are nomadic isolationists with no known permanent homeworld, the Raadamani value one thing above all else: the survival of their children. Of this pod of 173 individuals, only 4 children of the 11 born in the last two years have survived. The others were casualties of the war, specifically targeted by their opponents."

"Children?!" Tom was one of the four original crewmembers who had been affected by a malfunctioning war memorial not long ago. Instead of being shown a simple memory of a horrible war crime committed in the distant past, he had lived through the disjointed nightmare as one of the participants. Among the slaughtered were children, something that haunted him to this day. "They target each other's children?"

Tuvok nodded. "It would appear so." His features, though expressionless, darkened appreciatively. "If we return B'Etal to this pod there is a significant probability that she, too, will become a casualty of this war."

"Great Bird protect us all," muttered Neelix plaintively. His eyes were wet with tears.

"Wait, wait, wait!" B'Elanna looked at her captain. "You said they wanted to trade with us, that that's why they intercepted our course. If they don't know she's on board then—"

"But they do!" shouted Neelix, pounding the table with both fists. "Don't you see?! I told them she was here before I knew about…about…" He couldn't finish the thought. "…and now they want custody!" The Talaxian dissolved into sobs. "It's all my fault. It's all my fault. It's all my fault…"

"Captain?" The Doctor raised both eyebrows at the compact auburn-haired woman and she nodded. Soon after, the holographic medical officer was assisting Neelix out of the conference room.

"Neelix?" The Talaxian and the Doctor both turned at B'Elanna's voice. "It's not your fault. I promise."

When the conference room door closed behind her two crewmembers, Kathryn Janeway turned to the ones who remained. "I want options, people, and I want them now."

Only silence answered her. And then the gentle click of metal against wood.

"I'll need a shuttle, some dilithium reserves, three additional survival packs, three hand phasers, and two phaser rifles," said B'Elanna, unpinning her Maquis pip and laying it on the table next to her communicator. "And a few hours to get Carey up to speed in Engineering."

"What exactly are you suggesting, Lieutenant?" asked Janeway with an iron glare.

"Just B'Elanna, ma'am," corrected the young Klingon. "I'm resigning my commission. I'll take Seven and the kids with me."

An instant of shock roiled into protests from all sides.

"What?! B'Elanna, are you nuts?" "I don't believe this!" "The ship needs you, you can't do this!" "What about Earth? What about getting home?"

The last questions—the ones asked by Chakotay—were the ones B'Elanna answered.

"Earth? What's left for me there, Chakotay? For any of us?" She looked around the room. "Our Maquis friends are gone. My mother is dead. The Federation will probably put us into prison once the fanfare of our arrival has died down. And what about Seven? Or the kids? They're Borg! Starfleet will tear them apart and every one of you knows it! At least this way we have a fighting chance." She took a breath and looked Chakotay dead in the eyes. "And B'Etal doesn't have to become a victim of a war she isn't even old enough to remember!"

"Enough!" barked Janeway. "Put your insignia back on, Lieutenant," she ordered. "I'm not accepting resignations today. Especially from one of my best officers." Steel gray eyes swept the conference room. "We're going to find another way to resolve this dilemma, people. One that avoids resignations, defying the Prime Directive, and/or firing on those ships. And one that specifically avoids B'Etal becoming a casualty of war. Understood?"

"That's a pretty tall order, Captain," noted Tom.

"Then I suggest you get to work. Dismissed."

As her staff rose to leave, Kathryn called softly to her chief engineer.

"Not so fast, Lieutenant," she said. "I'd like a word with you."

Oh damn, thought Chakotay, glancing over his shoulder as he exited the conference room. B'Elanna—standing at attention as she awaited the lecture that was sure to come—was the last sight he saw before the doors closed.

Part Four

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