The Moderator stood before his captives and inspected them closely. The only sounds in the cell were the occupants breathing and the quiet hum emanating from the energy packs powering the compression rifles aimed at the prisoners' heads. They had been held for some time now and he had been carefully scrutinising them ever since their arrival from the town centre. He now felt that he knew enough about them to take their interaction to the next level.
He met three pairs of eyes gazing defiantly back at him, but still remained taciturn until he completed his scrutiny. He felt safe to approach and study them as six uniformed guards flanked the prisoners, their royal blue body suits contrasting starkly with their ashen faces and flaxen hair. As he finished his circuit, the tall man fixed his stare at one person.
"You are the leader," he told her confidently. The steel-grey eyes he looked at returned the glare but her face remained impassive. The auburn-haired woman decided not to answer his statement but he could tell by the nervous adjustment of her mauve jacket collar with her cuffed hands that she was not as calm as she wanted to project.
"I know you are the leader of this group. Your allegiance is obvious by the badges we found on you," he opened his gloved hand as he spoke, displaying one of the gold emblems like a trophy. His fist clenched round it suddenly as he continued. "In the time we left you alone in this cell, we have been monitoring your conversation and actions. While you have been extremely professional in guarding your words, you have been less guarded in your gestures." He took the time now to look at all three captives before returning his gaze to the red-haired older woman. "I never make the assumption of age indicating seniority but in this case, it is correct." He made a sweeping gesture towards the two other prisoners. "Whenever there is any sort of decision to be made, or guidance, their eyes look to you. They wait for you to take the lead and you are comfortable in that role."
He approached the seated woman and lowered his head till they came face-to-face, his long blond mane falling forward slightly. "So shall we stop any charade you wish to perform and get to business?" he asked her, his baritone voice deceptively mild as his navy eyes locked with hers once again.
"I have no business with you," Janeway replied, flinching slightly at the malodorous breath he shared with her.
"Oh but you do," disagreed the Moderator as he stood once again to his full height. His dark green jacket creaked as he straightened, perhaps indicating that it was some form of armour. "Our technology may not be as sophisticated as yours, but it is sufficient to detect the space ship that is currently orbiting the planet. Your people are reluctant to leave you behind. That indicates your importance on board your vessel. I believe that we have room to make negotiations," his thin-lipped smile was almost predatory.
"Not everyone assesses value using your misguided concepts," snapped the raven-haired captive from the corner of the cell, earning a fierce glare from Janeway.
The Moderator turned to face her, allowing his eyes to rake in her exotic beauty but Torres remained defiant, determined not to display any discomfort from the open appraisal.
"You're quite right," he concurred softly. "Which is why I have the advantage in our bargaining."
"And what exactly are you wanting to trade?" Janeway asked, diverting the attention back toward her. She was extremely concerned at the way all the guards had been assessing B'Elanna.
"I need your technology," replied the Moderator succinctly. "An upgrade in my energy converters, new weapons and advanced sensor arrays." He stepped toward the older woman once more. "It's not too much to ask is it?" he suggested lightly, "in return for three valued crew," he expanded.
Janeway's eyes flitted round the room. She realised that she was not in a strong negotiating position. Her hopes lay with Chakotay and the crew of Voyager. However, she would be damned if she would acquiesce and surrender any technology to this bully.
"I'm sorry but there's no deal," she stated with finality.
The Moderator sighed and he rubbed a large hand across the three small brown horns that rose from his forehead. "How predictable," he remarked.
"Then why ask the question?" pointed out the last prisoner, her golden hair tied up in a rigid hairstyle.
The tall alien fixed his gaze at the woman, scrutinizing the metallic adornments on her face before he answered. "Because you may have surprised me and agreed without me having to," he paused for a moment, pulling his face into a delicate moue of feigned distaste as he searched for the right words, "coerce an arrangement with you."
"If you've studied us for long enough, you'll know that coercion won't work," Janeway pointed out, keeping her voice deliberately flat.
"There is always a first time," demurred the blond interrogator. "I take pride in my work. To come to an agreement, the weaknesses have to be exploited."
Janeway shifted slightly. She did not like the way this conversation was going. "I can tell you now that it doesn't matter what you do, I am not giving you technology," she stated firmly.
The Moderator approached Janeway and sat down right next to her, looking at Seven and B'Elanna in turn. His face remained looking ahead as he spoke, as if he didn't need to see the reaction from Janeway. "I know that if I try to persuade *you*, I will be wasting my time. You've just told me how committed you are to that, so I have no intention of expending unnecessary effort," he told her conversationally. "However, I think your *values*," here he pinned B'Elanna with a stare, "can be exploited." He got up and approached the half-Klingon. "I've looked at your body chemistry. You have secondary organ systems, dense musculature and heavy bones," he told her as he brought his face in close to hers. B'Elanna fought to keep her expressive face under control and stared through her tormentor rather than at him.
"You are also extremely beautiful," he continued, lowering his voice to barely a whisper. "It would be a shame to see such beauty permanently marred." With that he ran the flat of his tongue up the side of the engineer's cheek slowly.
B'Elanna's fists clenched convulsively in their restraints but before she raised them, she felt the muzzle of a rifle dig into her temple. Swallowing down the bile, she forced herself to remain passive, though she was unable to mask the anger now blazing in her eyes.
Seven felt no such compunction for control. Lightning-fast, she grabbed the compression rifle aimed at her head and yanked its owner off his feet. She twirled the now free rifle in her hands and raised it toward the Moderator with every intention of using it as a club to beat the sadistic smile off his face. She hesitated though, as she realised that there were now several rifles aimed at her as well as the Captain and Torres.
The Moderator looked at her calmly. "You may have the satisfaction of maiming or even killing me, but do you want the deaths of your companions on your conscience?" he asked.
"Put the gun down Seven," requested Janeway. The blonde ex-drone stared disbelievingly at the Captain for a moment before switching her gaze to B'Elanna. The dark engineer shook her head minutely, indicating that Seven should back down. Realising that the odds were stacked against her, Seven complied reluctantly. The gun was snatched from her hands and she was pushed roughly down to sit where she had been before. At a silent signal, one of the guards grabbed her manacles and raised her arms above her head, securing the bands to a fixing on the wall. Its height was such that Seven's arms were stretched taut yet she gave no indication that she was in any discomfort. The thick, dark-red shirt she was wearing was pulled free from the waistband of her black trousers and the shirt swayed gently round her frame. Seven's eyes never left B'Elanna, her concern displayed across her visage.
"Now where was I?" the interrogator shook his long blond mane distractedly. "Ah yes," he crowed as he remembered. "I wonder how long it will take to break you?" he mused as he assessed Janeway. "How much will you allow me to do to your colleague? With such a strong specimen for interview, I feel that my skills will at long last get the canvas they so crave," he continued, returning his stare to Torres.
"Leave her alone," growled Janeway.
"What take you in her place? I believe I've already covered that argument," retorted her captor. "Or are you prepared to negotiate already?"
"If it's a strong *specimen* you want then I suggest you try your skills on me," interjected Seven, feeling her heart hammer in her chest. Despite his mild demeanour, he was obviously intent on harming B'Elanna, and enjoying it into the bargain. Seven did not feel comfortable with the situation.
B'Elanna shot the Astrometrics Officer a look of surprise. She had expected Janeway to try and take her place but not Seven.
"You're part machine," objected the Moderator distastefully. "Your machinery will interfere with some aspects of my work, and I will be forced to deactivate it, leaving the same weak human shell as your leader here." He gestured with his head toward the Captain. "This one however," and he ran his finger along B'Elanna's jawline, enjoying the touch as well as the trembling sensation he was eliciting from her, "will be the perfect subject."
"No!" exclaimed Janeway, and she stood reflexively, wincing as the nose of a rifle nudged into her right temple. Inside she was panicking, but she'd be damned if she would let that show.
"Then give me what I want," suggested the Moderator softly, his smile revealing an even row of small sharp white teeth.
"I can't. It's against our principles," Janeway began to explain, but was waved to silence.
"I want no excuses. I want your technology," the Moderator told Janeway firmly, the time for negotiation over. He nodded at the guards standing at the cell door. They moved aside as the two guards flanking B'Elanna grabbed her roughly under each arm, hoisting her to her feet.
B'Elanna tensed and instinctively tried to shake off their grip but the guards stepped in closer, one of them smiling as he waved his gun in her face. Knowing that resistance could cost the Captain and Seven their lives as well as her own, she stood fast but remained tense. At least they wouldn't be tortured; not until she was no longer worth torturing anyway. If she could hold out long enough, perhaps Voyager could find a way of freeing them before the interrogation moved on to Seven, for she knew that the Moderator would not touch Janeway until all his levers had expired. She had survived Cardassian interrogation. She would survive this. She had to in order to protect Seven.
"Captain," hissed Seven pleadingly, her eyes filled with worry as she stared at B'Elanna.
"I will not be held to ransom over this," replied Janeway tersely. Inside, she was in turmoil, genuinely frightened over what was going to happen to B'Elanna. She just hoped that the Engineer had spent enough time on Voyager to understand her actions.
The Moderator looked carefully at Janeway and Seven before silently approaching B'Elanna, who was still held between two guards. Suddenly, he reached out and yanked open the dark brown leather overshirt B'Elanna was wearing, revealing a soft white vest top underneath. He trailed one hand over the exposed material for a moment, barely touching the flesh underneath but his intent was blatant. He stared into the dark brown eyes that returned the glare steadily. He noted with satisfaction the tiny bead of sweat that trickled down the caramel cheek and forward onto her chin. It was indication enough that she was scared. He was going to enjoy this interaction.
Chakotay slapped the data padd down heavily on the desk. He leant back in his chair and rubbed his face wearily. The reserved First Officer had lost count of how many times he had berated himself for allowing the Captain to head the mission but he did it once again. It didn't resolve anything, nor did it make him feel better, yet he continued to feel guilty over the whole episode. Chakotay allowed himself a moment to recall the events leading to their current predicament.
Nine days ago, after a power regulator failure, the Warp Core had suffered catastrophic damage. Since then, B'Elanna and her team had been working round the clock to deliver any sort of power to Voyager's engines. Many of the crew had been re-assigned to assist the department. One of the knock-on effects had been a gradual power drain from the rest of the ship's systems.
The biggest problem had been Voyager's location at the time of the failure. Scans indicated that they were in "Dead Space", an area barren of life and planets with such inhospitable atmospheres to make mining for the required elements and ores impossible, particularly considering how low they were on power. They limped through space for several days before Seven designed a long-distance probe that would not drain resources too heavily. Even B'Elanna had been impressed with the design and had personally assisted Seven with its construction and programming.
Chakotay had to smile at that. The two people least likely to get along on Voyager had worked together almost continually without so much as a raised voice. Perhaps if Voyager were in perpetual dire straits, the two women might just learn to like each other.
Seven's probe proved to be invaluable. It detected a small planetoid on the very edge of the system. It was populated, with a technology not too dissimilar to the Federation, though in many aspects it was not nearly so advanced. Amazingly, B'Elanna coaxed enough energy out of the reactors to get Voyager into a high orbit around the planet.
Unfortunately, when Captain Janeway tried to establish contact and a possible trade agreement, she was met with suspicion and thinly veiled hostility. Despite her best efforts, all attempts at negotiation were stonewalled. Frustrated, Janeway had ordered scans of the surface in order to glean as much information about the planet as possible.
After three days, Tuvok and his squad were confident enough to give a briefing on the population, their movements and general conditions planet-side. Janeway had then taken the initiative to lead an away team to the surface in order to see if they could covertly trade. Chakotay had argued with her bitterly over her insistence in going, as well as her selection of away team members. In taking Torres and Seven, she was depriving a crippled ship of the two people most likely to keep it going. The Native American was also concerned for the safety of Janeway. Tuvok had only gleaned a certain amount of information and the mission was overflowing with risk. The Captain was resolved in the matter though. After noting his objections, Janeway told him that her decision was final and Chakotay admitted defeat grudgingly. Along with Tuvok and Neelix, they had transported to a desolate location and hiked into the nearest populated town in order to begin bartering. Somewhere along the line, the team had been discovered and pursued.
Chakotay sighed. This was where the report got less clear. He needed to talk to Tuvok and Neelix in more detail to understand the nuances of what went wrong. Pushing his chair away from the desk, he strode from the Ready Room to the Bridge. He hardly broke stride for the doors to open and made his way directly to the Ops Station.
Kim looked up nervously as he approached, knowing that Chakotay would not like his report. However, at the tattooed man's nod, he spoke. "There is still no way to break through the shielding, Commander. The sensors can't even detect the planet, much less any life forms."
"We've got to find out how they managed to erect this screen, Harry," the First Officer reminded him needlessly.
"I know sir, but it was put in place without warning, almost instantaneously. Until we can break through to start deep scans, I can't even guess at the technology used to generate this sort of shielding." Harry ran a hand through his thick black hair as he spoke, giving indication of the tension he felt.
"Keep working on this, Mr Kim," instructed the older man. "At the moment, it's the only option we've got. I'll be in Sick Bay if you need me. You have the Bridge," he announced formally, before turning and heading toward the turbolift. Harry barely lifted his head in acknowledgement as he ran the next set of extrapolations through the console.
Seven scanned the room micron by micron, using every fibre of Borg technology she possessed.
The two women were held in a small, bland, grey cell that contained little else except three cots lined against the walls and what one could only loosely describe as toilet facilities. The room was completed with a solid door housing a small grill aperture, the light from which indicated that it was far better illuminated outside the cell than inside. The door was locked electronically and Seven could hear the gentle hum of a force field just the other side of it. Their captors were obviously not going to take any chances. The tall blonde woman could not detect any weakness in the walls or door. She was starting to experience feelings of helplessness. The most distressing factor was that B'Elanna had been removed from the cell with the obvious intention of doing her harm.
Seven ground her teeth angrily as she thought of the Moderator. She hoped fervently to meet the vile man on a more equal footing. The ex-drone would take great delight in snapping the vermin's neck.
"Please stop pacing, Seven," requested Janeway softly. "You're wasting energy."
"How can you sit there so calmly?" accused Seven, her voice hostile. "We must find a way of escape and help B'Elanna," she implored, her voice starting to sound desperate.
"Have you found a way out then?" asked the Captain calmly.
"No, I cannot find any flaws in the structure of this cell," the younger woman replied disconsolately.
"You told me that an hour ago. You will tell me the same thing in another hour if you start your examination again. Whilst appreciated, all you're doing is repeating a process you've already completed once," Janeway admonished gently.
"I need to do something," insisted the ex-drone vehemently. "I cannot bear the thought of B'Elanna being in danger."
Janeway caught the use of the engineer's first name and flicked her eyebrows up in surprise. Perhaps the two women had finally learnt to get along. "We can't do anything from here, Seven," Janeway reasoned. "There are two options as I see it," she continued, nodding approval as she saw Seven sit down and stare intently at her. "We can wait for Voyager to find a way to get to us "
"A most frustrating option," demurred Seven.
"Or, we exploit any weakness we discover when they return B'Elanna to the cell."
"What makes you think B'Elanna will be returned?" asked Seven scornfully.
"The Moderator wants my co-operation. He aims to get it by using B'Elanna. I have to see the evidence of his 'intent'. That's how I know they'll bring back B'Elanna," reasoned the Captain. "I just hope he brings her back alive."
Seven's stomach lurched at Janeway's final statement. The Astrometrics officer had just started to build a rapport with the Chief Engineer. She had hoped to develop the friendship and perhaps spend off duty time with the dark-haired Klingon. Seven had finally come to realise that she had more in common with B'Elanna than she cared to admit. She was certain that the fiery engineer had come to the same conclusion. Seven had feelings for B'Elanna. She wanted the opportunity to explore those feelings and cement their friendship. B'Elanna was continually on the ex-drone's mind and the thought that she was being subjected to all sorts of torture and that Seven was powerless to come to her aid, hurt in a way she never imagined possible.
She clenched her fists before drawing her azure eyes up level with Janeway's. "He will be the next casualty if he does not," she warned coldly.
The Moderator was starting to get frustrated. He knew he had picked the right woman for him to practise his skills on. He knew from her body language that she felt fear. What he hadn't anticipated was the extent of her stubbornness.
For the last two hours, in a room adjacent to the holding cell where the other captives were located, the tall, blond interrogator had been honing his considerable talent. Using some of his most delicate techniques, the Moderator subjected the dark-haired woman to the most excruciating agony. His purpose was to elicit long, drawn-out sounds of agony from her. Once the leader heard the torment the woman was being put through, she would crumble and agree to his demands. Unfortunately, his subject was not making a sound.
At first, he had been excited by her refusal to give in to his skills. The defiance in her eyes had not wavered even when her visage reflected the agony she felt. As her non-compliance continued, he had felt himself get aroused by the situation. The Moderator had never before come across such determination and it was stimulating to have such a worthy challenge. He was now approaching the stage where he was in need of release. He knew it would be triggered by just one scream. He was on the very brink, hypersensitive to her every movement and gesture. The situation was starting to get uncomfortable for him. One shriek of pain was all he needed, but still she refused to utter a sound.
B'Elanna continued to focus her eyes at the drab grey wall opposite her. Every now and again, her mind would drift over her body to remind her of the pain she was continually feeling. The small Klingon had been strapped unceremoniously onto a reclining chair obviously constructed for the Moderator to practise his art, arms and legs stretched taut, her body exposed for his work. The wide leather bands had bitten into her wrists and ankles. The wounds had deepened as her limbs chafed against the restraints whilst she writhed at the torture she was being submitted to. The dark-haired woman could smell the blood that was running from the lacerations but she refused to look at them. The restraining measures included several razor-sharp blades laid gently over her splayed hands. Any reflexive clenching of her fists would result in torn flesh and more pain. Her kidneys felt pulverised after being subjected to continual electric shocks. Her redundant pair had taken over because of the injuries she had sustained.
Right from the start of the Moderator's torture, she had clamped down and refused to make a sound. The goading questions he asked were met with stony silence. Each filament of pain he added would elicit a flinch or a muted tight-lipped grunt but never a moan or scream. She saw the tall man become aroused as their interaction continued, yet refused even to acknowledge his existence when he repeated his action of licking her face slowly and stared blankly ahead when he kissed her lips harshly.
B'Elanna knew that he had the physical advantages over her. But if she could hold out, she might just tip the psychological scales in her favour. The Moderator's biggest mistake was to let it get personal. It was now imperative to him that he obtained results. His pride would not allow him to fail. This was the engineer's one small advantage. His pride was his weakness.
She grunted again as she felt a spear of white-hot energy rip through her lower abdomen but as before, she clamped down on any noise. B'Elanna understood right from the start that he was attempting to frighten Janeway into giving in to his demands. If the dark-haired engineer could do her part and remain quiet, at least her two colleagues would be spared the torment of listening to her. Unfortunately it would have the added effect of prolonging her agony but it felt like a small price to pay in order to prevent something similar happening to Seven. B'Elanna closed her eyes momentarily at the thought of the ex-drone. Up until the disaster with the warp core, she had barely spared the woman the time of day. Now, the beautiful Borg consumed the Klingon's thoughts. Co-operation and teamwork had brought them closer together and both had come to realise that they had more in common than they previously surmised. B'Elanna had come to enjoy every moment shared with Seven. She had hoped when this latest crisis was over, to spend some more time with her and strengthen the bond that had tentatively sprung between them during the last nine days. In more ways than one, she felt closer to the Astrometrics officer than she did to her own husband.
B'Elanna's eyes snapped open as she felt a stinging sensation whip across her cheek. She was just in time to see the tiny silver blade pass over her face and then realised that the warm trickling sensation she was now experiencing was blood seeping from a deep incision.
"Do you want me to mark you again?" The Moderator brought his head down low as he asked the question, eyes boring into B'Elanna's menacingly.
B'Elanna refused even to swallow and instead focused her eyes at some distant point, remembering the contours of the wall and convincing herself to see through him and at them.
As he stood upright once again, the Moderator allowed his body to brush the chair, groaning softly as his arousal stubbornly sought release. He thought about taking the woman and ending his frustration quickly in a show of power, but he knew that ultimately the satisfaction would turn sour. His assault would be a weak victory, hardly worthy of his opponent. Instead, he decided that he had inflicted enough on her for the moment. The anticipation of things to come might assist him in breaking her will.
The pale inquisitor nodded at the guards standing at the doorway. They entered on his signal and loosened the captive's bindings after carefully removing the extra blades that kept her hands splayed. They then pulled her upright and yanked her from the chair.
Against her will, B'Elanna felt her legs buckle and she collapsed on the floor despite her best effort to remain upright. She was exhausted and in pain but knew that in this first confrontation, she was the victor. However, the engineer had deep concerns over how much abuse she could withstand.
The Moderator approached her and held the engineer's chin roughly. "How much can you tolerate, my beauty? I thought I needed to break your leader's will but I can see I made an error in judgement. You'll be back here soon enough. I won't tell you when, I'll just surprise you. I hope you're looking forward to it." He smiled emotionlessly at her, before releasing her chin and stepping away.
"Take her back," he ordered. Only when the room was empty did he succumb to his frustration and release his arousal.
Chakotay hesitated at the doorway of Sick Bay to take in the scene before him. Neelix was lying on his side, asleep, one arm dangling over the side of the bio-bed, a silver blanket rucked across his abdomen and his chest rose evenly as small regular snores escaped his open mouth. Tuvok was on an adjacent bio-bed. The Security Chief lay on his back, arms against his sides, staring at the ceiling. His breathing was slightly stilted, as if it pained him to take deep breaths. The EMH was seated in his office, frowning at the monitor on his desk, periodically punching at a data padd.
Resuming his step, Chakotay headed for the Chief Medical Officer. "Doctor, I need to talk to your patients. Any objections?" the broad, dark-haired man asked as the EMH looked up at his approach.
"No, Commander," he answered. "I'll be keeping them both in Sick Bay for observation until tomorrow but they should be up to some questioning. The blaster injuries they suffered have been healed, though Commander Tuvok may experience some mild discomfort until his abdominal musculature recovers fully."
Chakotay nodded before turning towards the bio-beds. The Doctor rose to join him, discarding his data padd onto the desk.
"Tuvok, I have some questions about what happened on the planet," Chakotay began, speaking quietly so as not to disturb Neelix. He would get the small Talaxian's version later.
The ebony skinned Vulcan nodded and shifted his weight slightly to sit up more, his ever-present frown deepening with the pain he endured from the manoeuvre. "I endeavoured to annotate everything on the report I submitted, Commander," Tuvok stated, his voice stilted slightly as he tried to control his breathing.
"I'd like a few more details," explained the Commander. "You've provided me with the bare facts of the mission. I'd like to have it a bit more fleshed out. It might help with the current situation," he advised.
Tuvok nodded slightly. "I take it from that remark that the remaining members of the away team have yet to be located."
"At this moment, the planet still needs to be located," rejoined the First Officer grimly. "Whatever they're using to hide themselves is incredibly effective."
"What additional details do you require, Commander?" Tuvok returned to the original topic.
"Just describe what happened once you reached the town and established contact with the locals. Tell me anything that you think may be significant, right up until we beamed you out of there."
The dark Vulcan lay back slightly and paused. Chakotay noticed how Tuvok's eyes became unfocused as he recalled the events on the planet. After a moment, Tuvok began his narrative.
"The away team made good progress toward the designated pocket of civilisation. Once on the outskirts of the town, Captain Janeway assigned an area for each of us to investigate. As soon as enough supplies were bartered for, we were to report in and return to the original set-down point in order to beam back to Voyager "
As luck would have it, Janeway and Tuvok stumbled on a trading area almost immediately. After advising the other members of the away team, the Captain and Security Chief made their way to the remotest part of the market area. It was difficult to make leeway through the bustling crowds. Shops traded briskly and noisily. Tuvok remained tense and alert, his eyes flicking continually round their surroundings.
Janeway stopped him and pulled him to one side. "My tricorder readings indicate that the shop just opposite us is rich with dilithium and fluorixitine alloy. Let's just hope we have something they want," she remarked wryly.
Tuvok nodded and allowed Janeway to lead the way once again.
Seven halted and surveyed the market uneasily.
"What's the matter, Seven?" B'Elanna asked softly as she stopped next to the taller woman.
"I feel uncomfortable. The size of this crowd disturbs me," Seven explained haltingly.
The half-Klingon snorted disbelievingly. "Seven, you came from a collective of billions. A few hundred people shouldn't worry you," she reasoned.
"While part of the Collective, I was privy to everyone's thoughts. There was no reason for me to be on my guard. This is more difficult," the blonde woman explained awkwardly.
B'Elanna was surprised, narrowing her eyes slightly at the admission. She moved slightly closer and looked up at the ex-borg and winked at her. "Don't worry, Seven. I'll protect you," she offered, with a grin.
Seven raised an eyebrow, her ocular implant rising to accentuate the action. "I am quite capable of protecting myself," she told the raven-haired woman. She saw a momentary flash of emotion flicker across the Klingon's expressive face and realised that her words had hurt the engineer somehow. The realisation stunned her. A few days ago, Seven would not even have bothered to analyse any emotions the engineer displayed, confident in the belief that B'Elanna held her in total disregard and found her only to be an irritating nuisance, a state of mind she was willing to reciprocate. During this last crisis however, Seven had begun to understand B'Elanna more. The Klingon's unpredictable temper was, more often than not, a reflection of the frustration she felt when not able to solve problems instantaneously. It often served as a catalyst to B'Elanna's thought process and would give rise to the most astonishing leaps of intuition. The engineer's 'hunches' as she liked to describe them had a success rate that far outstripped the probability of chance. The Astrometrics officer had no choice but to accredit B'Elanna's unorthodox approach to engineering as an inefficient yet highly effective method; one that the ex-drone envied. Borg logic allowed her to approach problems systematically and thoroughly but did nothing to enhance ingenuity; a talent B'Elanna had in abundance.
Once Seven had seen past her own prejudice about B'Elanna's work practices, she at last began to see the real woman behind the engineer. The tempestuous hybrid was honest and forthright, traits shared by Seven. The raven-haired woman valued her own feelings and they augmented her character. The Klingon was driven by passion, whereas Seven was driven by control. As far as their temperaments were concerned, they were total opposites, yet in the last few days they had complimented each other; Seven calming and focusing B'Elanna's boundless energy to solve problems more effectively and at the same time benefiting from B'Elanna's pragmatic approach when logic failed to provide Seven with a solution. The blonde ex-drone had never felt so stimulated by someone else's company and discovered that she missed not being in B'Elanna's presence.
Yesterday she had struck up the courage to comment on this new twist in their relationship, expecting B'Elanna to mock her naivety but the smaller woman had looked at her seriously, almost shyly, remarking that at long last she had seen past her own arrogance and realised that she valued Seven's company; her friendship. The last two words had stuck in her mind and the Borg heard them repeated many times mentally before the words sunk in and she realised that they indeed shared a friendship. It was still in its infancy and held with tenuous bonds but Seven had an unshakable faith that their amity would grow and develop into something far deeper and substantial. It was that thought that alarmed her the most.
Dragging her mind back to the present and her last comment, Seven struggled to appease her friend. "However your offer is reassuring." Seven found it difficult to engage in 'small talk' at the best of times but hoped that she didn't sound too gauche.
B'Elanna smiled faintly at Seven's attempt at diplomacy, realising that Seven had once again accurately read her features. The half-Klingon found it disconcerting that Seven could so easily recognise her reactions, but in a bizarre way, B'Elanna found it comforting that Seven was interested in how she felt. The stress of keeping Voyager functioning over the last nine days had been made easier by Seven's presence and indefatigable determination. Together, the engineer felt that they had performed miracles. More importantly, she had finally seen past Seven's aloofness and superior attitude, recognising a vulnerable young woman behind the act. A woman who had difficulty fitting in with the new society foisted upon her when she was severed from the Collective, yet at the same time holding that Collective in contempt for the way it behaved towards other species. B'Elanna knew all about not 'fitting in'. She was disgusted with herself for not understanding Seven's predicament sooner until she realised that it was part of her own intrinsic personality to be suspicious of everyone and everything, keeping a barrier up to protect herself from other people's feelings. How ironic that they should share that trait. She couldn't identify exactly when it was that her feelings for the ex-drone changed from disdain to camaraderie but the tentative alliance was cemented yesterday when Seven opened up to her, insecure in her feelings yet trusting that B'Elanna would understand. The gesture had earned loyalty and respect. To the Klingon, they were as important as honour. More to the point, B'Elanna *liked* being Seven's friend and she knew that she would do anything for her now; a stark contrast to her initial actions towards the Borg.
"Come on," she spurred her companion. "We've got shopping to do."
Seven moved towards the cell door as she heard the guards approach and positioned herself opposite the door in order to get the best view of the security mechanisms when it opened. Janeway lounged across one of the bunks surreptitiously, also hoping to get a good view of the outside area.
The door clunked as it opened and bathed the room in bright yellow light. There was a shadow as three forms blocked the luminescence followed by a muffled grunt as one of the shadows was propelled forward and dumped unceremoniously onto the floor of the small cell. As suddenly as the light pierced the room, it was extinguished; the ominous finality of the door slamming giving solemn reminder to the women of their status as captives.
As soon as they were alone, Janeway and Seven leapt for the slumped figure in the middle of the cell.
"B'Elanna, are you okay?" the Captain asked, one hand stroking the hair away from the engineer's face. She gasped when she saw the ugly slash across B'Elanna's face but swallowed her anger. It would be better directed when the time came.
"I hurt like hell, Captain," whispered B'Elanna honestly. "But I'll live." She grimaced as she got onto all fours, determined to make it onto a bunk without asking for assistance.
Seven decided that B'Elanna's pride was irrelevant and swept the engineer into her arms, placing her gently onto the nearest bunk after ignoring the gasp of protest from the dark-haired woman. She felt her stomach lurch as she watched the Klingon curl into a foetal ball, backing right into the corner of the bed, trying to protect herself instinctively.
"What did they do to you?" she asked, her voice barely audible yet projecting the horror she felt.
B'Elanna closed her eyes for a moment, a single tear squeezing past one of her eyelids, stinging the torn facial tissue as it ran down her cheek. She barked out a dry cough before swallowing, desperate for saliva to moisten her vocal cords. "Have you found the monitoring device?" she rasped.
Both the Captain and Seven frowned at her. "What monitoring device? You know they took our comm. badges," Janeway told her, confusion tainting her voice.
B'Elanna swallowed again. "The Moderator said that he had been monitoring our actions and words. How?" The raven-haired woman had reflexively flinched as she spoke of her torturer, but managed to get her point across.
Janeway groaned audibly. Seven sat down next to B'Elanna heavily. They had both been so tied up in wondering what was happening to the Chief Engineer and how to get a good look at the door that they had failed to identify one of their source problems. What made it worse, almost sickening, was that B'Elanna had clearly endured all sorts of terrible torment, yet had retained the presence of mind to remember what the Moderator had revealed.
Pinching the bridge of her nose, the Captain tried to recall any significant conversation she had held with the ex-drone. Fortunately, they had kept the talk brief and had not discussed any escape plans. The auburn-haired woman nodded towards Seven, wondering if her scanning of the cell for weaknesses might also give indication of the location of any observational equipment. She noticed that Seven's eyes had become de-focused slightly and realised that the blonde woman was accessing her eidetic memory for just that purpose.
Seven looked at the Captain sharply and quirked her eyebrow, the ocular implant rising high on her forehead. Janeway took the glance to be positive and sat down on the opposite bunk, waiting to take her lead from the younger woman. Perhaps at last, they could do something positive against their captors.
The ex-drone covertly adjusted the tubules on her borg-enhanced hand. She stood up and approached the toilet area, as if to use the facilities when she stumbled and steadied herself with her Borg hand. The calculated manoeuvre positioned her hand right over the surveillance equipment and the tubules whipped out lightning-fast, shorting out the circuitry instantaneously with an audible crack. Her job done, Seven spun round and returned to B'Elanna's bunk. "Are you damaged?" she asked, her voice thick with concern.
"I'll survive," replied the darker woman grimly, her eyes remaining closed.
"We haven't got long before they discover we've deactivated the monitoring. What happened?" Janeway questioned softly, sitting on the floor next to Seven.
There was a long pause. B'Elanna remained still except for the shallow rise and fall of her chest, accentuated by her arms wrapped tightly round her body. "I can't talk about it," the Klingon breathed, inwardly cursing as another tear burnt down her cheek, indicating her true feelings for the atrocities against her.
Automatically, Seven reached out and wiped away the tear carefully. Janeway's eyebrows rose at the intimacy of the action before she realised that Seven would probably not view the gesture in such a way.
"I will avenge you, B'Elanna," Seven vowed softly, growling out the words.
"I just hope I'm alive to know about it," B'Elanna returned, only half joking. She felt her hearts quicken at Seven's caress, and speed up more at the words she had said but decided to put all thoughts about the possible implications of Seven's behaviour into a deep recess of her mind. The Klingon could not afford to dwell on the sudden new sensations she was experiencing. It was making her too vulnerable, too confused. She knew that the Moderator would return for her and every second that passed served to fuel the dread of his arrival. He merited her total concentration and commitment. She would not survive with anything less.
Tuvok cleared his throat, attempting to do it quietly in order not to disturb the snoring Talaxian in the adjacent bio-bed. Neelix coughed in an identical manner before muttering slightly and rolling over, one hand pulling the silver blanket over his shoulders sub-consciously. Within seconds, the small, furry chef's breathing became heavier and noisier, indicative of his slumbering state.
Tuvok raised an eyebrow in a typical expression before continuing his narrative. "The Captain and I entered the shop and approached the vendor to strike a bargain. Mr Neelix joined us after unsuccessfully scouring the section that had been assigned to him. The Captain then bargained a price with the vendor over quantities of dilithium and fluoroxitine "
Neelix tugged on Janeway's mauve sleeve and pulled her away from the blonde vendor to a discrete corner of the establishment. "Captain, are you sure you're willing to pay this much for such a paltry amount?" the Talaxian whispered loudly, aghast at the Captain's obvious lack of bartering skills.
"We don't have time to haggle, Neelix," Janeway reminded the small ex-trader in an equally loud hiss. The shop was musty and poorly lit. The Captain was starting to feel its oppressiveness close in around her and she wanted nothing more than to break free from the claustrophobic conditions and return to the open market, even if it was teeming with the local populace.
"I'm sure there are other places that would be more obliging," Neelix persisted, oblivious to Janeway's mood. Her hard stare was more effective.
The Morale Officer ruffled slightly but then acquiesced and completed the exchange. His countenance was not improved as he recognised a triumphant look on the trader, one he had often worn himself during his previous occupation as a junk trader. Tuvok observed the exchange non-committally, remaining near the shopkeeper. His priority was returning from the away mission successfully with the goods and the team intact.
The bargain sealed, the three away team members left the premises, their goods stowed carefully in a backpack carried by the Security Chief. Inside the premises, the young vendor retreated to the rear of the shop and began operating the large transceiver situated in a dank, dusty corner.
Squinting into the brighter, natural light, Captain Janeway scrutinised the swarming market in the vain hope of catching a glimpse of Torres and Seven. She noted absently the similar traits of the inhabitants. Nearly all of them were tall with fair hair and pallid skin. It would appear that their skin pigmentation did not darken under natural light. Most males had a triple set of dark horns adorning their foreheads. The women had three dark spots in place of the growths. Janeway surmised that the few pockets of differing looking people were aliens too. She observed that these bands stuck closely together, looking round constantly for some unseen threat.
Their skittishness affected Janeway. She wanted the whole team together and to return to Voyager as expediently as possible. Glancing at Tuvok, they made their way to a quieter area, away from the market place where there was less likelihood of them being observed.
Taking a final look round, she tapped the communicator pin that had been hidden carefully under the collar of her mauve jacket. "Janeway to Torres," the Captain hailed in a hushed tone.
Seven surveyed her surroundings, unable to dispel the anxious feelings despite being unable to locate any obvious threat. The two women strode through the market purposefully, finding small alcoves periodically in which to scrutinise the readings they were recording surreptitiously on their tricorders. They had quickly appraised the area and had narrowed their search pattern to an area in the south-east of the main market square. The ex-drone felt certain that the crowds were staring at them, or more accurately, B'Elanna. Seven was equally sure that the looks were more sinister than the natural curiosity she expected from the local populace. The Astrometrics Officer conducted a final visual sweep of the immediate vicinity. Satisfied that there was no impending peril, she stepped back into the alleyway they were currently occupying and returned her concentration to her companion. "Lieutenant "
"B'Elanna," the half-Klingon corrected without looking up from her tricorder, though Seven was positive that the engineer had rolled her eyes after correcting her use of nomenclature for the third time that day.
She started again. "B'Elanna, have you found any of the required materials?"
Torres didn't hear the question. She was buried deep in the analysis of the fascinating readings her tricorder was displaying. A sharp nudge in the ribs broke her concentration. "Ow! Seven!" she protested, rubbing the affected area for dramatic effect. The ex-drone pinned B'Elanna with an expectant look and the Klingon realised that she had missed something. She smiled apologetically. "Sorry, but what do you make of this?"
Seven opened her mouth to protest at the distraction but no words came out as she scanned the data. She suddenly understood why the dark engineer had been so engrossed. "This is remarkable," she finally commented, dragging her cobalt eyes away from the screen.
"That's close enough to what I thought," agreed B'Elanna with a cheeky grin. "I'm just wondering how the hell a civilisation with *this* level of technology can generate that sort of power."
Seven's eyes widened at the remark. "Curious though I am to investigate this phenomenon more thoroughly, we do have orders," she reminded the shorter woman.
"I know that, Seven. I'm just wondering why there are such powerful generators nearby. What are they providing energy for?" she voiced her thoughts quietly. "It can't be the town, the power output is ridiculously large for such a small area." Without waiting for an answer, she continued, her eyes shining as an idea formed in her head. "More to the point, *how* are they providing that energy. Could we harness it in some way?"
"B'Elanna," warned Seven, not wishing her colleague to get over-enthusiastic without thinking things through. "It would be more logical to restore Voyager to its original condition before attempting to integrate new technology into the systems."
The Chief Engineer snorted. "Oh, except when it's Borg technology," she rejoined, incredulous that Seven could use such an argument.
"Borg technology is not new to me," Seven's face held the ghost of a smile; satisfied that she had won the point. Her smile broadened when B'Elanna opened her mouth to retort, only to shut it again and curl her lip in open disgust, accompanying the gesture with a resigned sigh. The look was fleeting however, replaced with a smile to mirror the blonde woman's.
"It's a good job I like you, Seven," B'Elanna commented as she snapped the tricorder shut with a flourish. "Otherwise we could end up having some very ugly fights." With that, the raven-haired woman tucked the instrument into a concealed inside pocket and stalked towards the nearest shop that held promise of useful materials.
Seven stood and looked at her for a moment, about to point out that they had in fact shared many 'ugly' arguments when she realised that B'Elanna was being facetious. Grinning widely at the thought that the Klingon now felt comfortable enough around Seven to tease her, the Borg happily followed the smaller woman into the premises.
Her eyes adjusted quickly to the change in luminescence. The shop was cluttered and untidy, the wares spilling out of containers and onto unkempt shelves. For a moment, Seven doubted that the place contained anything of use whatsoever but raised her eyebrows when she noticed what B'Elanna was haggling for. The crate contained more fluoroxitine alloy than they could ever have hoped for. Admittedly, it was difficult to assess the quality of the goods but the quantity was astounding.
Seven joined the engineer and listened politely to the exchange.
"I'm sorry, but you can't tell me that this is popular stuff, it's got the thickest layer of dust I've ever seen," B'Elanna objected to the vendor's latest claim.
"We live in a dusty area," protested the tall blond seller weakly. He was too distracted by the stunning appearance of the exotic off-worlder to put any real effort into his bargaining. He coughed, in a vain attempt to focus on the task at hand but faltered again as B'Elanna smiled at him.
The ex-Maquis could sense that the vendor was preoccupied with her appearance. Part of her was flattered by the attention, the other amazed that she could beguile anyone. She stepped in closer, hoping to put the shopkeeper off even more and repeated her offer for the materials softly into his ear.
Seven was astounded. She had never seen the engineer behave in such a manner before. The dark Klingon's actions were an illogical attempt to coerce the goods from the shopkeeper by distracting him with her body language. Seven's mouth went dry when she evaluated her own reactions to B'Elanna's method. She could almost sympathise with the shopkeeper because had she been the focus of B'Elanna's attention, she would have agreed to anything the smaller woman asked for.
The vendor swallowed convulsively before nodding eagerly at B'Elanna's request. He stumbled backwards and put some distance between himself and the raven-haired off-worlder, before busily stocking a heavy duty bag full of fluoroxitine, hands fumbling in his hurry to please the beautiful buyer. With the container full, he struggled to lift it and extend it towards B'Elanna. His eyes shot open as she accepted the heavy bag effortlessly, slinging it across her shoulder before extending her other hand with the payment.
Just as the exchange took place, he heard a muffled chirp and a dismembered voice call from the folds of the dark-haired woman's leather shirt. He locked eyes with B'Elanna but her face remained impassive and she made no move reply to the hail. "You're from that ship aren't you?" he accused, free from Torres' spell as he realised the women's identity.
"What ship?" enquired Seven tonelessly, for all intents and purposes totally disinterested in his query.
The vendor narrowed his dark blue eyes and scrutinised his customers carefully. "The ship that wanted supplies. The Moderator was dealing with them a few days ago," he explained, studying the two women's faces intently for any sign of reaction.
He saw nothing. Not even a flicker of recognition, or a look of concern. That total absence was enough to convince him that he had been correct with his assumption, but he had heard that these people were powerful, with incredible technology. He had also just witnessed the amazing strength of the dark-haired woman when she shouldered the bag he had just traded. On his own, he would be over-powered before he had the chance to inform the Moderator of this development. "My mistake," he apologised, dropping his eyes submissively. He could put on an act too, when necessary.
B'Elanna nodded and exited the shop silently, Seven following on her heels. As soon as they were outside, the engineer spun to face Seven. "He's on to us for sure. We have to get out of here now."
The tall blonde woman concurred. She darted into the nearest side turning and quickly surveyed the area before speaking again. "Let us just hope that the timing of our hail is more propitious," she remarked dryly as she reached inside her heavy ruby-red shirt to activate the communicator pin.
"Seven, you took your time," Janeway hissed an admonishment as she answered the Astrometrics Officer's call.
"Captain, we believe that our identities have been discovered and that the safety of the away team has been compromised," Seven's faintly distorted voice carried over the link.
Janeway pulled a face at the comment. "We need to get the hell out of here," she agreed, cutting to the chase. "Get to the rendezvous point as quickly as you can. We'll meet you there," she ordered and severed the link. She looked at Tuvok and Neelix, her face hardened by grim resolve. "Come on. Let's get these supplies back."
They heard the shots before they could identify their origin. Instantly shifting into defensive mode, Janeway, Tuvok and Neelix sprinted back into the alleyway and proceeded to circumnavigate the market via the back streets. A sudden shout revealed that they had been discovered and then the race was on, each of them ducking or swerving periodically as shots ricocheted off walls or destroyed local adornments. The crowds that had been milling through the market panicked, scattering as they searched for any safe area to hide from the phaser fire. The three away team members used the confusion to their advantage. Darting through the gaps of the melee, they made themselves far more difficult to target.
"Janeway to Voyager," the Captain hailed breathlessly. She was sprinting hard and could hear the small Talaxian gasping right behind her and the syncopated footfalls of Tuvok slightly further back
"Go ahead," Chakotay replied, his voice tight with concern as he heard the lack of control in Janeway's breathing.
"Get us out of here, Chakotay," she ordered. She stopped and spun round suddenly as she heard an agonized yelp from Neelix. He was lying on the floor, motionless. As Tuvok stooped to pick him up, he received the full force of a blast wound into his chest.
She ducked into a recess to protect herself from the oncoming fire. "Chakotay," hailed Janeway desperately, pulling out her phaser and shooting at the oncoming troops. Her action stalled them briefly as they dropped for cover.
"We're having trouble getting a lock on you," explained the First Officer, not even bothering to keep the emotion from his voice. The link was more distorted now and she had trouble hearing the native Indian.
"Beam Tuvok and Neelix up first, they've been injured," Janeway rationalised. "Though I have no idea how Seven and B'Elanna are doing," she continued as she let off a volley of shots, tightening her lips in grim satisfaction as two guards keeled over.
Seconds later, she saw the two prone bodies bathed in shimmering blue light as the transporter locked on and removed them from the planet surface.
She let off another round of fire, waiting for her turn. Nothing happened. "Janeway to Voyager, what the hell is happening?" she called. The comm. link returned static only and Janeway realised with a sinking feeling that she was alone and had no way out.
At first, B'Elanna and Seven moved through the crowd casually, not wanting to draw attention to themselves by appearing to hurry away. They made good progress and were approaching the outer periphery of the town when they were halted by the view of several similarly attired men, all holding weapons closing in on their location.
"Come on," urged B'Elanna as she slung the backpack onto her other shoulder. The two women turned and headed down a nearby alleyway. As soon as they heard the demands for them to stop, Seven and B'Elanna broke into a run, zigzagging down the narrow path in an effort to avoid the phaser fire.
As they broke free of the buildings, they sprinted across the open land towards the rendezvous point but were pulled up short by two pockets of guards, flanking round them and closing in rapidly. Seven yanked at B'Elanna and they dived for cover behind a small out-cropping of rocks and bushes.
"Torres to Voyager, two to beam up," demanded the Chief Engineer, wondering why the hell she hadn't thought of that in the first place.
She swerved her head to avoid a phaser bolt and looked angrily at its originator as the shot passed by, millimetres from her face. He was already sprawled on the ground though. Seven had un-holstered her phaser and was picking off the aggressors efficiently. The Klingon grabbed her weapon and joined in grimly.
"Voyager has failed to respond to your hail, Lieutenant," Seven remarked, pushing a stray filament of hair out of her eyes.
"That'll explain why we're still here getting shot at," rejoined B'Elanna sarcastically as she drilled another guard with a central hit to his chest.
"The probability of escaping here without Voyager's assistance is "
"Use your communicator," interrupted B'Elanna tersely. She hated hearing bad odds.
Seven's communicator transmitted only static. The two women looked at each other briefly.
There was a sudden crash and one of the uniformed aggressors leapt into the recess where B'Elanna and Seven had holed in. The ex-borg reacted instantly, stepping forward and twisting his neck, killing him immediately. She straightened and came face to face with several other guards. Now too close for phaser fire, she grabbed the closest man and swung him into the second before he had an opportunity to react. In her peripheral vision she glimpsed B'Elanna deep in combat with several aggressors. They were both heavily outnumbered. It would only be a matter of time before they were overpowered. It galled her to admit defeat to these inferior creatures, but Seven knew when it was more prudent to surrender. "B'Elanna, stop," she called loudly as she stood up and raised her hands.
The Klingon hybrid heard Seven's plea but it took several moments to register. In that time, she despatched another guard with a heavy punch to his jaw and was about to fell the next when she noticed Seven's submissive stance. Forcing the battle-rage from her body by reasoning that she had no hope of victory if Seven had surrendered; she too capitulated and held up her hands. She just hoped that the others had got away.
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