DISCLAIMER: Yes, Paramount owns it all - I am just having some fun
with their characters.
SERIES: This story is a sequel to Resistance
PAIRING: B'Elanna/Seven (eventually!)
FEEDBACK: Yes please, I wouldn't post otherwise.
Par-Haln paced up and down nervously. He had agreed to board Voyager and meet with Captain Janeway almost two hours ago, after which he had been transported aboard and escorted to what was called the conference room. A large oval table was the centrepiece of the room but there was ample space for the administrator to walk as he waited for the captain. Par-Haln suspected that there had been a serious development in the investigation of the disappearance of Lieutenant Torres and Seven of Nine. A guard had been placed on the entrance to the conference room and had attentively watched the administrator's pacing. Par-Haln mentally studied every facet of his plan to abduct the two women but could not see any flaws. He would have to exercise extreme caution when dealing with the captain in order not to make any stupid errors. He decided that he had been left deliberately, to put him at a disadvantage when he was finally interviewed. It was common practise on his planet when dealing with smugglers and petty thieves. The administrator sneered at the tactic; he was far too experienced to succumb to that kind of intimidation, yet he had to admit that his solitude made him worry almost continually. Despite his uneasiness, Par-Haln still believed that he could not be held accountable for the incident.
His musings were broken by the sound of the conference room doors parting. Captain Janeway strode through purposefully with her chief of Security, Lieutenant Tuvok, close behind her. Par-Haln decided to wrong-foot her and go on the offensive. "Captain, you invited me to speak with you some time ago. I am unaware of your local customs, but my people consider it most rude to keep a guest waiting."
Janeway turned a baleful glare at the administrator. "Sit down and listen. I'm not here to play games, I'm here to get facts." Her tone was icy and she sat down at the head of the table and waited for Par-Haln to join her.
The port administrator swallowed, surprised at her directness. She was clearly in no mood to be fooled with so he immediately changed tack and sat down. "How may I be of assistance?"
"Tuvok here analysed the last transmission of the away team," Janeway began, fighting hard to contain her anger. She was determined not to explode until she had confirmed the facts. But once she had the administrator cornered, she would stop at nothing to discover the whereabouts of Torres and Seven. They had already been missing too long.
"What has this got to do with me?" Par-Haln asked mildly.
Janeway barely kept the snarl from her face. "Perhaps you'll be able to tell me after we've listened." She nodded at the tall Vulcan who tapped in a series of commands on the console at the table. Instantly, the occupants of the conference room could hear B'Elanna Torres explaining away the discharges in the laboratory area as well as stating that she and Seven would have to go to the other site to assist Harry.
At the end of the recording, the blue-eyed man frowned. "I am not sure what I am supposed to comment on, Captain," he stated in a bewildered manner.
Janeway glared at the man. "Whilst studying this transmission, Tuvok ran a series of tests. He applied a delay filter and detected a second voice fractionally ahead of Lieutenant Torres'. When he filtered out B'Elanna's voice altogether, this is what he was left with." She indicated that Tuvok should commence playback and then watched with grim satisfaction as the Port Administrator blanched while listening to his own voice using the exact words that Torres had used. At the end of the recording, the auburn-haired woman maintained her silence, staring unerringly at her visitor as she waited for him to speak.
Par-Haln felt faint. He had been assured that the voice modulator he had acquired for the task was undetectable and yet he had just heard his own voice clearly speaking. His mind raced. The situation had taken him totally by surprise and he had to think of something very quickly in order to salvage anything from the operation. "I… I don't understand. That can't be me. Someone has rigged something to set me up," he cried indignantly.
"I can assure you that I have scrutinised the recording minutely," Tuvok replied. "I have run comparisons to other recordings we have of your voice and completed filter analyses to determine if there were any other voices present. The evidence is irrefutable. That is your voice on the recording. You spoke those words."
Par-Haln switched looking between Tuvok and Janeway rapidly. Still, Janeway said nothing, not even using any facial expression to prompt him to reply. Her complete lack of reaction unnerved him. It was a method of interrogation he had not encountered before, but he knew it was a style nevertheless. Suddenly he held his head in his hands and spoke again. "I'm so sorry, I'm so sorry. But they threatened my family."
Janeway sat forward. At last progress was being made. "Who threatened your family?"
Par-Haln waited and appeared to try and compose himself. He sighed deeply and looked up meekly at the captain. "They never told me who they were. Or whom they were working for. But they knew everything about me, and everything about my family. They said that they would kill my daughter if I didn't cooperate."
"You have no knowledge of these people and yet you believed their threats? That is not logical," Tuvok pointed out reasonably.
"Of course I didn't believe them," Par-Haln replied haughtily. "I dismissed their talk for attempted coercion and ignored their directions." He swallowed and wiped his eyes roughly. "Two days later, they murdered my pet Kalith and displayed his skin in my garden. They told me that they'd do the same to my daughter. When they recited her exact routine for the next week, I had no choice but to obey their orders."
"Why did you not tell the authorities about the situation?" Tuvok probed. Janeway looked at her security chief and nodded subtly. She was quite happy for the Vulcan to take the lead and proceed in a cool and logical manner. It had taken her nearly two hours to calm down enough to allow herself to be in the same room as Par-Haln without beating the answers out of him. She would save her more violent approach should Tuvok's methods prove less than satisfactory.
"I *am* the authorities," Par-Haln pointed out. He clenched his fists as he rested them on the table. "Who was I supposed to tell? Besides, they told me that if I did confide in anyone, they would ensure that I had a permanent reminder not to cross them again. I have no idea what they were thinking of, but after seeing my Kalith mutilated, I didn't want to take a risk."
"Perhaps you should tell us more about what you agreed to do for these nameless people. Did you ever meet them? How did they direct you to your tasks? And what was it that you agreed to do?" Tuvok knew that he was loading Par-Haln down with questions but in his experience, giving interviewees a number of queries often revealed hidden agendas or information that could prove invaluable to the investigation.
The administrator sat back and sighed again. He stared at his hands for a long moment and composed his thoughts quickly. He knew that Tuvok would be listening for any discrepancy in his tale, any hint of subterfuge so he had to keep things as simple as possible. And he had to remember every detail. "I never spoke face-to-face with them. That's why I didn't act originally. I thought it was just some stupid prank gone too far. Even when I agreed to work with them, all my instructions were delivered to me as a data file that destroyed itself a short while after I activated it. They told me all about you and your ship. They wanted people who knew all about your technology and systems. As we had a historical problem with our power supplies, it was easy to ask for assistance."
"So they did not describe anyone in particular? There were no definite names required for this abduction?" Tuvok probed more deeply.
Par-Haln shook his head. "No. They wanted an engineer. When I went to visit the laboratory, it was just the two women working. There were no other Mahalarians around so I knew I could work covertly. I disabled them and then took them to the export docks. They were left in a specified place. That's all I did."
"I beg to differ," Janeway responded, her voice low and threatening. "You deliberately set out to kidnap my crew and made plans to fulfil that mission. If you were scared for your family, you must have relied on more than just chance that B'Elanna and Seven would be left alone. More to the point, you went there prepared with a vocal adapter designed to emulate B'Elanna's voice. This was not just a simple operation."
Par-Haln stared at the small woman. "The vocal adapter was programmed to emulate every voice from Voyager that we had contact with. It could just as easily have sounded like Harry Kim speaking or even you. I originally hoped that I would only need to overcome one of your crew. There was only one container to put them in." He wrung his hands and looked plaintively at his interviewers. "I received another message saying that I had to deliver an engineer that night. They reiterated their threat to my daughter. When I came across Seven and B'Elanna, I took a risk and immobilised them both. I couldn't leave one in the laboratory so I put them both in the container and took it to the dock."
"So you had this container already stowed in a conveniently near location?" Tuvok queried, trying to build up a picture of events.
"Yes. Because they wanted an engineer, I assumed that they would be utilising the laboratory facility." Par-Haln rubbed his face again. "Captain, I really am very sorry. But you have to understand I only acted to protect my family."
Janeway smiled tightly. "Oh I understand," she replied calmly. "In the same way I expect you to understand that I will now do everything in my power to get *my* family back."
The administrator nodded vigorously. "Yes, I understand. What else do you want to know?"
"What type of container did you use?" Tuvok was methodical in his approach.
"An anti-grav container. They're common on the planet as they're utilised to carry anything that's still living. Different environments can be set up inside them, and they are light and manoeuvrable. It reduces the amount of heavy labour undertaken at the loading bays," Par-Haln explained.
"And where, exactly, did you take the container?" Janeway pursued.
"I'll show you, it'll be easier to do that than describe it. I was informed of the drop off point and time. But because things went to plan, I was early. I hid the crate amongst all the others and left the scene quickly."
"Then why the hell didn't you contact us? We could have had a security attachment waiting to detain them. You and your family would have been safe, and so would Seven and B'Elanna." Janeway's carefully controlled temper was threatening to erupt again as she stood up angrily from her chair and leant towards the administrator.
Par-Haln looked alarmed. It was his first slip and he was mentally kicking himself for adding the embellishment. "I just didn't think," he exclaimed hurriedly. "I was so relieved that it was over I just wanted to rush home to my family."
Janeway breathed deeply as she struggled to calm down. "I'm still having difficulty believing that you struck up a deal with people you never actually met. Can you tell us anything about them at all?"
Par-Haln sat back and pretended to consider the query. "I don't know what else could be important. They never spoke with me; I have no accents to recognise. All the communiqués were utilised with Mahalarian data padds. You're welcome to study one, but like I said, the infomation was wiped from the padd shortly after me reading it. I tried to look for hidden or deleted files but found nothing. They're extremely clever."
Janeway sat back down and glanced up at Tuvok before returning her glare at Par-Haln. "You said they specified a time that they required the container at the port. Is there any way we can check the departure records and determine where the container was loaded and its destination?"
Par-Haln smiled inwardly. At last they would come across the carefully planted information. "It is possible," he admitted after some consideration. "As long as the port inspector was doing his job correctly, there should be a detailed inventory of ships leaving the port along with the cargo they were transporting and their destinations."
Janeway scrutinised her guest for a few moments. Despite his nervous demeanour she could detect an undercurrent of confidence flowing through him. She was certain that things were not quite as straightforward as he portrayed them to be, but with no evidence other than one of her legendary hunches, the captain knew she could not threaten him too seriously. Her lips twitched into a tight smile. She might know that, but the administrator did not. "My security chief, Mr Tuvok, is a Vulcan. As we originate from the Alpha quadrant I know that you won't have come across Vulcans before. Tuvok has well developed mental powers. He has the ability to mind meld with people and determine the truth. That's why he's my tactical officer. It's an invasive, and sometimes painful procedure. Because of that, Tuvok always requires permission to do the procedure. But if you give me any cause, and I mean *any* cause, to doubt your honesty, I will get Tuvok to perform a mind meld and discover the truth, regardless of whether I have your permission or not. Do I make myself clear?"
"Are you threatening me, Captain?"
"No. I'm telling you. Now get up and show us where you left my crew." Janeway's voice turned back into an aggressive growl. As she stood up, she saw Tuvok looking at her in a vaguely surprised way. She raised her eyebrows, silently inviting him to comment on her behaviour. When the Vulcan said nothing, she nodded slightly and led the way out of the conference room and to the transporter room.
They materialised in the middle of the export docks. It was a busy and noisy area, with every available ship dock utilised. Containers and crates of every conceivable size and shape were being moved into the storage areas of the transports, with the work being supervised by crewmembers of the ships and port officials.
Janeway kept her face carefully neutral despite the sinking feeling in her stomach. She was reminded of the ancient Earth proverb about looking for a needle in a haystack and hopes of a quick resolution faded rapidly.
Par-Haln appeared positively cheery. "Come this way," he invited. The administrator strode away without waiting towards a large well- lit office to one side of the port.
Janeway reached out an arm to halt the obsequious man. "I don't believe that you left the crate in an office. Show us where you left my crew."
"My apologies, Captain. I wanted to show you the records." He turned round and studied the dock area before striding off once more.
Janeway glanced at Tuvok and his two security officers briefly before getting into step behind the administrator as he headed for a highly stacked row of crates.
"Obviously things have moved since I was here," Par-Haln stated as he gestured at the area. "I was told to place the crate here. Before these crates were put here, it was stacked with anti-grav containers. It was hidden in plain sight," he admitted.
Immediately, Tuvok swung a tricorder over the area. "There are no traces of human or Klingon evidence," he stated curtly.
"I don't know how good your technology is Captain, but I doubt you would get any indication of their presence if they were in the container. It is a sealed unit," Par-Haln explained.
"Mr Tuvok is merely trying to ascertain if they were removed from the crate here and taken somewhere else," Janeway replied. She looked carefully for any response from the administrator but found none. There was no point hiding the fact that she didn't trust the man; in fact it would probably serve her purposes better to remind him of that fact. Any façade he was hiding behind was likely to crack more readily if she put obvious pressure on him.
Tuvok quickly assigned his subordinates to continue sweeping the area for any evidence. "You should show us the documentation system while my colleagues work," he instructed.
The administrator watched the security team scour the area around the crates and then begin to move each crate carefully. It would take them a long time to search the area thoroughly. "This way," he gestured, pointing over to his original destination of the office area. Once inside, Par-Haln headed straight for a workstation and entered a series of commands. "This is all the data relating to the activities of this port," he told the captain as he worked. "Each crate is logged onto the transport and tagged accordingly."
"So it is simply a question of looking at ships leaving around the time specified and determining which craft were carrying anti-grav crates," Tuvok surmised.
"Absolutely." Par-Haln nodded enthusiastically.
"You realise that if you had told us about this straight away, we wouldn't be at least 10 hours behind them," Janeway pointed out, her eyes dark.
"I know that Captain. But I was only thinking of the safety of my family. Something I am still fretting over now it is clearly obvious I am working with you. There may be spies in the area and my family are still in danger." Par-Haln was beginning to enjoy his character acting.
"Whereas your family has a perceived threat to their safety, my *family* is in very definite danger," Janeway growled. "I suggest that you liaise with your own people so that you can ensure their safety. I don't have that luxury. All I can do is analyse the evidence that you're providing and hope I come to the right conclusions."
The danger B'Elanna and Seven were potentially in had cancelled out any fears Janeway had over transporting down to the planet, and now that she was here and had an essential mission to complete, she felt all the vigour and drive that had propelled her into becoming a captain flood back through her veins. In recent months she had begun to question her motivation and principles, as well as those of Starfleet, but knowing that how she reacted to the disappearance of Seven and B'Elanna would directly influence the search and its success had refocused her direction and revitalised her faith in her own abilities. She simply could not afford to let them down by being distracted by self-doubt and disillusionment.
Janeway felt as if the huge weight that sat on her shoulders ever since Voyager had been left stranded in the Delta quadrant and had been growing heavier with every setback she had encountered, suddenly became more manageable and in some ways, even welcome. It was the burden of command, and how she carried it defined her as a person. Janeway would no longer consider it a millstone that restricted her. She needed it to remind her that she had purpose, and there were people who relied on her and every decision she made. It had taken something as catastrophic as being taken prisoner by the Moderator and having B'Elanna tortured, as she stood by helpless, for Janeway to almost lose sight of her inner passion and principles. Now, having Seven and B'Elanna go missing had been the catalyst to return her fire and verve. Janeway considered both women to be personal friends as well as invaluable members of the crew. Their perilous situation had forced Janeway to turn a corner and begin her own healing processes. She would not let them down a second time. The Captain's gaze turned steely as she watched Par- Haln pale at her speech.
"You're quite right Captain. I'll contact my people straight away. And I apologise for not considering your crew to be equally as important to you."
"Just show me the records Par-Haln," Janeway instructed, dismissive of his apology. "We've wasted enough time."
The administrator hurriedly returned to the records. "Six ships have left the dock with anti-grav containers since I left your crew here," he stated after a few minutes.
"Six?" Janeway's mind raced. How the hell was she going to narrow down the search. If she chose to pursue the wrong ship, it could delay finding Seven and B'Elanna by days, and the auburn-haired woman wasn't convinced that they had that long. Despite finding no firm evidence on the abductors, she had serious concerns for the safety of the two women.
"Wait, there's more," Par-Haln continued eagerly. "I don't know if this will help you, but there was only one transport departure in the first two hours after I left the crate here. All the rest were departures in the last hour."
"And how does that help?" Janeway probed.
"Well I may be jumping to conclusions, but these people were very specific about timing. I wouldn't have thought that they would have waited long before moving the container. After all, the longer they wait, the greater the risk of getting caught."
"That would be a logical conclusion," Tuvok concurred.
There was something too easy about the information gathering, but Janeway couldn't identify exactly what it was that was bothering her. "Tuvok, go through every single bit of data thoroughly. I'm not rushing off on a potential wild goose chase. If you still consider that first transport to be the likeliest option, then obtain its course and destination and who the hell is the owner of the ship. I want every particle of information possible." She turned to face the Administrator. "In the meantime, I suggest we speak to your colleagues about your breach of neutrality." It gave Janeway a small modicum of satisfaction to see Par-Haln blanch at her next course of action.
B'Elanna groaned. Her head felt like it was being held in a vice and her chest was sore as if someone had punched it repeatedly in the same spot. Even as she registered the sensations, she remembered that Seven had been with her, and if she was hurt, then Seven could potentially be too. The half-Klingon sat up quickly and then stopped as a wave of nausea threatened to overwhelm her. She blinked rapidly and swallowed down the bile that had risen to her throat, but her heart rate eased slightly as soon as she saw the tall ex-drone sitting on a low bunk opposite her.
As soon as B'Elanna sat up, Seven looked up from her musings and breathed a sigh of relief. The engineer had been unconscious for some time, despite Seven's attempts to rouse her. Without a tricorder, Seven had only been able to perform a cursory examination of her lover and had no idea what was keeping the woman unconscious. It could simply be an after-effect of the drugged atmosphere they had been kept in for some time, or it could be something altogether more sinister. Feeling helpless, Seven had sat back on the bunk opposite the raven-haired woman and maintained a steady vigil, not even bothering to examine her surroundings closely. She saw B'Elanna pale and scooted over quickly to sit by her side. "Are you functioning correctly?"
"I'm feeling a little sick to my stomach, but it's beginning to pass," B'Elanna admitted. She swallowed again. "Where are we? And what the hell happened?"
Seven chose to answer the second question first. "We were attacked by Par-Haln. I do not know why. I do not believe that we are on Mahalar anymore. I have a hazy recollection of lying in a box, but I cannot be specific. The materials in this room do not originate from Mahalar."
B'Elanna studied the room, feeling her pulse accelerate with fear as she recognised the style of furnishings.
Seven correctly read the look of understanding on B'Elanna's face and nodded miserably. "The Moderator," she confirmed quietly.
"I don't know if I can go through this again," B'Elanna admitted candidly. "What the hell does he want with us now?"
"Nothing good," Seven responded darkly. She moved B'Elanna's legs in order to sit on the bunk with her and they leant into one another, hugging each other closely. "I will not be able to stand back and watch him torture you Benal. It should be me," she whispered gently.
"No," B'Elanna growled in protest. "It should be neither of us." She sighed deeply. "Just hold me," she murmured, desperate for the comfort Seven gave as she tried to order her thoughts.
Seven gladly obliged, gaining comfort from the embrace. Both women sprang apart as they heard the large door to the room unlock. Two guards in dark green leather armour stepped through the door, their weapons drawn threateningly. Unconsciously, both women shrank back on the bunk, pressing their backs up against the wall.
The guards parted and stood on either side of the door to allow the third man to enter. He smiled wolfishly as he heard his prisoners gasp. "Well, well. I can't tell you how delighted I am to have the pleasure of your company again," he commented cordially.
"You won't get away with this," B'Elanna spat back venomously, using anger as an automatic defence mechanism. "Captain Janeway will find our trail and track us back here," she continued.
"I hope so," The Moderator agreed pleasantly. "That is part of the plan, after all."
"What plan?" Seven interjected, shocked by the revelation. "And what do you want with us?"
"I can't tell you everything," the tall blond man chided. "There would be no fun for you. No anticipation. But I can give you motive. In fact, I can't believe that you haven't guessed it already."
"Revenge," B'Elanna answered quietly.
"My dark-haired beauty," the Moderator praised. "I knew you would understand." He closed the distance between himself and the two women. He sat down on his haunches so that he was eye level. Seven looked at him critically and realised that he was off-balance and exposed to a swift attack. However the Moderator also seemed to know that. "If you move, the guards will fire. Their weapons are set on the mark below kill. It's extremely painful if you wish to experience it." He cocked an eyebrow, taunting the ex-drone and grinned as he saw the woman sit back slightly.
"Now ladies," he continued conversationally. "You have no idea what you put me through after the debacle of your last visit. So when the opportunity for retribution fell into my lap, I could hardly turn it down." He reached out and tucked a strand of B'Elanna's hair back behind her ear, his smile widening as he felt the woman flinch from his touch. "And while we're waiting for dear Captain Janeway to rescue you, I'll be able to continue with my research."
"You'll get nothing from me this time," B'Elanna asserted.
"On the contrary," the Moderator disputed mildly. "I think now that the dynamics have changed, I'm going to have far more to work with."
"Dynamics?" Seven questioned.
"Shall I demonstrate?" The Moderator stood suddenly, a look of eager anticipation on his face. With a quick motion of his hand, the two guards at the door came forward and hauled Seven to her feet. B'Elanna immediately sprang up but halted when a weapon was levelled at her. One guard pinned Seven's shoulders to the wall while the other extended her fully human arm, holding it at the wrist. He rested his weapon at her elbow.
"Come over here B'Elanna," the Moderator instructed. The Klingon stared for a long moment at Seven until the Astrometrics officer flicked her head with a silent indication that she should obey. Reluctantly, B'Elanna stepped over to where the Moderator stood.
"Now, extend your arm out," the tall man told her.
Slowly, B'Elanna raised her left arm and stretched it out at right angles to her body. She kept her eyes on Seven the entire time, even when the Moderator spoke again. "If you cry out, or scream in the next minute, the guard will discharge his weapon and totally destroy her elbow. Do you understand?"
B'Elanna nodded her head, her mouth suddenly dry.
The Moderator pulled a small instrument out of his pocket and then turned to Seven. "This is the dynamic I'm talking about," he remarked cryptically before rolling up B'Elanna's sleeve slowly, smiling widely when he felt the Klingon's eyes watching him. "Just remember, no crying out," he repeated happily.
With that, he jabbed the probe directly into B'Elanna's bicep, forcing it through the muscle slowly, making firm circular motions as he advanced it.
Taken by surprise, B'Elanna had to bite down in order not to cry out. The probe had obviously been treated with something, as it burned horribly and the engineer could smell her flesh burn even as the probe disappeared into her skin.
"Stop it you barbarian," Seven cried out, lashing out at the guards holding her.
"Silence!" The Moderator roared, pulling out a weapon and holding it at B'Elanna's head threateningly. "You will stay silent!" he commanded again, digging the muzzle of the weapon viciously into B'Elanna's forehead.
Seven stilled immediately, a look of outraged horror on her face. She stared at B'Elanna miserably, feeling helpless once again.
B'Elanna gazed back at her lover and marvelled at her self-control. Had their positions been reversed, she doubted she could stop and they would probably both be lying on the floor, dead or critically injured by now. The Moderator caught her attention again with a sadistic dig of the probe and she bit her lip again, feeling the trickle of blood down her chin indicate how hard she had bitten to stop herself from crying out.
The Moderator smiled. He had never experienced this much control over his subjects before. In the time before Janeway attempted to rescue them, he was going to enjoy himself immensely. With a malicious smile, he yanked the probe free from her arm and pushed her back onto the bunk. He nodded at the guards and they stepped away from Seven, pushing her away from them as they did so. "That's the change in dynamic I'm talking about," The man stated evilly. "And I intend to exploit it fully."
Without waiting for a reply, he stepped back through the door, followed by his colleagues.
As she heard the bolts slam back into place, Seven turned to B'Elanna, her face stricken. "Are you okay?"
B'Elanna stared resolutely at the door. "I'll live," she commented gruffly. "But I don't know how long for."
Janeway pinched the bridge of her nose in frustration. After silently counting to ten, she looked back up at the screen and the face of the alien trader before her. "Are you telling me that you're not carrying any anti-grav containers?" she asked.
"Absolutely not. I never transport livestock. Too great a risk of disease. You're welcome to look for yourself Captain Janeway."
"Then why do the export documents from Mahalar indicate that you are carrying them?"
"Can you send me the data?" the alien asked reasonably.
Janeway nodded at Harry Kim who sent the information over instantly. She watched as the alien freighter captain studied his console.
"Captain, these records are in error. My shipment is Lot 63-21-7. You have the details for Lot 63-21-1. Someone has made an error in the recording. I am sorry, but I do not have what you're looking for."
Janeway growled. "Par-Haln," she named accusingly.
The freighter captain narrowed his eyes. "I have had no dealing with the port administrator. All my cargo went through standard channels."
Janeway frowned. "Standard channels?"
"Yes. Par-Haln only deals with special or delicate cargo. Well, that's my understanding of the situation. Rumour has it, that Mahalar maintains its neutrality by keeping his activities quiet."
The auburn-haired woman felt anger surge through her. They had been played. Again. Mentally, she ordered her thoughts, unwilling to vent her frustration and ire on an innocent party caught up in the deception.
Unfortunately, the cargo ship commander mistook her silence for disbelief. "Captain, I really have nothing to hide. Feel free to come aboard, or scan the cargo holds. You'll find that I am telling you the truth."
His words were the catalyst Janeway needed to calm down and she looked at the viewscreen. "My apologies, Hrotthgan. I did not mean to offend you. Thank you for being so open."
The alien nodded sombrely. "I know that not all traders are honest, but I pride myself on my integrity. If I can be of any assistance, please let me know."
"Thank you. You've already helped us enormously with your cooperation. I'll delay you on your journey no longer."
"Farewell Captain, and good luck with your search."
The view screen returned to the view immediately in front of Voyager and Janeway watched dispassionately as the cargo ship recommenced its trip.
"Mr Paris, set a course back for Mahalar. We have unfinished business there. And this time, I'm making sure we get the right information."
"Yes ma'am." The helmsman's hands were already skating over his console as he programmed in the co-ordinates.
"Captain, there may be no need to return to Mahalar. I have a substantial amount of data downloaded from the export cargo port we investigated. There is a flight plan and destination for Lot 63-21- 1," Tuvok revealed.
"Don't tell me, it's in completely the opposite direction?" Janeway guessed bitterly.
"Not diametrically opposite, but close enough," Tuvok agreed.
"I don't trust any of the information we've been fed anymore. I'm going back to shake it out of Par-Haln personally," Janeway vowed. She was furious with herself for not seeing through the slimy man's ruse.
"Captain, much as I share your wish to have a one-to-one with Par- Haln, we might just be delaying getting to Seven and B'Elanna," Chakotay reasoned calmly.
"And who's to say that this new destination isn't just an opportunity to increase the distance between us and them?" Janeway spat back.
"I don't know," the native American answered honestly. "But there may be more data that we haven't considered yet."
"I don't want a debate about this, Chakotay," Janeway retorted, putting a halt to her First Officer's argument instantly.
The tall man bristled. "Permission to speak freely?" he asked formally, his standard veiled request for a private audience with the captain.
"My Ready Room. Now. You too, Tuvok." Janeway was in no mood to justify her action but she was prepared to allow her deputies to speak. "In the meantime, Mr Paris; head back to Mahalar, maximum warp." She might have to concede a meeting with Chakotay, but she was not going to waste any more time than was absolutely necessary.
The diminutive woman stalked off the Bridge and led the way to her Ready room. She strode straight into the room and allowed enough time for the men to enter before she spun round to face them. "Let's hear it, Chakotay. Tell me why I shouldn't be tearing Par-Haln apart for selling my crew to a secret buyer."
"I feel the same way as you, Captain. But if we already have the information that leads us to B'Elanna and Seven, why are we wasting our time with him?" Chakotay was unafraid of Janeway's posturing. He had seen it too many times before.
"We can't trust that information. It could be another ruse. I'm not prepared to take that risk." Janeway dismissed his argument instantly.
"Captain, I have further information that may influence your decision making," Tuvok interjected carefully.
"Unless it's a verifiable confirmation that my crew is part of that shipment, I can't see there being anything that will change my mind on this." Janeway turned her steely gaze on her Chief of Security.
Tuvok hesitated, and suddenly Janeway was alarmed. The Vulcan was rarely fazed by information; this was completely out of character.
"The destination is the home-planet of the Moderator," Tuvok revealed quietly.
Janeway closed her eyes, as if trying to shut out the information. The Captain allowed herself a few seconds to compose herself before looking at her senior officers again. She let out a frustrated sigh. "You're quite right, Tuvok. That information has changed my opinion on our course of action. Chakotay: thank you for your guidance. It sometimes takes an incident like this one to remind me how much I value both of you." She paused and pinched the bridge of her nose. "God, I thought we'd seen the last of him," she whispered to herself. Determined not to fall back into the dark hole of self- doubt and despair she had only so recently pulled herself out of, Janeway looked up and squared her shoulders forcefully, suddenly becoming the commanding presence in the room despite being dwarfed by Chakotay and Tuvok. "How long before we get in range?" she asked.
"At Warp 7 it will take two days, four hours," Tuvok replied instantly, obviously having already anticipated the question.
"Two days in the hands of the Moderator," the captain mused softly. In a louder voice she addressed Tuvok and Chakotay once more. "I don't know of two more stubborn people on this ship. They'll be holding out for us to rescue them. And I'm not going to let them down." She got reassuring nods from both men.
Without further preamble, Janeway left the Ready room and strode purposefully to the centre of the Bridge. "Mr Paris, Tuvok has a new course for you. The freighter was headed for the Moderator's home-planet." She paused as she saw the rest of the Bridge crew react to the revelation. "We're two days away at best. Mr Kim, work with Tuvok to combat the planetary shielding, it's bound to be operational again. I want no excuses. Chakotay, I want strategies on how to get them back. I'm not interested in how legal they are. When we reach the planet, I want a team prepared and ready to get them out. We've been through enough delays and false leads. I want my crew back."
The Bridge bustled with the energy generated by her determination. Janeway stared at the steady stream of starlight as it flashed by the view screen. After a few moments, she allowed herself to sit in her chair, her straight-back posture a reflection of the resolve coursing through her. She spoke again, but softly this time. However, every person on the Bridge heard her words as if she had shouted. "I will get you back safely. No matter what the cost."
Contined in Resolution
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