"I'm telling you, this is not a good idea," Councilor Raynor hissed at Ambassador Eldred across the briefing table. "Why do you insist on bringing in outsiders and endangering what we have established?" A number of the other government officials seated at the table murmured in agreement while others kept silent in anticipation of Eldred's defense of having invited the Jaralan Institute to aid them.
"That's the problem with you, Raynor," Eldred replied, cool and even in his delivery. "You lack vision. You lack drive." He dusted a piece of lint from his lapel and squinted at Raynor. "You lack courage."
"How dare you," Raynor shouted as he stood. "I have served this province as Councilor for twelve cycles and have attended to our people's needs." A number of other councilors attempted to calm Raynor and finally succeeded in getting him to sit down.
"The future awaits us, Raynor," Eldred continued, "and your narrow vision will not help us reach what we deserve."
"If we don't lose everything," Raynor muttered.
"Gentlemen," Eldred said, "with the assistance that this Jalaran Institute could provide, we would be able to put more people to work and perhaps even produce enough food that we would have a surplus to sell. The people of Velnar have sacrificed a great deal to get to this point. If we just have courage, we could become a power in the sector again."
"Do you really think they'll help us when they find out . . .," Raynor began.
"We'll just have to make sure they don't find out," Eldred insisted just as Waites, his assistant, entered the room.
"Please forgive me for disturbing you, Ambassador," Waites sputtered. "Seven of Nine is here. She is here for your meeting."
"Thank you, Waites," Eldred said, rising from his chair. "Please show her in."
Seven entered the room surprised to see the all of the seats at the table occupied, save two. She nodded at Eldred, who ushered her to a seat and introduced the government officials in attendance.
"Will Ms. Torres be joining us for this meeting?" Eldred inquired.
"There is some personal business to which she must attend," Seven answered, glancing around the room in an attempt to assess the situation. "She will join us later."
"Very well. Let us proceed."
As Karen led the way through the abandoned building in which she and her friends had taken up residence, B'Elanna struggled to hold her tongue and not cry out in disgust and anger. Lacking any source of power, the building was dark with some small areas illuminated by the light coming through windows placed very high on the walls. Given what she was seeing, B'Elanna wasn't sure that she found the sunlight of benefit at all. Small groups of young people, dirty and malnourished, were clustered about in the hallways and the rooms, guarding what few possessions they had.
"This is it," Karen said with a shrug, ushering her into one of the rooms in which a young man and a young woman sat on dirty mats. "And this is Jarrod," she continued, pointing to the man, "and Keil."
"Karen," Keil exclaimed, standing up and eyeing B'Elanna with suspicion. "We were worried when you didn't come back yesterday."
"It's okay. You're not going to believe this. This is my sister, B'Elanna. She's here on business and we . . . ran into each other in the park."
"Wow," Jarrod said, "that's incredible."
"No one was more surprised than I," B'Elanna laughed.
Karen sat down on one of the mats and began pulling food from the hotel rook out of her bag. "I thought you guys might like this."
Jarrod and Keil pounced on the food and B'Elanna joined them on the mats, watching quietly as Karen explained where she had been.
"So you guys all met at one of those government compounds?" B'Elanna asked, hoping to get some sense of what Eldred might be hiding.
"Yeah," Jarrod said between bites of food. "I left my home in the western province to take a job as a harvester at a government compound in order to help my family. I was there for about three months before Keil arrived. Karen came about two months later."
Keil jumped in. "In the months that I was there, I did not make enough to send anything back. They took everything for our living expenses if you could call that living. We've been trying to figure out a way to get back home, but travel is difficult without money. The government paid for our transportation to the compound, but we've got nothing to get us back. "
"So you were harvesting crops in a domed environment that the government runs?" B'Elanna asked. The three nodded. "And there are no such compounds in your home provinces?"
"No," Jarrod replied. "This is the only province that farms in this way. With the difficult atmospheric conditions, farmers in my province can barely produce enough to survive."
B'Elanna frowned. "It doesn't look to me as if the people of this province are doing all that much better. So, who gets all the food that comes out of the compounds?"
"Looks like we're eating it," Keil laughed.
"It would seem so," B'Elanna said, still frowning. "Listen," she said to Karen. "I've got to get to a meeting, but I'd like you to meet me at the municipal building in an hour. Bring your stuff and you can stay with us until we leave." Karen nodded and B'Elanna turned her attention to Keil and to Jarrod. "We'd be happy to provide transport home for you when we're done here."
"Really?" Jarrod and Keil exclaimed in unison.
"Absolutely," B'Elanna replied with a smile and getting up to leave. "We'll let you know when we finish up our meetings.
Karen rose as well to escort B'Elanna out. When the reached the building's main door, B'Elanna turned to her and spoke with some hesitation, worried that Karen might resent her idea. "Look, I know we haven't had a chance to discuss this, but I would really like it if you came home with us. I have no intention of making you do anything or of trying to control you, but it just seems to make the most sense until you decide what your next move will be."
Before she could finish, Karen pulled her into a hug. "That would be great," she whispered.
"Good then." B'Elanna's smile matched Karen's when they broke the embrace. "I'll see you in an hour."
"It seems clear that the restoration of Velnar's agriculture should be the priority for any work the Institute takes up, should we decide to offer assistance," Seven informed the meeting's participants. "We would have to do a comprehensive survey of the atmosphere in order to decide how best to proceed, but we have had some experience with such situations."
"Really?" Ambassador Eldred queried.
"Yes, Voyager encountered a planet that had suffered severe atmospheric destruction from antimatter radiation. Using atmospheric processors to recombine the nucleonic particles in the atmosphere, we were able to restore the planet to a habitable state."
"Amazing," Councilor Raynor declared.
"While the situation here is somewhat different," Seven continued, "I suspect that a similar approach would be sufficient to rectify what the Cardassians did to Velnar."
Before anyone could question her further, they were interrupted by Waites, accompanied by B'Elanna. Eldred rose to greet her.
"I am pleased that you could join us. Seven of Nine was just explaining a method that might be used to restore our atmosphere to its original state."
"Well, Seven's the best," B'Elanna said, surveying the room just as Seven did when she entered. "May I confer with her for a moment before we continue?"
"Of course," Eldred responded and Seven and B'Elanna stepped into the hallway.
"Did all go well with Karen this morning?" Seven asked.
B'Elanna nodded. "Yes, everything's fine and she'll meet us here in an hour. I spoke with some of her friends about these government compounds and I still don't know what's going on for sure, but I think the provincial government is pressing people into service, paying them next to nothing, and not making the food available. I don't know where its going, but they must be in violation of a number of Federation articles."
Seven nodded, clearly considering the implications of this information as B'Elanna watched her. "Come," she said finally, leading B'Elanna back into the conference room.
The officials present regarded them as they took their seats and Seven began to speak, addressing Ambassador Eldred in particular. "We shall need to give full consideration to your request for assistance from the Institute. In accordance with the Articles of Federation, it is the policy of the Institute to ensure that any world we aid means to use our technology for the benefit of *all* its people and not a select few."
"I do not know to what you refer," Eldred responded evenly. "Velnar is a member in good standing of the United Federation of Planets and abides by all its principles."
Seven eyed him coolly. "Article 55: With a view to creating conditions of stability and well-being which are necessary for peaceful relations among planetary social systems based on respect for the principles of equal rights and self-determination of all intelligent life-forms, the United Federation of Planets shall promote: higher standards of living, full employment, and conditions of economic and social progress and development. Article 56: All members pledge themselves to take joint and separate action in cooperation with the United Federation for the achievement of the purposes and goals set forth in Article 55."
"As I said, we are in good standing with the Federation."
"Then why are you practically enslaving people in government compounds?" B'Elanna shot back.
Councilor Raynor jumped in. "These farm compounds are run by private enterprises on the government's behalf. While conditions may be harsh and wages low, they are less so than elsewhere on the planet given the state of the atmosphere and we are able to employ transients and others with no means of support."
"And where does the food go?" B'Elanna asked.
"The food is sold to the people of the province," Eldred responded angrily. "We have done nothing wrong here and I suggest you verify your facts before making outlandish accusations!"
Seven stood and B'Elanna joined her to leave. "We shall endeavor to do just that."
B'Elanna followed Seven down the stairs and into the main hall of the Municipal building to meet Karen. "That went about as well as I expected."
"Indeed," Seven concurred. "But we are under no obligation to accede to their request. I suggest that we return home and consider our options."
"I agree," B'Elanna said, her eye catching Karen entering the building and passing through the security post.
Karen saw B'Elanna and Seven standing in the hall and waved at them just as an alarm sounded and she felt her arm in the grip of a security officer.
"Please come with us," the officer barked as Karen began to struggle and Seven and B'Elanna hurried over.
"Take your hands off her," B'Elanna shouted as other officers drew their weapons.
"Please, B'Elanna," Seven whispered. Turning to the officers, Seven attempted to calm the situation and find out what was going on. "Why are you detaining her?"
The officer holding Karen's arm gripped it more tightly. "She just came up on our computers as a deserter from a government compound and as having absconding with government property. She's under arrest."
The next thing they knew, he was dragging Karen off.
"Don't worry, Karen," B'Elanna shouted after her. "We're not going anywhere until we get you out of this."
B'Elanna turned to Seven and, with teeth clenched muttered, "Why do I get the feeling we're jinxed."
Seven pulled B'Elanna into a hug. "Do not worry, B'Elanna. We will handle this."
B'Elanna sat at the communications terminal in a shabby hotel room on Velnar. Her sister having been arrested and the negotiations with the government of Velnar at something of an impasse, she and Seven found themselves summarily ejected from the suite the government had provided them. This, apparently, was the next best thing and a far cry from the elegant accommodations they had been given on their arrival. But, it would have to do. Gettting Karen out of jail was all she could focus on.
"I could ask Kathryn if she can get away from her current assignment," Ven said, his kind face comforting on the terminal's screen.
B'Elanna sighed. "I don't think this is a Starfleet issue at this point. Seven's gone to contact Nora MacKenzie to get some advice about how to proceed, so we should have some help soon."
"She sounds like a kind woman and a good lawyer from what Kathryn and Seven have told me," Ven said, attempting to provide some comfort.
"She is," B'Elanna responded. "With luck, she'll be able to help us get a good lawyer and get Karen out of jail."
"Ah, B'El, I wish I could be there for you," Ven whispered.
"You have been, Ven," she said, smiling, "I always feel better after talking with you. You've been so helpful."
"I haven't done anything," Ven demurred. "I can't imagine how strange and difficult this must be for you."
"This whole reunion with my father thing just hasn't worked out like I thought it would." B'Elanna sighed. "When I spoke with him from Voyager all those years ago, he convinced me that he had really changed and I was so happy. I wanted it to be true because I had missed him so much."
"I know," Ven said, "but you cannot hold yourself responsible for how he behaves, B'Elanna. You spent too many years doing just that and I hope you know now that it just isn't true."
B'Elanna thought for a moment, pinching the bridge of her nose to try to stop the headache that was beginning to emerge. "Intellectually, I understand that, but somehow I can't let go of the idea that if I change, he might too and that maybe he could love me."
"If he doesn't love you," Ven said through clenched teeth, "then he's a damned fool and doesn't deserve your consideration."
B'Elanna chuckled at her normally calm friend's outburst. "Ven . . . ."
"I mean it, B'El. You deserve so much more and you certainly don't deserve to be treated this way."
B'Elanna was deeply moved by her friend's impassioned defense of her and was at a loss for words but also knew that Ven knew her well enough to know of her gratitude for his support. "Karen seems like a good kid," she said finally. "I'm not sure exactly why she ran away, but I'm glad we found her. I just want to get her out of this horrible place and bring her home."
"We certainly have a growing family," Ven quipped.
B'Elanna smiled, happy to be included in Ven's circle. "You're a good friend, Ven, and it means so much to me to know that I can talk with you. Don't ever underestimate how important that is." B'Elanna paused at the sound of Seven entering the room. "I'd better go and find out what Seven's been able to get done."
"Of course," Ven acknowledged.
"Give my love to Kathryn and the kids," B'Elanna added. "I love you, Ven."
"I love you too, B'Elanna. Please let me know if there's anything I can do."
B'Elanna nodded as the signal terminated and she felt Seven come up behind her.
"She's coming," Seven began as B'Elanna turned to face her.
"Mac," Seven explained, smiling crouching down to look B'Elanna in the eye. "She's on her way here."
"She said she had some time coming to her and arranged to get a transport right away. She'll be here tomorrow afternoon," Seven continued, stroking B'Elanna's cheek.
"That's incredible," B'Elanna whispered, turning her face into the caress and feeling hopeful for the first time that things might turn out well.
"I know," Seven replied. "We'll get her out and all be able to go home soon," she said, kissing B'Elanna softly.
B'Elanna tried hard not wretch at the horrible stench in the jail's waiting room as she sat on a hard chair behind a table. She had been sitting for twenty-five minutes waiting to see Karen and no one could explain why it was taking so long to bring her out. She picked absently at her fingernail, not having been allowed to bring anything with her and the jail officers requiring Seven to wait outside. She stared at the walls, noting for the tenth time the pattern of hexagons etched into the metal and observing how dirty they had become over time. For the thousandth time, she prayed silently that Karen was okay and that, now that she had found her sister, she'd be able to help the girl out of this situation. She wondered if she would be able to help Karen work out whatever was going on with her parents, given how miserably she herself had failed with her father. A low growl emerged from B'Elanna's throat as she cursed herself for her weakness and forced down the emotions that rushed to the surface each time she thought about her father.
Her ruminations were interrupted by the sudden opening of the door and the appearance of her sister, shoved rudely into the room.
Karen came to an abrupt halt as the door closed behind her. "I told you I don't know anything else. I swear to god, I'm gonna . . . ," she yelled at the door, not noticing B'Elanna now standing on the other side of the table.
"Karen," B'Elanna whispered, moving to her sister.
"B'Elanna, I can't believe . . . ," Karen said, her voice cracking with emotion. "I didn't think I'd ever . . . ."
"I've been trying for three days to get in here to see you," B'Elanna replied and pulled Karen to her. "It was only because your lawyer read them the "Federation regulations for the treatment of prisoners" riot act that they finally let me in." She pulled back took a moment to make sure that Karen hadn't been harmed and met her sister's eye. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry I got you into this mess."
"I'm okay, B'Elanna. And it isn't your fault," Karen assured her, shaking her head. "God, the one thing I know in all of this is that I'm so happy to have had a chance to see you again, no matter what happens."
"But if I hadn't dragged you to the Municpal building, you would never have been arrested," she shot back, taking a seat at the table.
"I don't know about that," Karen muttered. "The way things go around here, it probably would have happened eventually." She paused, thinking about what might be awaiting her now on Velnar. "You said 'my lawyer.' I have a lawyer?"
"Yes," B'Elanna nodded. "Nora MacKenzie. She's a friend of Seven's and arrived yesterday. She's really good, Karen, and I know she'll have you out in no time."
Karen looked down at her hands and sighed. "B'Elanna . . . The thing is, I . . . I'm guilty."
"What do you mean, you're guilty?" B'Elanna asked, her brow knitted.
"I mean, I did what they said I did," Karen responded softly.
"Yeah, you ran off from a government-sponsored compound where they used you as slave labor and you were wearing an official work uniform at the time. And?"
"And, I'm guilty of the crimes." Karen's voice had risen and she leaned forward to emphasize her point, making B'Elanna back away.
B'Elanna reached out for Karen's hand but only grazed it as the young woman pulled back. "Escaping slave labor imprisonment with the clothes on your back is *not* a crime," B'Elanna insisted.
"But when they questioned me, they said I . . . ."
"Who said what?" B'Elanna growled.
Karen hesitated and then pushed ahead, "Well, . . . ."
"That should do it," Noral MacKenzie said, terminating the comm link in Seven and B'Elanna's hotel room and leaning back in her chair. She and Seven had spent the past four hours or so interviewing Karen's friends Jarrod and Keil about their time at the work camp and gathering other information to prepare for their scheduled meeting the next day with Ambassador Eldred and the legal officials. Mac stood and paced the floor, considering her options once more. She wasn't sure that the strategy on which she had finally decided would work, but felt certain that it was their best bet under the circumstances. Convinced that she had done all she could to prepare, Mac flopped down on the musty couch.
Seven joined her shortly thereafter, bringing with her two cups of Berillian tea. Mac let out a deep breath as she reached for the cup of tea. "Thank you," she sighed. "This really hits the spot."
"You're welcome," Seven replied, joining her on the couch. "You've been working for hours and should rest for a while."
Mac nodded and put her feet up on the table in front of her. "I don't think there's anything else I can do until B'Elanna gets back anyway."
The two women sat there in silence for some time as Mac considered how strange it was to feel so close to this woman with whom she had only ever had one face-to-face conversation. She and Seven had struck up an unlikely friendship following William Cole's trial, communicating with one another regularly and, over time, becoming deeply connected despite the distance between them. When it came down to it, she thought, Seven really was her best friend and knew her better than almost anyone ever had. But sitting here next to her, Mac couldn't help but feel a bit awkward and suspected that Seven felt the same. Mac turned to look at Seven, deciding that initiating a conversation of the sort they usually had might relieve some of their anxiety. "So, you and B'Elanna . . . ," she trailed off, raising her eyebrows.
"Yes?" Seven responded, not taking the bait.
"So?" Mac tried again, narrowing her eyes.
"Yes?" Seven smirked.
"You and B'Elanna . . . ," Mac said, drawing out the words.
"Nora MacKenzie," Seven smiled, "Do you have any intention of completing that question?"
"Seven of Nine," Mac laughed, "are you going to make me ask it?"
"I doubt that I could make *you* do anything," Seven responded, laughing as well. "What is it you would like to know?"
Mac sighed dramatically. "Not very good with the 'girl talk' are we? I just wanted to know how things are going with you two and maybe get a few juicy details."
"We are together," Seven responded, her cool Borg demeanor in place.
"I am aware of that," Mac said, growing frustrated. "How ... Are ... You ... Both ... Doing?" she asked, speaking slowly as if addressing a child.
Seven smirked, making it clear to Mac that she had been toying with her all along. "We're fine," she said finally.
Mac regarded her for a moment, seeing something brewing beneath the surface. "But . . . ."
"But there's something else that you're not saying," Mac explained, trying to draw Seven out.
Seven shook her head. "No," she said softly, setting down her tea, "there's nothing else."
"Okay," Mac said, reassuring her. "I thought there might be."
"We're fine," Seven repeated, looking away. "I just . . . sometimes . . I feel."
Mac waited, knowing Seven well enough to know that prodding would not motivate her to open up.
Eventually, Seven looked up and searched Mac's eyes, finding genuine concern and sympathy there. "We *are* fine, but sometimes I feel ashamed for having left her and I just don't know whether I deserve to be with her."
"What does B'Elanna say when you tell her how you feel?"
"She says that I have nothing to apologize for and tells me that she loves me."
That was the answer that Mac expected, having seen Seven and B'Elanna together for the past day and seeing clearly how devoted B'Elanna was. "Why don't you believe her?"
"I believe her. But there *is* something else. I'm afraid," Seven admitted.
"Of what?" Mac whispered, taking Seven's hand.
"That I have the capacity to do it again," she replied and grasped Mac's hand more tightly. "That I could become so afraid of living again that I would give up my life and leave her."
"Do you really believe that that might happen?" Mac asked, surprised to find that this was what underlay Seven's unease.
"I don't know."
"I do," Mac reassured her. "You didn't just become afraid and leave, Seven. You were tortured and, naturally, it affected how you viewed the world."
Seven stood and moved to look out the window of the hotel room. "Of course I know that," she responded. "But it must still be in me somewhere. I don't want to hurt her again."
"I see how much you love her and how much she loves you. Whether you still have 'it' in you doesn't matter. You have each other and that's what matters."
"I've loved her for a long time now," Seven said, returning to sit on the couch. "I loved her, I craved her presence, and found nothing more fascinating than hearing how her mind works – even when she did not particularly care for my company. And when she finally did come to care for me, I could hardly believe it."
"I don't find it especially unbelievable," Mac smiled.
"I didn't think anyone could love me and then suddenly I found myself in her life. I cannot imagine how I could deserve it."
"She loves you, Seven. Believe it. And you do deserve to be happy and to be loved."
Seven looked away and considered Mac's counsel. After a long pause, she looked into Mac's eye and nodded.
Both women looked up at the sound of the door opening and Seven stood to greet B'Elanna.
"Did you see Karen?"
"Eventually," B'Elanna replied, perching on the arm of the couch.
"How is she doing?" Mac asked.
"They interrogated her repeatedly and finally convinced her she's guilty. We have to get her out of there," she insisted, her voice strained.
"Listen to me, B'Elanna," Mac said. "We're going to get her out and we'll all be on our way from this place soon. I promise."
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