by J.A. Toner
"You know, you are such a charmer, I may have to kiss you right this very second."
These words, spoken in warm smoky tones, were the first that greeted Ensign Kim's ears after the doors of sickbay swished open to allow him to enter. Unfortunately, the pretty blonde woman pacing in his direction wasn't speaking to him. The object of her attention was the squirming little bundle of as yet undetermined species who was fussing rather noticeably, despite being cuddled and patted on the back by the human who held her.
"Or maybe you'd prefer to have this tall, dark and handsome fellow do the kissing?" The blonde smiled up at Harry and presented the baby to him. With such a broad hint, Harry willingly planted a gentle kiss on the baby's face, in the slight depression that ran up the middle of her slightly bulging forehead. The touch quieted the baby only momentarily before she began to keen again in a pathetically low wail.
"I guess she doesn't want me, " Harry said in a rueful tone.
"She's got to work on her taste in men, then," the blonde replied with a quirky smile.
Harry accepted the compliment with a raised eyebrow and a grin as he fell in step beside his fellow crewman. "How's she doing, Marla?" he inquired with concern. "Has she been crying a lot?"
"I don't think so, but the Doctor tried a new formula tonight. He thinks she needs a little more protein in her diet. It doesn't seem to have made her too happy."
"He doesn't know what race she is. Even Seven doesn't know! Is it a good idea to fool around with what she eats?"
"I'm sure he can tell what she needs from his studies of her cellular makeup, especially now that she's been with us a while."
Harry shrugged. "I'm sure that's true. I just wish we had some sort of medical history on her. Her cry is so weak."
"The Doctor says he can't find anything wrong."
"Babies used to die of immature lungs all the time on Earth when they were born prematurely. She would have stayed in the maturation chamber for quite a while yet, if it hadn't broken down."
"She seems to be taking in enough oxygen now. There isn't any evidence of lung damage," Marla replied mildly. "This could be the way all babies of her race cry."
"Maybe so. I'd still feel better if we knew something about her folks and could find out for sure."
Marla gave the fussy baby a quick kiss on top of her head, quieting her for a minute, saying softly, "Her parents are probably dead. If they weren't killed when she was taken, they would have been turned into drones. And if they were on the cube where we found our little sweetheart, here, they must have died with all the rest of the adults."
"You're probably right. Still the Doctor shouldn't have . . ."
"I'd be careful what I said around the Doctor, if I were you. He hasn't been in the best of moods, especially since she's been so irritable after he gave her the new formula," Marla advised Harry softly.
Harry glanced towards the Doctor's office. Sure enough, the EMH was standing in the doorway, a disdainful look on his face, with his mouth opening as if he were about to make a clever--or critical--comment. The next sound to reverberate around the room, however, was the very loud belch issuing forth from the rosebud mouth of sickbay's smallest inhabitant. The baby gasped audibly at the sound after she made it, but then she sighed and began to bounce her face against Marla Gilmore's shoulder.
"Is she okay?" Harry asked.
"Oh, I think so. She just had a little gas, right, Doctor?" Marla said innocently, her eyes very carefully fastened on the baby. The Doctor hrummphed but said nothing as the young woman, with Harry at her side, began to pace slowly across sickbay. Marla rubbed the baby's back in a circular motion, which seemed to soothe her even more. After a noticeable yawn, the infant began to rub her eyes with her tiny hands.
"Lullaby time, I think," Marla said.
"Let me think about those I have in my repertoire . . ."
"Please, Doc!" Harry said, rolling his eyes. "Why don't we let Marla do the lullaby? She's got the perfect voice for it."
"Thank you, Harry," Marla said with a smile. Harry grinned back to her. It was nice to see her smile. She so seldom did.
"And you've been spending too much time with Mr. Paris, Ensign. You're beginning to sound just like him," the EMH muttered.
"Doc, I've got something I want to talk to you about, in private. I didn't come here to hear your glorious singing voice tonight," Harry said, in an attempt to placate the Doctor.
"Too late to repair the damage now, Mr. Kim," the EMH sniffed, although he seemed somewhat mollified. "But come into my office and we'll talk."
Marla nodded an acknowledgment of their leaving before she turned away. As Harry entered the office with the Doctor, the beginning strains of the old American folk song, "All the Pretty Little Horses" floated gently in the air.
Pretty gruesome words, if he remembered them right, but then, for someone who almost became a Borg, a lullaby with lines about plucked out eyes might be weirdly appropriate. Harry had always thought the melody was lovely. Melancholy. Very appropriate for Marla Gilmore to sing to the baby in her mellow alto.
The pretty former ensign always projected a solemn aura. After what she'd been through on the Equinox, who could be surprised? Harry sometimes wished he'd become acquainted with Marla at the Academy. He would have liked to have met her before the Delta Quadrant and Captain Ransom's ethically compromised influence had scarred her personality so badly. She struck him as a gentle, fundamentally upbeat soul who was still recovering from a sojourn in hell. Now that he thought of it, maybe that was exactly what she was.
"Mr. Kim, you had a matter you wanted to discuss? I don't think we have all day."
Harry reacted with a start as the Doctor's question broke into his thoughts. "Sorry, Doc. I guess my mind wandered a little. Marla does have a beautiful voice, doesn't she?"
"She does indeed. I don't suppose you came here to talk about singing, however." The Doctor's expression was sympathetic. "Is this about your reaction to our second loss of Ensign Ballard? You're not getting a relapse of that glowing condition . . . "
"No, Doc. This isn't about Lyndsay," Harry said, perhaps a little too abruptly. Realizing he might be communicating just how much he actually was hurting, Harry admitted, "I have been thinking about her a little, but I'm okay, Doc. Really. And I'm not getting any more Varro after-affects, either. I'd tell you if I did. Honestly."
The EMH's raised eyebrows transmitted his true opinion about the degree of honesty to be expected from Ensign Kim concerning his emotional and physical state at the loss of his two most recent girlfriends, but he said nothing and allowed Harry to continue.
"This isn't about me at all, really. It's about the baby. What's going to happen to her, Doc? We don't know what species she is, so we can't return her to her people. I doubt the captain is going to leave her on some planet for just anyone to raise. When she's well enough to leave sickbay, where will she go? Who will take care of her?"
"Are you volunteering, Mr. Kim?"
"Oh, well, uh, no, not really . . . I don't really know much about . . . uh . . ."
"Don't worry. I wasn't seriously suggesting you were ready for fatherhood just yet." The Doctor's brow furrowed more deeply. "I have been thinking about the very same thing myself, however. 'Littlest of Five' is ready to leave sickbay now. She doesn't need intensive treatment at this point, only a parent's loving care. I would be willing to provide it if I were free, of course, but my sickbay duties seem to divert my attention from her at the very times she needs me most."
"Tom doesn't help during his shifts?"
"Mr. Paris does what he can when he's here, although he's inclined to be much too rough with the child. Bouncing her around the way he does. Why, he's even threatened to throw her up in the air when she gets bigger." Harry smiled as the Doctor huffed again.
"Most babies don't mind a gentle tossing up in the air. My uncle used to do that to my cousin when she was a baby. She loved it. As long as Tom doesn't want to play catch with her, I wouldn't worry, Doc!"
"Maybe you wouldn't worry . . ."
Harry said quickly, to switch the subject away from the Doctor's love-hate relationship with Tom Paris, "What about Sam?"
"She has her hands full with Naomi. She's been having some difficulty adjusting to our sudden population explosion-- particularly since her former playmate has become the de facto mother of our young refugees. She's been needing considerably more attention from Ensign Wildman."
"I hadn't thought about how that would make Naomi feel. I assumed she'd be happy to have other children to play with, after being the only kid here for so long."
"At the moment their play skills are sadly deficient, despite Seven's attempts to introduce them to the concept. Perhaps Naomi will enjoy their company more in the future, if they should stay on board."
"I guess it would be difficult to get close to someone you expected to leave at any time," Harry reluctantly agreed, even though it was looking more and more like all five of the formerly Borg children were destined to become permanent residents of Voyager.
Harry didn't think they were ever going to find any of their parents, even though Captain Janeway had been searching avidly for their relatives. As Marla had said, it was hard to figure out how they could have been assimilated unless their parents had been, too, as had been the case with Seven and her family.
The best they could expect was to find grandparents or perhaps a distant relative. But the twin boys were, like the baby, of a species unknown to any of the databases currently on file in Voyager's computers. The first assimilation date for their race must have occurred after Seven's last contact with the Hive. Mezoti's people, the Norcadi, had been ostensibly cooperative with the search for her relatives, but the government had been extremely cool to a suggestion from the captain that Mezoti be returned to her homeworld while the search took place. Mezoti's residual Borg features may have put them off, perhaps not surprising when the Borg's depredations against the Norcadi and their neighbors were considered. And they had yet to locate any of Icheb's people, the Brunali.
Harry's reverie about the children was interrupted, as his previous one was, by the Doctor. "Frankly, I'd hoped to arouse Captain Janeway's motherly instincts, but while she visits the baby daily, it's clear the captain believes she is too busy to become her foster mother."
"She *is* too busy for a baby, Doc. Besides, she isn't done raising Seven yet!"
"Well, I'm not about to suggest that Ensign Wildman take on the job. Naomi doesn't need any more competition for her mother's attention. And I'm sorry to say there has been a marked lack of enthusiasm for foster parenting from any of the established couples."
Harry had no doubt at all to which "established couple" the Doctor was referring. "Tom might be willing, even though he pretends not to be, but you know B'Elanna. Her engines are her babies." As he spoke, Harry strolled towards the office doorway to look out the curved plastiglas pane separating the EMH's office from the rest of his domain.
"That may be true, but it's not as if anyone else has much spare time, either. We don't seem to have anyone willing to devote the time and effort needed to rear an infant on board this vessel."
"You sure about that, Doc?" Harry asked, staring at the tableau visible to him now that he could see most of sickbay.
The lullaby had ceased. The blonde crewman still paced slowly from one end of sickbay to the other. Her head was bent so that her cheek rested lightly upon the fuzzy head of the peacefully sleeping infant still cradled in her arms.
Reluctantly, Marla lowered the baby into the small crib tucked in one end of sickbay. Sometimes the little one would wake up, softly crying as soon as her cheek touched the mattress. Not tonight, though. Marla allowed her hand to remain on the baby's back, making sure she stayed on her side, until the little burrowing movements the child always made when settling herself down to sleep ceased. The usually pensive face of Crewman Gilmore, previously an ensign assigned to the Federation science vessel Equinox, was lit by a fond grin.
She sighed as she carefully lifted her hand away from the baby. She really had to get down to engineering before Gamma shift began. Lieutenant Torres had been very lenient with her, knowing that Marla spent most of her off duty waking hours in sickbay, caring for their littlest stowaway. She didn't want to push it, though. Marla Gilmore had amends to make to those who lived on Voyager. Sometimes she wondered if everything she had to give would be enough--if her life was even worth the effort.
Hell, Marla had long since decided, was not a place but a state of mind: specifically, the torture inflicted by a guilty conscience. Marla's had had plenty of ammunition with which to assail her even before she had ever heard of Voyager; it had even more to work with now. She had plenty of time to think about all she'd done since arriving in the Delta Quadrant. It wasn't going into turbolifts that she dreaded any more; it was being off duty with hours yawning before her, waiting to be filled with activities which Marla seldom wanted to participate in but did--partially out of duty, and partially in an often fruitless attempt to keep from thinking too much about her past.
Marla went to the gym and worked out religiously; she had to keep her muscles in shape for any tasks or missions the captain or Lieutenant Torres might ask her to undertake. She didn't really like to exercise any more than necessary, however. As much as she tried to keep her mind clear while she was working out, unpleasant memories always seemed to break through, as if the rhythmic physical activity conjured them up more readily the harder she tried to block them out.
Visiting the holodeck might have been a diversion, but she never felt really comfortable there. She didn't have much in the way of surplus replicator credits to spend developing and running her own programs. In the public programs such as Sandrine's or Fair Haven, Marla always felt the eyes of the rest of the crew upon her, in silent reproof for her interloping presence on Voyager when so many others had given their lives to get the ship closer to home.
Marla wasn't sure she didn't feel the same way sometimes. As one of only five who had survived from the Equinox, she often asked herself, "Why me?" Why had she lived when so many others had died? Sheer luck? Or was her life yet to have some purpose, other than to have been a source for the suffering of others, humanoid and alien alike?
On the rare occasions that she could get together with Noah Lessing, her fellow officer from the Equinox, they discussed their deliverance--and the price which they were paying for it-- without ever answering the question to their satisfaction. The others--Jimmy Morrow, Brian Sofin, and Angelo Tassoni--had always been crewmen on Equinox and kept to themselves most of the time. When the five did get a chance to talk with each other, there was an awkwardness, as if the three crewman didn't feel comfortable speaking as equals with those who had once been their superiors. They, too, were working hard, trying to earn a place amongst the crew and to expunge their guilt by doing everything they could to help Voyager get home. Marla could hardly blame them when she was doing the same thing.
Going to bed wasn't much more successful. She tried to tell herself she'd been under orders when she'd done what she did on the Equinox, but even if this were so, she knew she hadn't protested as much as she should. Once the crew of the Equinox found safe harbor on Voyager, that excuse had evaporated. Marla tossed and turned much of the night, often waking in a sweat, sure she'd heard the tell-tale sound of aliens from another dimension breaking through to attack her on Voyager again, as they had so many times on the Equinox. Intellectually, she knew it wasn't likely, but knowing that didn't comfort her.
She hated feeling jumpy all the time; it wasn't at all characteristic of her. Coming to the Delta Quadrant had transformed her into a shrinking violet, dragging the tiniest of her insecurities from out of the recesses of her personality. She felt as if she'd been changed into someone who was afraid of her own shadow, let alone real dangers like the Borg. Marla would have liked to confide her hopes and fears to someone, but while she didn't feel comfortable bothering the Equinox men with it, she didn't feel she knew anyone else on Voyager well enough she would be willing to burden with her unwelcome, newly discovered cowardice.
Even though she shared her quarters with two of Voyager's original crew members, Marla always felt alone there. The other women had been civil but not particularly welcoming when Marla was assigned to bunk with them. She later learned her bunk had belonged to a young woman who had been killed by invisible alien researchers who had used the crew of Voyager as guinea pigs in medical experiments. This tragic loss hit uncomfortably close to home for Marla, in view of her own experiments on the Equinox.
It would have been even worse if the extra empty bed had ever been occupied by Antonia LaSalle, who had been killed by the aliens who had bedeviled the Equinox and followed them to Voyager. Fortunately, Antonia had never actually been assigned to these quarters. Unfortunately, her two best friends on the ship, now Marla's bunkmates, had wanted her to move in with them. They hadn't had the chance to broach the idea to the captain before Antonia's death. Marla doubted the captain would have billeted her with them had she known. Perhaps Marla felt the sorrow of Ginni Brock and Cheryl Perkins more keenly because they always went out of their way not to talk about their dead friend. Their profuse apologies whenever they slipped and mentioned her may have created more of a barrier between Marla and them than indifference might have done.
Marla often lay awake for hours, wondering how things might have been different for everyone--especially Antonia--if only Captain Ransom and First Officer Burke had been willing to abandon the Equinox . . . if only she hadn't helped steal the shield generator that could have saved everyone on Voyager and Equinox alike, ending the need to harvest alien bodies for fuel . . . if only . . . .
Going on duty had become Marla's preferred activity. Marla could concentrate totally upon her job in engineering. Chief Engineer Torres knew how to keep her staff busy; but since she was as hard on herself as she was on everyone else, no one really minded. Having been forced to become the head engineer on Equinox by default, Marla was actually grateful to become a grunt again, following orders instead of giving them out--not that she'd given out many on the Equinox. Virtually all of the engineers had been killed during the first week of their journey; there had been virtually no staff left for Marla to order around.
Marla knew she was competent. She could take pleasure in a job well done without having to be the boss. Lieutenant Torres ably filled that position here. While the chief was not effusive in her compliments, Marla had received her share. That was fine with her. Marla often felt it was more than she deserved.
Then this poor orphan, partially transformed into a Borg before she was even ready to be born and barely alive, came as another refugee to Voyager. The child was an innocent who had nothing--no parents, no name, not even a known racial heritage. Most of the crew clucked in sympathy and went about their business. Marla felt herself drawn to sickbay, spending as much time as she dared doing what needed to be done for the infant.
She found that taking care of the little one, exposing her to language to help develop her young mind, monopolized all Marla's attention. What stray thoughts did come to her were more likely to consist of contemplations about the baby's future rather than her own past transgressions. And after a challenging day in engineering, followed by a few hours spent in sickbay when the Doctor needed an extra hand with the baby, Marla usually was too exhausted for her bedeviling conscience to rouse her fears and wake her. She slept soundly--appropriately enough, like a baby.
Realizing that leaning against the sleeping baby's crib was not a very productive activity, Marla gave the baby the lightest of pats on her diapered bottom before straightening up to leave for her shift. She needed to get down to engineering before Lieutenant Carey had cause to contact her over the comm to remind her to come on duty.
That was when she realized she wasn't alone.
"Yes, Captain?" Marla answered hesitantly, following her commanding officer to the Doctor's office, where Ensign Kim and the EMH were sitting.
"I have something to ask you, about the baby."
"Would you be willing to become the baby's foster parent? For as long as she's here on Voyager, that is . . ."
"Yes, Captain. I was hoping you'd ask me."
The captain's lips drifted upwards and a little to the side as she said, "You were hoping I'd ask?"
"It's just . . . well, I'd been trying to get my courage up to ask you if I could take care of her when she was ready to leave sickbay. I'm glad you thought I was worthy of taking on the responsibility."
From behind the captain, Marla could see the Doctor and Harry Kim exchange solemn glances. Captain Janeway leaned forward and spoke earnestly, "Of course you're worthy of the responsibility. You've never given me a minute's cause to regret taking you aboard Voyager."
"That's a relief, Captain. I didn't want to presume."
"Marla . . . "
Before Janeway could say any more, Marla interrupted. "When can I take her home?"
The EMH answered. "As soon as we can replicate you some supplies, Ms. Gilmore. And as soon as the captain decides on where your 'home' with the little tyke will be. You've taken on responsibility for her care, but I doubt Crewmen Brock and Perkins would thank you for it when the baby wakes in the middle of the night for a feeding."
"She's a little too small to fill that fourth bunk anyway," Harry said with a wink.
"True. I think it would be better to move the two of you to something a little more private. There are quarters on Deck Nine that would be suitable. It has a small alcove off the main room that would be big enough for a baby's crib and paraphernalia. There's a lot of that with a baby."
"Thank you, Captain. That's very generous."
"You know, Crewman, this is a pretty big step. We can assign helpers to provide care for her while you're on duty, but it's not easy being a single parent."
"I know. I remember it was hard for my sister when my nephew was born, even though she had his father to help her out. We'll manage, Captain."
"It's settled then. You'd better get down to engineering now for your shift. We'll make arrangements for you to move into new quarters tomorrow morning."
Marla's smile glowed more brightly than any she had been able to muster since leaving the Alpha Quadrant. As she started for the office door, however, she swung around. "One more thing, Captain, if I may? Would it be all right if I gave her a name to call her by? I've heard some of the crew have been calling her 'the Borglet' or 'Littlest of Five,' but I don't want her to go on without having a real name."
"Not having a name isn't so unusual in here!" the Doctor grumped.
After giving the Doctor a look sharp enough to disrupt a few of his photons, Janeway said, "Have you something in mind?"
"Aimee. I'd give her my last name, too, but maybe that would be presumptuous."
"How about Aimee Voyageur?" Tom Paris suggested, as he entered the Doctor's office to begin his shift. "It's French, like her first name. And it seems appropriate. She'll be doing plenty of traveling as long as she's on Voyager."
"I like that, Mr. Paris. What do you think, Crewman Gilmore?" asked the captain.
"I think it sounds wonderful!"
"Well, then, Crewman Gilmore, the name Aimee Voyageur shall be added to the official crew manifest, effective tonight."
"Well, well, how's our little mother today?" B'Elanna commented as Marla rushed into engineering. Despite the touch of sarcasm in her words, the chief engineer had a smile on her face and in her voice.
"I'm sorry I'm late, Lieutenant. Aimee started fussing just as Harry came in, and I wanted to quiet her down a little before I left her."
"HARRY is taking care of her today? Poor kid! I wonder how many times you'll get an urgent call to take care of an emergency."
"Harry is terrific with her!" Marla said defensively.
"Of course he is. When she doesn't need a diaper change."
"He used to take care of Naomi, he said."
"Oh, yes, he certainly did!" B'Elanna barked with laughter, "but not alone, not until she was old enough to be out diapers."
"Did you take care of Naomi, too?" Marla asked.
"A few times. I was usually too busy here," B'Elanna acknowledged cheerfully. "I know how to change a diaper, though!"
"I'm sure Harry will be just fine. What do you want me to do?"
"Here, let me show you the schematics for the adaptation of the aft thrusters we have in mind . . ."
"There you go, Aimee. All nice and clean."
"You're really good at that, Tom," Harry said, accepting the freshly changed baby from his friend.
"I got lots of practice while she was in sickbay."
"I can do the ones that are just wet. It's the messy ones that get me."
"Harry! It's not such a big deal! Just forget how it smells and do what you have to do. The quicker you get it over with, the quicker you get to have some fun with her." Tom, with a few deft movements, cleaned up the baby's changing area in Marla's quarters and dumped the by products in the recycler. "How did you manage when you watched Naomi?"
"I called for help--just not you. I didn't figure you'd know how back then."
"Your lack of confidence wounds me," Tom said, feigning insult. "If you're going to spend time with Marla and Aimee, your going to need to add changing diapers to your resume. Naomi was out of them a lot quicker than Aimee will be. She isn't growing anywhere near as fast as Ktarian kids do."
Harry made a couple of funny faces at the appreciatively chortling baby before responding, "I'll work on it. I promise. Who knows? Maybe I'll need to baby-sit some more babies soon. You and B'Elanna have any plans?"
"Please, Harry! We haven't even officially moved in together yet."
"Not officially, maybe, but you're inseparable."
"B'Elanna knew the way to my heart. She built me a television."
"She's hypnotized you with that thing to keep you home every night, that's what I think."
"I'm not complaining, Harry!" Tom laughed. "Trust me, we do a lot more than just watch the tube!" Taking a seat on the sofa, Tom observed his friend playing with the baby that most of the crew still called "Littlest of Five" whenever her foster mother wasn't in the room. Despite his reticence about diaper changing, Harry was very good with the baby. And the baby--not to mention Marla--had been very good for his friend.
"But seriously. She's a very nice person." Tom leaned back, carefully looking at the ceiling to avoid meeting Harry's gaze.
"B'Elanna? Well, sure, I've always thought so . . ." Harry said, glancing at Tom with a puzzled look on his face at the direction the conversation seemed to be taking.
"Not B'Elanna! Well, of course B'Elanna is nice . . . especially to me . . . but I wasn't talking about *my* girl. I was saying Marla is nice."
"Oh!" replied Harry as the light dawned. "She certainly is! Taking on an orphaned baby she might have to give up at any time if we find her people. Marla is pretty special."
"Special. Absolutely. I totally agree."
"Not that there's anything between us, or anything."
"Really," Tom drawled.
"I just like to help out with Aimee."
"By getting your best buddy to change the poopy diapers?"
"Hey, I'll do it myself next time. Somehow." Harry said sheepishly.
"It's fun to come here and play with Aimee."
"I can see that," Tom said, grinning down at the baby, who was obviously enjoying the way Harry was bobbing her up and down on his knee.
"Tom, will you stop looking at me like that?"
"Who's looking at you?" Tom said, all exaggerated innocence.
"You are! You're going to give me another lecture about getting into another impossible love situation."
"Not at all. I was wondering if Aimee is the only one you have fun with. I think Marla could use a little fun, too, don't you think?"
"Forget it, Tom. I'm giving romance a rest for a good long while. I'm not ready to be with anyone, not after Lyndsay."
Tom looked steadily at his friend, keeping his face as still a mask as possible, although he was not unsympathetic. The past few weeks had been very bad ones for Harry. He would like to have said that Harry protested too much, but on second thought, all he said was, "Okay."
The silence between them threatened to stretch out awkwardly while Tom tried to think of some clever way to change the subject. The *deux ex machina* was the chime of Marla's door.
"Enter," Harry called out.
The door swished open to reveal the chief engineer. "I knew I'd find you here, Tom. Always flirting with pretty young females. Is Littlest of Five going to be replacing me in your affections?"
"Nah. I've got too much competition from Harry."
Harry glanced back and forth between the lovers. B'Elanna's comments seemed like a joke, but there was always an undertone of fierceness in whatever she said that he couldn't always be totally sure. Tom, however, remained as he was, stretched casually on Marla's sofa, as B'Elanna came to Harry and put out her hands for the baby. He relinquished her to B'Elanna, who sat down next to Tom.
"Isn't she sweet, B'Elanna?"
"Yes, she certainly is," B'Elanna replied, making growling noises at the baby that amazed the child, if her widened eyes were any sign.
"Wouldn't you and Tom like to have a little one soon, too?"
"I don't have the right color hair, Harry."
"Huh? What does hair color have to do with anything?"
"Harry, think about it. We've got three 'mothers' on this ship, and they're all blondes," Tom replied.
"Oh, yeah. I never thought of that. Marla, Seven, and Sam. I didn't realize that was a requirement!"
B'Elanna stuck out her tongue at Harry, whose chuckle prompted a squeal from the baby that made everyone laugh.
"Besides, Harry, the way we've been picking up hitchhikers for the last couple of years, I don't know if we'd have room on the ship for B'Elanna and I to have a kid," Tom said.
B'Elanna cuddled the baby against her chest. "And I don't have time for it, either. Not right now. If Seven ever finishes that analysis of the propulsion technologies in between playing mother to the other Borglets, we may get home in the next couple of years. Tom and I both have too much unfinished business in the Alpha Quadrant to settle before we can even begin to think about something like that."
After giving the baby another quick hug, B'Elanna handed her back to Harry and said to Tom, "Speaking of unfinished business, isn't it time we left the baby-sitter to his job?"
"You don't have to go. I don't think Aimee and me would mind having you around," Harry said hopefully.
"I would mind," B'Elanna said dryly.
Taking the hint, Tom stood up and said, "And remember that promise you made me, Harry."
"Don't worry. I'll get it done, and all by myself, too!"
"Right. No calling in reinforcements behind my back, now," Tom admonished as the couple waved their farewells to Harry and little Aimee.
As soon as the doorway to Marla's quarters had closed behind them, Tom groaned, "There he goes again. He's doing it again."
"Doing what?" B'Elanna asked, grabbing hold of Tom's elbow and guiding him away from Deck Nine, Section Nine, towards Section Twelve.
"Harry. He's falling for the wrong woman again."
"Really? I'd say it would be a while before Aimee would qualify for that position."
"Not Aimee . . . what I mean is, he's getting all gooey eyed about the baby, but he's not interested in getting involved with Marla, who might actually *be* the right woman."
"You think Marla is right for Harry? I don't know about that. She's so skittish. Good engineer, though."
"I think any of us would be jumpy if we'd been through what she'd been on Equinox, B'Elanna."
"We went through the same thing."
"No, we didn't. Let's face it, we only had a taste of what they went through. They had to fight off those attacks for months, with a lot fewer resources."
"True. I don't know about Marla and Harry, though. I don't think there's anything there."
"Not from Harry's end. He told me. 'I'm not getting involved in any romantic relationships.' It figures. Marla's right here on the ship. She isn't an alien masquerading as a hologram, or the wrong twin, or an ex-Borg, or a member of a xenophobic species. She's a pretty, nice person who's very lonely. Just as lonely as Harry is. But is he interested in her? No! He's never interested in the ones like Jenny or Sue, who actually *are* interested in him. Only the ones that he can't have."
"Tom, you can't play matchmaker for Harry if he isn't interested. He's a big boy now. You can't blame him for being a little cautious."
"No, I guess I can't. Losing Lindsay was even worse this time than the first time."
To divert them both from memories of Harry's lost friend, B'Elanna asked, "So, how do you know Marla wouldn't be just another 'wrong woman'?"
"Have you seen the way Marla looks at him?"
"Not really, Tom," she replied in a low-pitched, breathy voice. "I've been too busy looking at someone else."
Tom had been about to turn towards the turbolift to ascend to his quarters and to the television set B'Elanna had built him. The sudden change in the tone of her voice distracted him. His left foot stepped down a little unevenly as they reached the junction in the corridor which led, on the right, towards the turbolift and on the left, to B'Elanna's quarters. Halting, Tom looked down at the way B'Elanna was holding onto his elbow. Her grip had gotten tighter. A lot tighter. "Is it getting warmer in here, or is it just me?"
"It could get a lot warmer, Tom. Hot, even. Very hot. Baking hot."
Tom's only reply was a little gurgle that slipped out of his throat, even as his fair complexion took on a distinctly rosy hue.
"In fact, it's warm enough so that I'd like to slip into something a little more comfortable. Something out of my second drawer, maybe."
Tom swallowed hard a couple of times, amusing B'Elanna with the sight of his Adam's Apple as it bobbed up and down. Finally, Tom was able to choke out, "Something silky and dark blue, maybe? Or even something . . . red?"
"Maybe. Do you really want to go to your quarters and be a couch potato tonight? Wouldn't you rather be a baked potato . . . all steaming hot and squishy inside . . . until you just have to burst right out of your skin?"
By this time, B'Elanna was whispering, but every syllable was enunciated so perfectly that the two crewmen hurrying by them heard every word. They gave the chief helmsman and chief engineer a very wide berth, well aware of what was going on between the two. The powerful, distinctive pheromones Tom and B'Elanna threw off at times like these were all too familiar to the crew. Since they were on duty this shift, at least they wouldn't have to try to sleep through the commotion tonight.
As B'Elanna expected, Tom chose the hot potato, garnished-- briefly--with red silk.
She had no words for light, sound, taste, or touch; hunger, pain, sorrow, or discomfort; perception, sensation, emotion, or contentment. For some of these, many years would pass before she could adequately define them. Even the most basic terms-- high and low, sad and happy, face, hands, eyes, music, food-- were well beyond her.
Just because she had no way to label such concepts as yet did not mean she had no awareness of them, however. Indeed, without words, perception of her surroundings was essential to the evolution of her cognitive processes. Even this early in her life's journey, by becoming familiar with repetitive sensations and their consequences, her infant brain was organizing itself, enabling her to make sense of her world and of life--even though this, too, was a concept she would not fully comprehend for a very long time.
For instance, when a gnawing pain attacked the center of her body, a sound would issue forth from her nascent lungs and throat which, in a very short while, would cause a thing to be inserted into her mouth to block the sound. That thing dripped a fluid that made her lips instinctively purse and suck until her throat convulsed. The stuff disappeared down her throat, to be replaced by more liquid stuff as her little mouth worked some more.
And, lo and behold, after enough swallows of fluid, the pain in her stomach would melt away, to be replaced by a wonderful fullness--sometimes a little too much fullness, as a matter of fact. Usually, before she became too uncomfortable, she would feel some sort of movement raising up the part that sensed light and shadows and noise, followed by patting and rubbing of the part of her that was in back of the full stomach. A loud, explosive sound would come from somewhere very close. It often startled her, although she seldom cried any more when she heard it. She'd quickly learned that this burping sound made her tummy feel so very good that, sometimes, she could take a few more swallows of that good-tasting liquid stuff before the patting to her back, and a burp, came again.
When the thing no longer had anything to drip out of it and was removed, the sounds drifting out of her mouth were soft coos of contentment. Often, she would become delightfully lethargic, especially if there wasn't much light around to attract her attention. She would become all lax and loose, and soon she would know nothing more until the next time the gnawing pain woke her. At other times, when light and noise and movement surrounded her, she would remain awake to experience other sensations, enjoying the fact that there was no pain to distract her.
Sometimes she floated around, her body supported by the touch of another's warm flesh that kept her from falling. At times she didn't float so much as bounce. At others she felt a liquid splash all over her body that didn't taste anything at all like the stuff that came out of the thing that was put into her mouth. And at still other times, what she would later come to know as hands would touch her gently, wiping away discomfort from her nether regions and making her feel nicely dry.
After a time--another concept which she wouldn't understand for quite a while, although she could sense the flow of it--she came to realize that whenever she experienced certain sensations, they were accompanied by similar sounds and smells and touches and things that swam into view: things which were round and had fuzziness all around them. Eventually, she would come to know that these roundnesses were faces. As her vision cleared, she found herself gazing at them, learning to recognize different features that made up the faces. She found herself especially drawn to one part, or really parts, of them. Eyes were fascinating. They moved and changed and seemed to magically connect with her, as if the same insatiable curiosity that made her study everything around her also animated the eyes that gazed at her.
Sometimes she would get so excited, she would feel an urge that made two things wave in front of the faces before her. Whenever these objects made contact with one of the faces in some way, it would cause the face to transform into a new expression or even make some kind of sound come out of it. At the same time, she would feel something herself, in this object she would someday call a hand. A current of sensation ran up her arm, helping her discover that these hands and arms were in some mysterious way connected to her own awareness.
Cause and effect were exciting revelations, to be followed by others, day after day. While she might not yet be able to communicate that she was learning these amazing things to the others, from the expressions on their faces and noises they made, she knew they wanted her to keep doing them. She wanted to keep doing them, too. What she did made a difference to the faces.
After a while, she began to discern patterns in the faces which surrounding her and as soon as each came into view, she knew what to expect. One face made her feel like fussing, as soon as she saw it. This face didn't have fuzziness all around it, only on the sides, with a shininess on top instead. It was accompanied by pokings and proddings that, perhaps, prompted her to recall rapidly-fading memories of a time when her awareness almost slipped away, when the sounds that came out of her tiny throat were her own almost futile, gasping efforts to keep herself from suffocating.
From most, however, she expected to feel good when she saw the face. One was very dark brown and lifted her up effortlessly, so high above the places she slept, making deep, rumbly noises and showing her the lights which blinked on consoles. Another face had very thick, dark strands she could grab, who said "OW!" in a deep voice and sometimes made very beautiful, soothing sounds that came out of a dark stick.
The bouncing came with the face that was taller than it was wide, who also made deep sounds when he was with her. He liked to push his face against her stomach and blow against it, which made her squeal because it felt so funny and so good. That face often brought along a second one with him. That second face had a very odd, rippling look above the eyes and was surrounded by a tangle of dark fuzzy hair. The second face didn't have such a deep voice and actually didn't pay much attention to her unless they were alone. Then that one would pick her up to hug her close and growl at her--that was exciting--or she would make pretty sounds come out of her throat--a little like the ones that came out of the black stick, but which sounded odd because of the clicking and spitting mixed in with them.
Sometimes, there were two faces that looked a lot alike, except that one was smaller and had funny dots going up the middle of it. They both had long, light colored strands that she liked to grab. The little one with the dots squealed a lot when she grabbed those strands, but the big face always made her let go. Two faces came that, in years to come, she would understand were Bolian blue in color.
There were even two pairs of faces which, strangely enough, looked so identical to each other that, when they came, she wasn't sure if she was seeing the same one twice unless they were together. One set had lots of curly wavy fuzziness around them that giggled and ooo-ed and ah-ed in high pitched voices. The other pair had a sharply serrated line down the middle of the upper face, above the eyes. She usually only saw them when the one with shiny things on her face was there, too.
Then there was the face with the blue mark above one eye, and the one with the warm gravely voice and red hair, and the dark face with pointed things on the side of his face instead of rounded ones, and one that had spots and golden fuzziness in odd places, compared to the others . . . so many faces . . .
But one she saw more than any other. Day by day she came to know this one more and more, by smell and touch and sound as much as the way it looked. When the pain came when there was no light, this face almost always came to soothe her with the thing that dripped warm stuff, who splashed sweet smelling liquid over her, who made her feel clean and dry. This one made those sounds she liked--but without clicks and spitting--that she would come to know as singing, often when they were pressed close to each other, swaying from side to side in a way she already could sense was in time to the music. She came to associate this face with the taking away of pain and the bringing of pleasure, with feeling safe and secure. She depended upon this one, with her gentle hands and soft voice, who snuggled her close. She was never more content than when in her presence.
Gradually she became aware that she herself had a body that differed from the others more by size than by any other thing. Her sense of herself expanded through the touch of the others upon her body, especially the touch of the one she depended upon the most, so that instead of an amorphous consciousness that things happened to, she was now a being with a head and a torso, with legs and arms and little hands that could reach out to touch the others, especially that one with blue eyes and aureole of golden hair she had learned to want to be near the most. That one voice she would know anywhere, far away or close, whether it was singing or murmuring something that sounded at first like "Mmm, mmm, mmm," but eventually coalesced into separate sounds that were more like, "Aimee, my lovely little girl, my baby, come to Mommy."
While she didn't really mind being with those other ones, she eventually found that, if she could choose, the one she would be with all the time was the one who called herself "Mommy." =/\=
"Good day, Chief!" Marla said cheerfully to B'Elanna as she strode into Main Engineering. Aimee had been so good, she had been able to come on duty with two whole minutes to spare this morning.
The boss was not very impressed. A curt, "Morning," without looking up from her console was as much greeting as she received from B'Elanna. A moment later Seven walked by, never responding at all to Marla's overture before she stalked out of engineering. Marla was amazed to see the look on the face of the Astrometrics chief; Seven was clearly upset. Puzzled, Marla waylaid Joe Carey as he headed off duty and asked him what was up.
"Didn't you hear? We've located Icheb's parents. We're headed to his homeworld to drop him off."
"You mean they weren't assimilated when Icheb was taken?"
"Apparently not. The Doctor received a transmission with their gene samples. It matches. I'm surprised you didn't hear about it. It was the lead story on 'A Briefing with Neelix' yesterday."
"I haven't watched Neelix's show for a couple of days. I was off duty yesterday and spent the entire day with Aimee. I guess I'm really out of the loop."
Joe's grin was genuine, but a little forced. "Enjoy her while you can, Marla. They don't stay little for long."
Only after Lieutenant Carey was gone did Marla remember that he had left a wife and two small sons in the Alpha Quadrant. //Not very little at all now, I'm sure, Joe,// she thought sorrowfully. A second later, a chill ran down Marla's back as she realized, //but at least you know that they're yours, Joe, little or not.//
The somber mood that enveloped everyone in engineering all that day matched Marla's worried speculations perfectly.
:::. . . Seven reported that Icheb has been "asserting his right to make his own schedule" since returning to Voyager. I think I detect a note of pride in her voice even though she seems a little put out that he isn't following her orders to the letter the way he used to! It hasn't been easy to keep from telling her, "Now you know what it feels like when it happens to you!" Tempting as it is, that would be a comment unworthy of a commanding officer.
:::Seven is very pleased that the way he has been 'making his own schedule' has been to continue his work in Astrometrics, despite his new interest in genetic manipulation, which he . . . :::
"Pause," Kathryn ordered, as the chiming of her ready room door broke her concentration. "Enter."
Her first officer walked in. "Sorry I'm late, Captain."
"Don't worry about it, Chakotay. I was dictating a personal log entry while I waited for you. Counseling sessions are more of a priority than crew evaluations."
"I don't know," he said with a wicked grin. "Some admiral or other might notice we were a few days late with the quarterly evaluations."
"In ten or twenty years, when we finally get a chance to turn them in?" Kathryn's eyebrow rose up, challenging his mischievous comment.
"Unless we get home sooner. With all the budding young geniuses on board and B'Elanna cracking the whip, who knows? We might need to turn them in a lot sooner than we think." He sat down in the chair across from her desk, shaking off her gesture offering him a cup of coffee.
"Is that what the 'counseling session' was about?" Kathryn asked as she lifted her cup of coffee to her lips.
"No. Marla Gilmore came to see me."
"Ah. She's still upset, then?"
"Yes. She can't understand how Icheb's parents could sacrifice him like that."
The captain sighed. "I've been struggling with that one myself. Intellectually, I understand that desperation could drive them to do something so extreme. In my heart, though, it's so much more difficult to accept. But Marla's isn't really upset about Icheb, is she?"
Chakotay shook his head. "No, she's worried sick about what will happen to Aimee if we find her people. She as much as said that she wishes we would stop looking for the children's families."
"I would have to say her fears are justified, from what we know of the people in this region of space. Hatred of the Borg is universal. There's no way to totally eradicate the children's Borg components, according to the Doctor, any more than he could completely remove Seven's. At least Aimee's aren't very easy to see."
". . . and with the way the Norcadi have been begging us to send them Mezoti . . ." Chakotay's voice dripped with irony.
Kathryn sighed. There had been no contact with the Norcadi for over two weeks, and the last communication had pretty much been, 'Don't call us, Voyager; we'll call you.' It had been a depressing exchange.
"Chakotay, do you think we should stop looking for their families?"
"No, we owe it to them, and to the families, to return them if we can."
"Asking Marla to give up Aimee now would be like asking Sam Wildman to give up Naomi."
"True. We need to find them soon, or it would be better if we never did. The longer they're here on Voyager, the harder it will be on everyone if they do go."
"I know I never expected Seven would react to losing Icheb the way she did. To tell the truth, I thought the children would teach Seven a bit more about individuality--humility in the main- -but I thought she'd be able to let them go more easily than anyone else. I didn't expect her to get so attached to them. I'm amazed how well she's adapted to her role of foster mother."
"It's no surprise to me, Kathryn. She's learned how to be fiercely protective from someone who has been mothering her ever since she came on board."
The captain pursed her lips in a mock pout. "Are you trying to tell me I'm the children's grandmother, Chakotay?"
He raised an eyebrow and laughed nervously. "You certainly don't look like one."
"Very good answer, Commander. Very diplomatic," she responded smoothly.
He cleared his throat and looked for a moment as if he were trying to think of something else to say--which was, in fact, the case. He finally asked, "Weren't we supposed to be completing crew evaluations?"
"Changing the subject, are we now?"
A rather sheepish look came over him. "Yup."
"All right, Commander. I'll stop torturing you," she said with a grin. "The crew evaluations. Tom Paris. Do you think he's suffered long enough as an ensign? I've been thinking it's about time to restore his rank . . ."
"Ensign Paris?" Icheb called out as he entered sickbay.
"Hi, Icheb. What's up?"
"I do not believe there is anything 'up,' Ensign Paris. Or are we to address you as Doctor Paris while the Emergency Medical Hologram is away?"
Tom grimaced. "I'd really prefer just Tom if only the two of us are around, Icheb. Seven would probably get upset if she heard you calling me that around anybody else."
"The Doctor refers to you as 'Mr. Paris,' I believe."
"Better, when I'm in sickbay. Ensign Paris is the guy who gets to steer the ship--not that I'm going to get a chance to do much of that in the next few weeks!" Tom's exaggerated sigh had the anticipated effect of making the often over-serious youth smile slightly.
"I thought Captain Janeway didn't permit the Doctor to leave for the Alpha Quadrant until you agreed to take his place. You could have refused."
"True, but that wouldn't have been right. The Doc is on a mission of mercy. I couldn't block him from trying to save his creator simply because I wasn't willing to take a few extra shifts in sickbay. I just hope we have a quiet month."
"And I hope the Doctor is allowed to come back next month."
"Please! Don't even think that!"
"You could provide sufficient care for us, couldn't you, Mr. Paris?"
"Sure, don't worry about that. But if there's an emergency when I'm the regular doctor, I can't be on the bridge. I'd have to be here taking care of casualties instead of at the helm."
"You would not like that?"
"Heck, no! Flying evasive maneuvers is one of the best things about being at the helm. Haven't you figured that out yet from your lessons on the Flyer?"
"Fun is . . . irrelevant," Icheb said, "although I agree that it must be challenging to perform evasive maneuvers."
"You like a good challenge every now and then, don't you?"
"Yes. I believe I do. And you enjoy them as well?"
Icheb's rare smile flickered across his face again. He was tempted to ask Mr. Paris if his love of challenges extended to his personal life, but he decided against it. He doubted that Mr. Paris would react negatively to such an observation, the way Seven had told him Lieutenant Torres had when she learned of Seven's study of human courtship rituals. Individuals were not always predictable in their behavior, however. It was better not to mention it. Instead, he asked, "Will you also accept the challenge of being our instructor of Biology while the Doctor is away?"
"Instructor of Biology?" Tom's face flushed bright read as the pilot-turned-physician shot him an embarrassed glance. "Oh, wait. You mean, teach you biological sciences while the Doc is away? He never said anything to me about it. Can't you switch to Astrophysics or Botany or something while he's away making his housecall?"
"We study Astrophysics with Seven of Nine. Crewman Lessing is our Botany instructor. We also study Mathematics and Computer Systems with Ensign Kim, Anthropology with Commander Chakotay, Literature with . . . "
"I get the picture," Tom sighed, his face falling in direct proportion to his realization that he would, most likely, be giving up even more personal recreation time with B'Elanna than he'd expected as long as he was Voyager's Acting Chief Medical Officer.
"Mr. Paris, if you desire, I would be willing to provide lessons to Azan, Rebi, Mezoti, and Naomi. I've already been assisting the Doctor in their current unit of studies in basic genetics and comparative DNA analysis. As long as you could obtain the necessary clearance from the captain and Seven of Nine . . ."
"In exchange for a little extra credit?"
"It would permit me to spend more time with my own research in genetic manipulation, of course . . . but in addition . . ."
Tom smiled knowingly. ". . . what else is it going to cost me?"
Icheb hesitated a minute, then said firmly, "Individual lessons in flying evasive maneuvers in the Delta Flyer."
"Consider it done. As soon as B'Elanna finishes repairing the Flyer, that is."
"Icheb, it was good to do business with you."
At the young man's puzzled look, Tom added, "It's just an expression. Look it up as part of your vocabulary homework."
Icheb smiled broadly as he left sickbay, thinking about his next flying lesson. It might actually be . . . fun.
"Here you go. Try some of this new recipe of mine. Lizonberry pie. Just what you all need to keep your energy up while you study. And here's some nice lemonade to wash it down with." Neelix bustled up to the table where the four young people sat, entranced by what they were reading on their PADDs.
Naomi glanced up at her foster uncle and said, "Thanks, Uncle Neelix."
Her female companion trained large gray eyes upon the Talaxian and gave him a brief, distinct nod. Neelix was willing to take that for thanks, considering the source. There was no response from the twins. After a distinct pause, during which Neelix considered adding another comment about the food, a pair of thumping sounds were heard that sounded like boots striking shins, followed by an "Ouch" from Azan and a "That hurts!" from Rebi. They glared a moment at Mezoti and Naomi, then said, "Thank you, Neelix," in chorus.
"You're welcome. You really look busy. What is it you're working on?"
"Homework," Mezoti said, with an overtone of distaste.
"Is it anything I can help you with?"
"Thanks, but we're supposed to do this all on our own. Seven said we weren't supposed to go to anyone else to help out. Just each other," Naomi explained.
"Ah, I see." And he did. Neelix knew that Captain Janeway and Seven had discussed ways to encourage the Borg children to cooperate with others in the human/humanoid fashion, rather than the way they had functioned as a collective on the Borg cube. "Is it permissible for you to tell me what you're working on so diligently?"
"Seven of Nine has requested that Rebi and I decrypt all the data we can salvage from a corrupted Borg data module," Mezoti said.
Naomi added, "And Azan and I are working on a DNA analysis assignment Icheb gave us."
"That sounds quite challenging," Neelix said.
"It is. Icheb gives harder homework than the Doctor does. I can't wait for him to come back to Voyager."
"I think we're all looking forward to that, Naomi," Tom said, breezing into the mess hall with B'Elanna on his arm.
"Don't you like being Doctor Tom?" Naomi asked, giggling.
"Please. I'm a pilot, not a doctor!" Tom said, clutching his heart.
"For the next twenty-four days, the opposite will be true," Mezoti corrected him, with malicious accuracy.
Tom groaned melodramatically. B'Elanna patted him on the shoulder sympathetically, and Naomi laughed. Tom and B'Elanna each took a sample of some of Neelix's new pie, taking seats at table in the far corner. The children munched on their own snacks, working on their respective projects. Neelix returned to his galley and began to clean up for the night. Except for an occasional comment from one or the other of the occupied tables, all was peaceful until Naomi said, "This is interesting, isn't it, Azan?"
"It seems unremarkable."
"No, look. See how regular the strand is?" Naomi insisted.
Azan studied the PADD she held in front of him. "Yes, I see. That is why it is unremarkable."
"Don't you remember what Icheb said about that? About how genetically engineered DNA is usually 'cleaned up' to get rid of any variables that might cause an unexpected result?"
Azan studied the PADD a little more, then showed it to Mezoti and Rebi when they asked him to pass it to them. They nodded their heads. "This does look like the genetically engineered sample Icheb showed us," Mezoti agreed.
"Maybe that's why he gave it to you. To test you," Tom said as he approached the children's table.
"But this isn't something Icheb gave us, Doctor Tom," Naomi said, ignoring Tom's wince. "He told us to take several samples from the crew and analyze them on our own. We're supposed to show how Bajoran DNA looks different from Talaxian DNA, and all. I took a dozen samples to work on, including yours, Lieutenant Torres, and my own sample. See? The two of us have the same sort of super-neat DNA spiral, because hybrids have to be genetically engineered so that they aren't sterile."
"Okay. Which one of us does this one belong to?" B'Elanna asked, looking over Tom's shoulder at the PADD.
"It doesn't belong to either of us, Lieutenant Torres. That's Aimee's sample."
Tom touched the PADD lightly to advance the greatly enlarged sample to see more of the spiral. "You're right, Naomi. This DNA strand does look too perfect to be naturally occurring."
"If Aimee is a hybrid, does that explain why no one has been able to figure out what race she is?" Neelix inquired.
"It sure could," Tom answered.
Mezoti picked up the PADD she had been working on with Rebi and punched instructions into it, scrolling down to a certain spot. "Part of this data node we've decrypted contains records of several recent assimilations. There was a ship containing a group of Norcadi, bound for the next sector. My family must have been aboard that vessel. We were all assimilated," Mezoti explained matter-of-factly, not noticing the perturbed looks the adults exchanged at this chilling proof that Mezoti was an orphan. "Here is the record of Icheb's assimilation. Shortly after Icheb was taken, the Borg cube encountered a small vessel with only two people aboard, a male and female of different races."
Naomi and Azan peered carefully at the data which Mezoti had translated from Borg alphanumerics, then gave the PADD to Tom. He compared the information in the two PADD's, then handed both over to B'Elanna to study. Neelix looked over B'Elanna's shoulder to read them when she did.
"We need to show this to Seven and Icheb, don't we, Doctor Tom?" Naomi said excitedly. "We've solved the mystery of where Aimee comes from!"
"Yeah. And as soon as we can confirm it, we'll need to inform the captain," Tom said, exchanging a quick, solemn look with B'Elanna and Neelix.
"Maybe we still won't know what race she is," B'Elanna said.
"Maybe," Tom said reluctantly.
Neelix sighed. He didn't think they were going to get that lucky.
"There is no doubt, Captain. Aimee is descended from the two beings designated by the Borg as Species 11478 and 11479. Mr. Paris and I used the DNA records from the data node and compared their strands to Aimee's. The blue parts of this strand are from Species 11478, shown above. The red is from Species 11479, which we believe come from Aimee's mother. The mitochondrial DNA is a perfect match." Icheb, standing at the computer view screen in the conference room, pointed out the similarities for Captain Janeway and Commander Chakotay. Tom and Seven sat at the table in front of where Icheb was standing. Marla and Harry were sitting across from them, on the side of the table where Chakotay was seated.
"Was there any evidence to suggest where Aimee's parents came from?" the captain asked.
Seven responded, "No, Captain. The computer core of the vessel in which her parents were traveling was reportedly erased totally."
"I'd say her parents did it to hide the location of their home planets as soon as they realized they faced assimilation," Tom agreed.
"And the Borg had never encountered these races before?" Chakotay asked.
"No, Commander," Seven replied. "The fact that the numerical designations are in sequence supports that conclusion. Unfortunately, we could find no visual record of the bodies, which is counter to usual Borg procedures. That particular record may have been stored in one of the sections of the data node which was irretrievably damaged. We were unable to locate any kind of description of the parents' appearance."
"Bodies?" asked the captain.
Tom and Seven looked at each other before Tom said, staring fixedly at the captain so that he would not have to see Marla's face, "Neither parent survived assimilation, Captain. It appears, from the description we were able to decode, that they were both dead or dying when the Borg broke open their ship. The Borg detected the still-living fetus in the mother's body, retrieved it, and placed it in a maturation chamber to grow."
The small moan from Marla's direction drew Tom's eyes towards her, although he tried to fight the impulse. He saw that Harry, who had insisted upon being part of the briefing when he found out what Tom and Icheb had to report, had placed his hand protectively over hers. Unfortunately for him, Marla had grabbed Harry's hand back and was squeezing it bloodless.
The captain did not appear to notice, or if she did, was able to make it appear she did not. "Tom, use the Doctor's holoimager to take a likeness of Aimee," she ordered. "We'll send it out along with Icheb's diagrams of the DNA strands to see if anyone in this sector recognizes them. Since we're due at the rendezvous point to receive the Doctor's data stream from the Midas Array in less than four weeks, there are limits to our search parameters, but we'll do what we can."
"Aye, Captain," Tom said.
"Crewman Gilmore, do you have anything you wish to say?" The captain's tone of voice was sympathetic, even if this had to be crushing news for the young woman.
After a short pause, Marla replied, "Not really, Captain. I always knew this could happen, right from the beginning. I'll keep on doing my best for Aimee, whether we find her people or not."
"I never had the slightest doubt of it."
"You don't mind my saying I hope we're heading away from where they live, though, do you?" Marla smiled feebly.
"Perfectly understandable." From the look on the captain's face, Tom suspected she felt the same way, although she was in no position to admit it.
The captain looked around the table. When there was no indication from anyone else that they had anything to add, she dismissed the meeting.
Everyone got up to leave, with the exception of Tom. He saw the captain hesitate when he remained seated at the table. Once everyone else had filed out of the room, she looked at him pointedly, giving him his opening.
"Captain, there's one more thing."
"The children were all very excited by their findings. They were wondering if you were going to commend them for their discovery."
She sighed deeply. "They have absolutely no idea what this means to Ms. Gilmore, do they?"
"Not a clue."
"How do you think she's really going to take it, Tom?"
"Fine, as long as we don't find any trace of Aimee's people . . . or peoples, I should say. If we do, she's going to beat Harry for the title of 'Most Miserable Member of Voyager's Crew,' hands down."
Kathryn lifted her hand to rub her forehead, as if to push away a headache, and sighed, "I was afraid of that. I hope she's right-- that we are headed in the wrong direction. I just can't, in good conscience, fail to do what I can to make sure we can't find them."
"Of course, Captain. It's the only way. It's a shame, though. Thanks to Aimee, Marla has really settled into being part of the crew. Noah and the others, too. It's like she bound everyone together simply because she needed a lot of baby-sitters!"
"Like Naomi did, remember?" The captain smiled fondly at the memory.
"Yeah. I do. Maybe babies aren't such a bad thing on a starship after all."
"Mr. Paris, do me a favor--don't get any ideas."
Tom snorted. "Don't worry, I don't have any plans! We've got enough kids around right for the time being. But speaking of the kids . . ." He paused expectantly, bringing the conversation back to the topic he'd broached originally.
"You can tell them their captain plans to present them with commendations for practical contributions to our knowledge of Delta Quadrant races and diligence in their studies. Do you think that will satisfy them?"
"And not upset Marla any more than she is already? Yes, Captain. I think that will be just what the doctor ordered."
The captain's lips quivered while her eyes bore into Tom's, as if she wasn't sure whether to give him one of her patented glares of death or laugh hysterically. Finally, a smile appeared on her face and she waved her hand to shoo him out of the conference room, saying, "That will be *all*, Mr. Paris!"
The lighting in their quarters was dim, to suit her mood. She gathered her thoughts before continuing her log entry.
:::Personal Log, Crewman Marla Gilmore, Addendum:
:::It's not like I hadn't anticipated this. I just hoped it would never happen. Naomi was so proud of her commendation. Even the four older children were visibly pleased. I congratulated them. How could I not? It was really an impressive discovery. Naomi is only four years old, after all!
:::I just wish it wasn't my daughter they had been studying.
:::Really, that isn't fair. I don't want to deny Aimee her heritage . . . it's just so hard to think about losing her now, after all we've been through. What happened to her parents, too, having to sacrifice their lives, but still not saving their child from assimilation. Surely, they knew she existed--the evidence of genetic manipulation is clear. They went to a great deal of trouble to conceive a child. If they wanted her, then how can I not try to find her grandparents or other family and let them care for her?
:::If we do find either of Aimee's peoples and they want to raise her, I know I'll have to give her up. Until then, Aimee is MY child. I will love her as my own, because she IS my own child, no matter what the DNA analyses say.
:::But I really, really hope that their homes are so many parsecs behind us now, we'll never find them.
:::End personal log.:::
Marla remained silent for several minutes after she had finished her log entry, listening to the sounds in her quarters that usually were subliminal. The faint whish of the life support system switched on and off, circulating the air and regulating the temperature. The deck floor vibrated ever so slightly, just barely detectable to Marla's engineer's senses, which told her that the warp core was tuned to high efficiency from the way they felt beneath her feet. In the alcove, Marla could hear the baby moving about, on the verge of wakefulness. It was about time for Aimee's middle of the night feeding.
As the snufflings grew more distinct, Marla stood up and punched the replicator controls for a bottle of Aimee's formula. As the molecules whirred into the form of a bottle with the desired baby food in it, at a temperature just a couple of degrees above optimum, Marla turned to the baby's crib and bent to pick her up, just as she began to whimper. Carrying her to the changing table, Marla changed the soaking wet diaper with practiced ease and slipped a dry outfit onto her, murmuring softly to the baby all the while. Aimee looked up at her, sucking her fingers noisily to quiet herself.
"You know the routine, don't you, Aimee? After the changing comes your midnight snack, right?" Marla smiled at the baby, although the feeling that this might be one of the last times they would be able to follow this routine gnawed at her relentlessly.
"Mmm-mmm-mmm-mmm," the baby hummed, smacking her lips every now and then.
"Mmm-mmm-mmm-mmm is right!" Marla replied as she picked up the baby and swung by the replicator to pick up the bottle which, when she tested the temperature on her wrist, was now the perfect temperature for Aimee.
"Here we go!" Marla said, smiling through her blurred vision as her baby snuggled close within her arms and sucked on her bottle in a steady rhythm as Marla sang softly.
" . . . dapples and grays, pintos and bays, all the pretty little horses . . ."
"Yes, Tuvok. What is it?" Kathryn tried to stifle a yawn as she answered her comm signal.
"I'm sorry to disturb you during your sleep cycle, Captain, but I believe this is of sufficient importance. We've received a communication from a trading vessel. A medic on board saw Aimee's image and the DNA diagrams we sent. He believes he can identify one of her races of origin."
Kathryn was fully awake. "I'll be there in five minutes, Tuvok."
As she hurriedly pulled on her clothes and ran a comb through her hair, she muttered under her breath, "Damn, damn, damn, damn, damn."
As soon as the door opened on the pair, Marla knew what they had come to see her about. "We're sorry to disturb you at such an early hour, Ms. Gilmore," Captain Janeway said as she entered Marla's quarters, followed closely by Tom Paris. Acting Chief Medical Officer Paris this morning, Marla was certain.
"You've learned about Aimee's people, haven't you?" Marla said, more calmly than she would have thought possible.
"Yes," the captain replied briskly, without any hesitation. What was the need? They all knew what this meant.
"We've been in contact with a medic on a Felleri trading ship," Tom explained. "He believes Aimee is part Bardarean. Her face is narrow for them, he told us, but the way her forehead is molded is similar to theirs. He says that the DNA strands Icheb believes are the mother's matches a sample of that race's DNA in his possession."
Marla nodded numbly.
"The medic doesn't know exactly where the Bardarean home planet is located, but apparently there are some of his own race who do know. We've been given coordinates to reach a Felleri trade mission that's supposedly near the system where the Bardareans have a trading outpost. We're headed there now," Tom said, almost apologetically.
"When is our ETA, Captain?"
"We expect to get to the Felleri trade mission in about three days. It's not very far off our course," Janeway responded. "I imagine the Bardareans can't be far from there."
"I see. Thank you for letting me know."
"I'll be fine, Captain. Really."
Tom put out his hand. Marla reached out and gave it a quick squeeze as the two of them said their good-byes and left.
After the doors closed, Marla sank down on her knees in the middle of her quarters, sobbing quietly, until Aimee woke up, softly wailing to be fed. Wiping her eyes, Marla went to the baby and picked her up, hugging her close to quiet her before beginning their regular morning routine. Marla's heart might be shattered and bleeding, but Aimee needed her, now as much as ever.
"Is that it?"
"That's it, Captain," Harry replied. "We have to report to the space station outside the inhabited part of the system before we can actually proceed to the trading outpost."
The shabby station didn't make for a very appealing first impression, but if this was where the answer to Aimee's origins could be found, then she'd do what had to be done. "Open a channel, Harry."
"Channel open, Captain."
"This is Captain Kathryn Janeway of the Federation starship Voyager. We seek permission to proceed to the Bardarean trading post in this system."
The viewscreen remained dark for several seconds before a dimly lit desk with a being, shrouded in veils, was revealed in an outburst of static. :::We do not recognize your race, Captain Kathryn Janeway. You do not have permission to proceed further.:::
"We have urgent business with your people if you represent, as we have been told, the Bardarean trade mission."
:::Your information is correct, Captain Kathryn Janeway. However, we do not allow trade with those races with whom we are unacquainted. You must return to the Felleri trading mission two light years away in the direction from which you have come. They act as our trade intermediaries for all unknown races.:::
The viewscreen flickered and went dark.
"Captain, they closed off the channel," Harry said in disbelief.
"Open it again!" Kathryn growled.
After several abortive tries to reach the Bardarean representative, the shrouded figure again appeared, although he was ominously silent as Kathryn again requested permission to enter the system where the trading outpost was. After a long interval punctuated by static, the figure said, :::The inner system is closed to all outside traffic. We cannot allow you to go further. Interstellar trade takes place at this station only, and only with those races with whom we are familiar. You must return to the Felleri trade mission to begin our trading protocols . . . :::
"Wait! Don't close the channel! We aren't here to trade with you. We're on a mission of mercy. We believe we have on board this ship a baby who is of your race. We've rescued her from the Borg. We're trying to reunite her with her family."
There was no reply from the shrouded figure, but this time, at least, it did not disappear. After a full minute of static, the figure finally replied, :::We have checked our records. There are no babies reported missing from within our Sovereignty.:::
"We believe the child was conceived after her mother left your . . . Sovereignty."
:::Impossible. No one leaves our Sovereignty.:::
"I'm sure that some of your people must. The Felleri medic recognized that the child was of your race from an image and from a sample of her DNA."
The figure remained silent for an extended period again before saying, :::Show us this image.:::
"Harry, send Aimee's image and the DNA information to the station."
"It's off, Captain," Harry said after complying with the captain's order.
Within seconds, the level of static increased markedly. "They've shut off audio, Captain," Harry said, a little confused.
"And I thought the Norcadi were rude," Tom said.
"That's enough, Mr. Paris," Kathryn ordered. Her annoyance with the Bardarean representatives made her even touchier about Tom's comment, since she totally agreed with his sentiment.
Several more minutes passed with the only contact from the space station being the annoying sound of static. Harry surreptitiously reduced the volume even without an order from the captain. As soon as he detected that the audio transmission was resuming, he raised the volume again, but before he could announce it, the voice from the station resounded across the bridge.
::: . . . abomination! You show us abomination!:::
"Excuse me?" the captain asked, astonished.
:::This half-breed! Abomination! Do not come near us! You will be fired upon if you attempt to make further contact!::: The screen went dark suddenly. Further attempts by Harry to raise the station went unanswered.
"Captain, haven't we done enough to find Aimee's family?" Tom asked, swiveling around from his seat at the helm.
"That's enough, Ensign Paris," Chakotay said severely.
"I'm not talking as a helmsman now, Chakotay! I'm giving you the opinion of Voyager's Acting Chief Medical Officer." Signaling his backup, Ensign Baytart, to take the helm, Tom stepped up a level to address the captain and first officer. In a more moderate tone of voice, Tom said, "We know Marla will take good care of Aimee. If the Bardareans think of 'half breeds' as an 'abomination,' what kind of life could she have with them? Aimee will be much better off with Marla, here on Voyager."
"What do you think, Chakotay?"
"I think I agree with our Acting Chief Medical Officer about the Bardareans, Captain. But the baby has another heritage. Perhaps her father's people will cherish her--and the answer to who her father's people are may be on that station."
"But if they won't even talk to us, Commander, how are we going to find that out?" Tom countered.
The captain considered her options for a moment. "You're both right, of course. Perhaps someone at the Felleri trade mission will have more information. We might be able to spend a day or so there before we have to go on to the rendezvous point to pick up the Doctor. Ensign Baytart, set a course for the Felleri . . ."
"Captain, a small vessel has left the space station. It is headed in our direction," Tuvok announced.
"Weapons status, Tuvok?" Chakotay asked.
"Hail the vessel, Harry," Kathryn said.
"No response, Captain," Harry replied.
"The vessel is continuing on an intercept course with Voyager," Tuvok added.
"Do you think it's a coincidence that a vessel left that station mere minutes after communications broke down between us?"
"I don't believe in coincidences like that, Captain," Tom said, taking a step down towards the helm.
"I'm sure Ensign Baytart can handle anything we're likely to encounter from that vessel, Mr. Paris. I have a hunch I'm going to need your services as Acting Chief Medical Officer more than at the helm. Tuvok, what about the state of their communications? If we move off, how soon do you think we'll be out of range of the station's comm system?"
"At one quarter impulse, we should be out of range of their sensors in about fifteen minutes, if we utilize a narrow beam pointed away from the station."
"Ensign Baytart, set a course for the Fellari trade mission at one quarter impulse."
"Is the Bardarean ship keeping up with us, Tuvok?"
"It is, Captain."
Tom moved up to the station behind the captain and first officer, where Seven customarily stood when she was on the bridge instead of in Astrometrics, where she was now. At fourteen minutes, fifty-five seconds, after Tuvok had responded to the captain's request about the station's communication capabilities, Harry said, "The Bardarean vessel is hailing us, Captain."
Kathryn exchanged a satisfied glance with her first officer. "Open a channel, narrow beam, Mr. Kim."
Another figure appeared on the viewscreen, as heavily veiled as the official from the space station, although this time the surroundings were consistent with the cockpit of a small vessel rather than a station office. The voice responding to Voyager's hail was considerably more melodious to hear than the one from the station. The universal translator interpreted this Bardarean's voice as feminine. "Captain Kathryn Janeway? I request permission to come aboard your ship. I would like to discuss the child in your possession."
"Will coming aboard Voyager compromise your situation on the space station?"
"It may--if they know. If we continue on this heading, we will be out of sensor range after we reach the orbit of the outermost planet."
Kathryn looked back at Tuvok, who advised, "We will reach that point in twenty-one minutes at our current speed."
"We will transport you aboard in a little more than twenty of our minutes."
"Thank you, Captain Kathryn Janeway."
"You can drop the 'Kathryn,' if you like. And I am speaking with . . .?"
"I am called Lehthea, Captain Janeway. That is enough for you to know at present."
Harry rang the chime and waited for the door to open. As he entered, Marla said, "Put it in that bag, Noah."
"Babies sure have a way of cluttering things up," Noah said in greeting to Harry. The always-melancholy crewman looked even more mournful than usual as he slipped the teddy bear he was holding into the carryall Marla used for diapers whenever she took Aimee to one of the public areas of the ship.
"They sure do, don't they, Sweetheart?" Marla said to the baby in her arms, giving her a quick kiss on the cheek.
"Marla, I don't think you're going to have to pack up all of this stuff right now," Harry said.
The engineer looked at Harry blankly. "She has to have all her stuff, Harry. They won't have anything for her. They don't expect her, do they?"
"No, but . . . Marla, it might get complicated. Why don't you come with me to sickbay with Aimee now. The captain needs the two of you there. Noah can finish up here, right?"
"Sure I can. You just go, Marla. But you'd better take this, just in case." Noah handed Harry the diaper bag, filled to overflowing with diapers, stuffed toys, and changes of clothing. As Marla and the baby left the room, Noah whispered to Harry, "Do you want me to bring everything to the transporter room? Or do you think Aimee might be staying?"
"I can't say one way or the other, Noah, but that's good in itself, isn't it?"
"Sure is," Noah replied. "Let me know as soon as there's word."
"Harry, are you coming with us to sickbay?" Marla asked.
"Sure, just a second," Harry called to her, then nodded to Noah. "I'll let you know."
The transporter beam resolved into the figure of a woman, totally swathed in voluminous robes and veiled.
"Welcome to Voyager, Lehthea," Kathryn said.
The woman hesitated for a moment, then stepped off the transporter platform. "Captain Janeway. Thank you for giving me permission to visit your ship."
"I'm glad you came, although I am a little surprised after what happened when we contacted the station. We didn't expect any contact with us would be permitted." The captain gestured to her visitor, who followed her out of the transporter room and into the corridor, headed to the turbolift.
"And none has been, officially. It is how things are done among my people. As long as the truth is not publicly acknowledged, it is sometimes possible to accomplish what must be accomplished, despite our policy of isolation."
"You disobeyed your own rules?"
"I have lived on our station for many years, Captain Janeway. It has given me a somewhat broader view of life than that of our communicationist, the man you spoke with. He just came from our home world and is very rigid, compared to the standards of most space travelers, from my experience. My previous communicationist would have been just as shocked by the image you showed us, but he would have hidden it better. He would have been less . . . insulting . . . in the manner of his sending you away."
"But we would not have been permitted to proceed any further to your trading outpost by him, either?" Kathryn ushered her visitor inside the turbolift and said, "Deck Five."
"No, Captain. You would have proceeded no further, but you would have had no need. He would have let you know you had come to those who had the answers you seek."
The turbolift door opened onto Deck Five. Their destination was only a few steps away from the lift. The two women said nothing more until they had entered sickbay.
Acting Chief Medical Officer Paris stood by the biobed where Aimee was seated, supported by her foster mother's body and hands circling the baby's waist. Harry Kim stood next to Marla Gilmore. Ensign Wildman and Icheb stood behind Tom. No one said a word as the veiled alien woman, seemingly floating because her costume completely hid her feet, approached the biobed. Small sounds, like that of someone inhaling quickly, could be heard coming from beneath Lehthea's veil. Kathryn wondered, with some vexation, if the woman were laughing at the child.
Slowly, the woman lifted up her veil, revealing a face that was much broader between the eyes than a human's, with a bulge over each eye that made her forehead appear bifurcated. A noticeable depression formed in the middle, where the bulges met at a low point. Lehthea's eyes were overflowing. "She has my daughter's eyes! Oh, Dehlea! My daughter! She is almost your image!" A slight choking sound came from out of her throat.
Tom stepped forward. "Are you all right, ma'am?"
Lehthea reached out and accepted Tom's arm, leaning heavily upon him. "No, I am not all right. I never will be again. But I will survive, young man . . . " She began to gasp again, and tears began to flow down her cheeks. "Forgive me, Captain Janeway. I apologize for the scene I am making." Lehthea put her hand to her eyes, as if she were trying to hold back her tears.
"Scene?" Kathryn asked, looking around, puzzled.
"Captain, if I'm not mistaken, our guest is hysterical," Harry whispered.
"Yes, Captain. The baby's cry was always so weak, we wondered if she were sick. But now . . . I think Marla was right. Her people just don't cry very loudly."
They waited a minute for Lehthea to bring herself together. Tom went to get her a chair, which he placed next to the biobed. The baby sat very still, gazing quietly at the visitor. Lehthea did not sit down, however, preferring to lean against the end of the biobed.
When her gasps became farther apart, indicating she was getting over her crying bout, Kathryn bought her guest some more recovery time by introducing her to the crew members in attendance. ". . . and we call the child Aimee," Kathryn said. "You said she looks like your daughter?" Kathryn said it cautiously, wondering if mentioning such a sore point would provoke another outburst.
"Yes, Captain," Lehthea said quietly, but calmly. "Her eyes, so green! Just like Dehlea's eyes. My daughter disappeared one cycle ago, leaving me a message that she had run away with one of the traders to our outpost. I was so worried for her. Where could they have gone? They could not have gone to his home planet. She had fallen in love with a young man who was of a race even less willing to come into contact with others than ours. The Shellisti trade only with us. Since we are so careful not to become involved with other races, they believe it safe to have contact with us."
"And you believe that Aimee is your daughter's child?" Kathryn asked.
"I am sure of it. Few of my people ever leave our home world. My communicationist Tedender was correct. And she looks exactly the way a child of a Shellisti and a Bardarean would look, and so much like Dehlea, I . . ." Lehthea paused, then said, "I came here in person so that I could be certain . . . and so you could be certain. With your technology, you can compare my genes with hers, can you not? You can test us both?"
"Yes, I can do that easily," Tom answered.
"Let us proceed," Lehthea said gravely.
"Just let me swab inside your cheek. That should give me enough cells to test your genes if you're like 99% of the other humanoid races we see. I already have a record of Aimee's genes on file," Tom said, taking the sample confidently as he chatted to distract his patient. Kathryn was pleased to see how quickly Tom put Lehthea at ease. The legendary Paris charm was certainly an asset when it came to situations like this! She thought, wryly, that when the Doctor came back, she might suggest his next self-improvement project might be to incorporate a little more Paris into his matrix.
Tom handed the swab to Icheb, who immediately placed the swab in a medical instrument. Before the gap in the conversation became too awkward, the young Brunali called Tom. Tom shook his head knowingly as he viewed the results of the test. Turning to the interested parties grouped around Aimee. "There's no doubt about it, Captain. Almost 26% of Aimee's genes match up with Lehthea's. Exactly what one would expect of the sample from one grandparent, if a small number of the genes of one set of grandparents were common to them both, as is apparently the case here. And the mitochondrial DNA passed down from mother to daughter is a perfect match, too."
"I believe that is the confirmation you needed, Lehthea." Kathryn smiled weakly at her guest. Just behind her, she could see Marla's already reddened eyes fill with tears. Harry put his arm around Marla, who leaned her head against his shoulder. Kathryn felt terrible, knowing that all of Marla's worst fears had been realized.
"Yes. This is Dehlea's child. My granddaughter."
Marla wiped her eyes, saying, "I can have her ready to go with you in a few minutes. I just have to let Noah know so he can finish packing her things, and then I'd like a little time to say good-bye to her . . ."
Lehthea inhaled sharply, tears coming back into her eyes, "Oh, no! It is impossible for me to take my granddaughter back to the station with me!"
The humans stared at the Bardarean woman in shock. "You have no intention of taking her home?" Kathryn asked.
"I would love to bring her home, but how can I? You saw what Tedender's reaction was, and all he saw was her image! Can you imagine how it would be for her? My people would treat her as an abomination because of her . . . impure blood." The woman's voice broke several times as her breath caught in her throat.
Kathryn asked, "What about her father's people?"
"Captain, I cannot believe they would be willing to take her. As I told you, they have very little contact with others, even with us. This part of space has an unhappy history. There is much strife among our neighbors. The Shellisti protect themselves the same way we do, by staying apart. A child of mixed blood could never be accepted, not by my people, and not by the Shellesti." Lehthea stroked the baby's face tenderly with her hand. "Captain Janeway, could you find a home for her, one where she will be accepted . . . and loved, as she deserves?"
"Yes, she can find her a home," Marla said quickly. "Let me keep her, please? I've wanted to adopt Aimee from the first moment I saw her, but I thought it would be impossible." Marla was weeping again, but this time, Kathryn thought, more from relief than sorrow.
The Bardarean woman reached out to Marla, touching her cheek just as she had the baby's. "You are a good person, Marla Gilmore, to love a baby not of your own people."
"She *is* of my people. In my heart, she has always been the same 'people' as me."
Lehthea stood with her head bowed for a moment, catching her breath in what Kathryn could now see was a great sadness. When she spoke again, it was with a husky tone. "I wish my people had hearts like yours, Marla Gilmore. When I first saw Davon, I could not imagine my daughter could share souls with him. All I could see was how narrow his brow was. Now, when I see his face mixed with Dehlea's in Aimee, I know Dehlea's heart was open, more like that of your people. She could see beauty that I could not. If we were all like you, she would not have been lost to me. Dehlea is dead, isn't she? She would never leave her child unless she were dead."
"Yes. She and Davon died at the hands of the Borg. You know of them?"
"Oh, yes. One of the reasons we hide is because we hope the Borg will never find us." She glanced over at Icheb, warily, who shifted his weight from one foot to another and looked away from the woman's close regard of his remaining facial implant.
"We have been able to rescue several people from the Borg, including your granddaughter and Icheb. I'm sorry we could not save your daughter. She and Davon were already dead before we encountered the cube." Kathryn briefly considered telling her the rest of what she knew of the deaths but decided against it. Unless Lehthea asked directly, what good would it serve to let her know the details? Instead, she shared something which was just as bitter, but which must be said. "Lehthea, we are headed back to our home, half a galaxy away. Once we leave here, it is doubtful Aimee could ever come back to visit you. You understand that if you let Marla adopt Aimee, she would almost certainly be lost to you forever, too."
"I understand. It cannot be helped," Lehthea replied softly, and lowered her head once more. After she lifted her head again, she slipped her hand within her robes and removed several objects that looked like data chips. "When we scanned your vessel from the space station, we saw you used this sort of technology for data storage. Are they compatible?"
"Let me check," Harry said, accepting one of the chips and moving to a computer console in the main office of sickbay. He emerged a minute later. "It works fine. I've got the translation algorithms working. It looks like it's full of literature files."
"Yes. Great literature, as well as information about our culture. This chip has what little we know about the Shellisti contained in it. And this one is for you, Doctor Paris. It contains information about physiology and body chemistry, mostly about the Bardareans. We have little information about the Shellisti's bodies, but what we do know is here, too. I am breaking many laws by giving these to you, but I want my granddaughter to know something of her people. I was going to ask you to share them with the person who will care for her, Captain. I am glad I can give them directly to you, Marla Gilmore."
"Lehthea, wouldn't you like to hold your granddaughter?" Marla asked.
The woman whispered, "Yes. You will permit it?"
"Of course," Marla answered.
Carefully, the Bardarean woman lifted up the child. Wrapping her arms around Aimee, she rocked her, murmuring to her softly, her broad face half hidden by Aimee's head. Finally, after a final hug, she handed her back to Marla.
Lehthea breathed in and out deeply and said, "My granddaughter . . . Aimee, as you call her . . . will be happy with your people. I am sure of it, and I am grateful. But I have a question."
"What is it?"
"This name you have given to my granddaughter? Does it have meaning? For my people, a name must always have a meaning. My own name means . . . joy." An ironic edge entered the woman's voice, which was anything but joyful.
"That's true for most human names, too. Aimee means 'beloved' in French, an Earth language," Kathryn explained.
"Who gave this name to her, Captain?"
"Marla Gilmore did."
Lehthea stroked the baby's face again, in what was clearly a gesture of great endearment. "If you have given my granddaughter such a name, I know you are the one who should raise her." She gazed beseechingly into Marla's eyes. "Please, do not think badly of me for not taking my granddaughter home. It is in Aimee's best interests to go with you. It is not in mine. She is all I have left of my only daughter and my husband, who died long ago . . ." Lehthea's voice broke. She quickly lowered the veils over her face again, but now there was no mistaking the sound of a very soft keening wail that came from beneath the concealing cloths. The cry of the Bardareans was, indeed, a quiet sound of desperation.
"Naomi, Mezoti, you don't have to wait here. I can call you when they come in."
"No, Ensign Mulcahy. I want to stay. I don't want to miss the chance to say good-bye," Naomi said.
The ensign said, "OK," and went back to his work at the console.
"Is it so important to say a ritual phrase when someone is leaving the ship?"
"This time it is, Mezoti," Naomi said sadly. "We won't be saying 'hello' to Aimee any more. She won't be coming back."
"She is being returned home to her family. Isn't this what the captain specified as the plan for all of us?"
"I don't want to see you go. Or Azan or Rebi, either. You're part of Voyager's family now, just as much as I am, or Icheb, now that we've rescued him from the Borg again."
"When we arrive at the Alpha Quadrant, everyone on the ship will be going home, with the exception of those of us from the Delta Quadrant. The Voyager family will be forced to say 'good-bye' then."
"Yeah, but the captain will work something out for all of you. Maybe you'll stay with Seven, and I can still see you a lot."
"It is possible."
"But that's still not the same. Aimee was so little when Marla started to take care of her. Marla's the only mother she knows. Even if this Lehthea knows who Aimee's family is, they're still going to be strangers. Aimee's real parents died. Marla should be able to keep her. And she probably would have, if I didn't mess things up by figuring out Aimee was a hybrid, like me." Naomi face and voice reflected her complete misery at being the instrument of this injustice.
Hesitantly, Mezoti put her arm around Naomi's shoulders, as she had seen Ensign Wildman do on other occasions when Naomi was upset about something. Naomi was often upset, Mezoti found, but then, Naomi had never been Borg. Having been Borg seemed to make it easier for Mezoti to accept things that could not be changed.
When the door to the transporter room opened, the two girls stood up. The Bardarean female entered, followed by Crewman Gilmore, Ensign Kim, Captain Janeway, and Ensign Sam Wildman. Mezoti moved away from Naomi to permit Ensign Wildman room to stand next to her daughter. She behaved as Mezoti had expected, placing her hand on Naomi's shoulder, just as she had just done herself. None of the adults appeared to be emotionally upset, although Crewman Gilmore's eyes were red from previous crying episodes.
"Do you want to hold her again?" Crewman Gilmore asked the Bardarean female. The woman nodded her veiled head and accepted the child into her arms. Mezoti saw Naomi duck her head down and place it against Ensign Wildman's body. It appeared to the Norcadi girl that Naomi may not be able to say farewell to Aimee after all.
The captain said, "Lehthea, there is one thing I've been meaning to ask you. Will there be serious repercussions for you from the manager of your station because you came here?"
The veiled woman made a strange noise in her throat. "No, Captain. I can assure you the manager of the station will give me no trouble . . . I am the station manager."
Mezoti was surprised to see that, for once, the captain was speechless.
The woman rocked the baby in her arms for a moment. "I have been on the station for many years, but I will not be serving there much longer. I have been expecting to be recalled home at any time to retirement."
"You will be returning to your home planet?"
"Yes, Captain. And the people on my home planet are not as . . . tolerant . . . as those here on the station and the outpost tend to be."
"Your communicationist is a tolerant person?" The captain clearly did not believe the Bardarean female.
"For my people, yes. He is relatively liberal. You see now why it is impossible?"
The captain nodded, a frown upon her face. "Yes, Lehthea, I can see."
As Aimee began to pull on the woman's veil, Crewman Gilmore stepped forward and disentangled the infant's hands from the cloth. "Aimee, you mustn't do that."
"Here. Take her back, Marla Gilmore. It is time I returned to the station, before they are forced to acknowledge my absence. If that happens, there may be problems."
Aimee was passed from one woman to the other. Once Crewman Gilmore had the baby in her arms again, the alien woman remained close to her for several seconds, her hands resting on the Voyager crew member's shoulders, the baby between them. Although Mezoti still had not had an opportunity to see the Bardarean's face, Crewman Gilmore seemed to be communicating with her in some way. Suddenly, in a swirl of robes and veiling, the woman called Lehthea ascended onto the transporter platform. "Good journey to all on your ship, Captain. Marla Gilmore and . . . Aimee."
"To you also, Lehthea," the captain said.
Ensign Mulcahy, at the captain's nod, punched in the code to activate the transporter beam. The mechanism hummed briefly, and in swirl of light not unlike that of the fabric the Bardarean woman wore upon her person, Lehthea was gone. Aimee was still being held in Crewman Gilmore's arms.
Mezoti looked at Naomi, who was staring up at her mother in amazement. "You mean Aimee isn't going away?" the half- Ktarian girl asked.
"No," her mother answered gently. "Aimee's grandmother decided it would be better if she stayed with Marla and with all of us on Voyager."
"Yay!" Naomi cried, giving her mother a quick hug and running over to where Marla was standing. "I'm so happy for you, Marla. And you, too, Aimee!" Naomi threw her arms around Crewman Gilmore, who smiled down at her and then looked at Mezoti.
"Are you happy for us, too, Mezoti?" Crewman Gilmore said, smiling at her.
"Yes, Crewman Gilmore. I am." Mezoti felt her own lips quirk into a smile as she approached Aimee and her mother.
Naomi said, "You know, I felt awful when I realized you were going to lose Aimee because of my discovery."
"You don't have to feel awful any more. I should give you my own personal commendation, Naomi. You too, Mezoti. I would have been worried sick the whole trip back to the Alpha Quadrant, thinking I might have to give Aimee up someday. Now that we know who Aimee is and that her grandmother wants me to adopt her, I don't have to worry any more."
"And we have all kinds of medical information on her people now, too, so that if she gets sick again, it will be easier to treat her," Naomi's mother added.
"Is this a happy ending, Mom?"
Ensign Wildman laughed. "As close as we're going to get today. Maybe we should all clear out of here so Ensign Mulcahy can do his work?"
"Oh, don't mind me. I like listening to a story with a happy ending every now and then," he said. "Accept my congratulations, too, Marla."
=/\= "Hey," Tom greeted B'Elanna, as he entered the mess hall. "What is this, a party?"
"Just about. Although it's nothing compared to what Neelix is planning for later in the week. We're going to be celebrating Aimee V. Gilmore's official adoption with what Neelix says is a 'baby shower.' "
"Actually, I think it's supposed to be 'Voyageuse.' That's the feminine ending our little traveler should have for her name. I forgot all about that when Marla first took her in."
"Don't rock the boat, Tom. I think everyone is happy enough with the Gilmore part. No one is going to care what her middle name is. By the way, are you off this evening? Or are you pulling helm duty tonight again?" The hint of a whine slipped into B'Elanna's voice at the idea that they would be apart once again for the entire night.
"Baytart's at the helm tonight. After dinner I'm on sickbay duty until 2400, but with any luck, it'll be a quiet night. Maybe you could come by later and . . . keep me company?"
B'Elanna's grin matched his at this so very casual suggestion. One quiet night in sickbay they had kept each other company in a most satisfying way. With any luck . . .
"Good evening, Captain, Commander," Tom said, cutting B'Elanna's musings short as she echoed his greeting. "Are we back on course to pick up the Doc?"
"We are, Mr. Paris. What is this, a party?" the captain asked.
"Just about," Tom responded. Kathryn and Chakotay waved to the group crowding into the lounge area of the mess hall, but they opted to take a table in the corner after choosing a meal. "Maybe we should get something to eat, too? To fortify us for later?" Tom remarked.
"Sounds like an excellent idea to me . . . Doctor Tom."
"Cheer up, Flyboy. Playing doctor with me is nothing like regular sickbay duty, and you know it!"
Tom's expression immediately became cheerful, just at the thought.
"Chakotay, look at Aimee, on Marla's lap. She gets so excited now whenever Naomi or Mezoti play Peek-a-boo with her. A few weeks ago, she didn't even know how to react to such a simple game. Now look at her."
"Naomi's 'boo' seems to be getting a much bigger reaction than Mezoti's."
"I don't care. Mezoti's playing with the baby! That's progress enough for both of them."
Chakotay grinned and nodded in agreement before taking a sip of his drink.
Kathryn took a sip of her coffee, observing her crew interacting with one another: Harry Kim. Sam and Naomi Wildman. Tom and B'Elanna. Marla and Aimee Gilmore. Noah Lessing. Seven of Nine. Icheb, Azan and Rebi. Neelix. Jenny and Megan Delaney. Ensign Golwat and Chell. Sue Nicoletti.
"Look at them, Chakotay. Everyone from the original crew to Maquis members to Equinox crew to former Borgs . . . all of them are Voyager crew members now--even those that weren't even born when we first came to the Delta Quadrant. It's so wonderful to see them together like this, happy and content for once. We don't usually see the crew in such a relaxed and happy state of mind, do we?" Kathryn said.
"We don't usually see anyone's fondest wish granted, Kathryn."
"No, we don't, do we?" She took another bite of her meal which, for once, was being eaten in relative anonymity, thanks to the celebration at the other side of the mess hall.
After chewing another bite of his food, Chakotay said, "You know, Voyager has been a little like 'Kathryn's Ark' in the last year or so, only instead of two by two, we seem to be getting them in batches of five."
Kathryn laughed, but her expression evolved into a melancholy one. "We've lost people in bunches so often. I'm glad we're gaining some ground."
"True. And after what's happened with Icheb and Aimee, I hope we never have to give up Mezoti or the twins."
Kathryn snorted. "From the disinterest the Norcadi have shown Mezoti, that's not too likely, is it? And by the law of averages, I'd say we're getting further away from Azan and Rebi's home. I can't believe we'd be going the right way for all five of them, can you?"
"Hard to say. I hope you're right."
"Whatever happens, they have a home here on Voyager as long as they need us--and a home in the Federation, when we get there, too," Kathryn vowed.
"Think you'll have to fight for it when we get home?"
"Oh, no doubt about it. I'm going to be doing plenty of fighting when we get home--for the Maquis, for the Equinox crew, for Neelix. Everyone on this ship has done all I could ever have asked of them, and more."
"Are a few promotions in order, then?"
Kathryn smiled. "I have to undemote Tom first."
"Maybe you'll have to clear that with Admiral Hayes, now that we're going to be in regular contact with headquarters."
Kathryn grinned crookedly. "Fat chance. If I want to promote someone who deserves it, I'm going to promote them. Not that I've forgotten about our response to the admiral. Thanks to the Doctor's house call, I put it off, but it's about time we got back to going over our draft."
"Absolutely not! Tonight I'm going to relax, just like the rest of my crew. It was an emotional day for me, too, you know."
Chakotay couldn't disagree with that. "Fair Haven is running on Holodeck One tonight. Are you going?"
Kathryn placed her coffee cup with the rest of her empty utensils on her dinner tray. "No, I don't think so. I think I'd rather spend a quiet night--or maybe not so quiet a night," she amended ruefully, as loud squeals of excitement coming from the lounge area drowned out what she meant to say. "Just a nice night at home with 'the family.' "
Chakotay picked up her tray along with his own and walked to the recycler to dispose of the dishes before joining his captain and their crew for an evening's relaxation.
The faces all around her tonight were ones she knew very well. That was good.
The little faces were playing the funny hands-over-eyes-and- then-say-boo-game. That was the one she liked the best right now. It made her want to kick her feet up and squeal whenever they did that with her. She tried to get her hands up like they did and say boo, too, but it didn't work out right just yet. She'd have to keep trying.
She wasn't sure, exactly, what had been happening for the last little while. Something had been going on with Mommy. Her face had been wet a lot. Ever since that very strange face left today, though, everything had gotten much better.
The big faces all seemed to be talking to one another tonight. Although she couldn't understand what all those big words they were using meant yet, she could tell from the intonation and the way they were saying them that they were very good and happy words. She heard them say her name, Aimee, and Mommy's other name, Marla, a lot, but mostly, she didn't care what they were saying. She would worry about trying to understand them tomorrow.
Right now, all she wanted was to feel all warm and cuddly and secure with Mommy and the rest of the family. And suddenly, realizing she did feel that way, she just had to crow so loudly that everybody stopped their games and their talking and looked at her with their smiling faces on for her to see.
And then she knew. They were happy--and so was she.
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