Cass turned her face up to the sun and closed her eyes for a few
precious seconds. God it feels so good to be outside - really
outside, she thought as she opened her eyes again and took in her
surroundings. We don't get this opportunity very often. I'm glad
the captain decided to take a chance on shore leave.
All scans of the green and gorgeous planet had uncovered nothing but blue oceans, white beaches, freshwater creeks running down to the waves and lush jungle. There was wildlife aplenty but nothing much bigger than a chimpanzee had shown up on their scans. Nevertheless the captain had ordered security details to cover every shift rotation down on the planet, a precaution with which Cass very much agreed.
She had spent the last four hours planetside, wandering amongst the various groups of crew members, checking in with her security staff and trying to stay alert in the sleep-inducing heat.
Now she was standing in the shade of what passed for a palm tree on this world, her back pressed against the rough bark. She looked relaxed, but her hand rested on the phaser clipped at her hip and her eyes never stopped moving, sweeping the length of the beach. Nearby a group of friends lounged around in swimsuits, a picnic spread on a blanket.
B'elanna Torres, Voyager's chief engineer and probably Cass' best friend on board, lay sprawled on her back, resting on her elbows as she looked up at the security officer.
"For God's sake, Cass, take a day off, will you?" chided the half-Klingon woman. "How often do you get the chance?"
Cass raised an eyebrow in her friend's direction.
"Not often enough," she murmured, watching as another group of female officers gamboled in the shallows.
"So get your clothes off and come and lay in the sun, woman," Torres persisted.
Cass smiled affectionately at the attractive brunette. She and B'elanna had struck up an unlikely friendship not long after Voyager had resumed her course for the Alpha Quadrant. It was based on mutual antagonism to begin with but had evolved into something more akin to sisterhood. With a dash of flirting for good measure, Cass thought wryly.
The two women were renowned for flirting endlessly with each other but for never doing anything about it. B'elanna was continually involved romantically elsewhere, and Cass ... well, Cass just didn't get involved romantically, not since Ensign Tina Roberts at least. It was a bone of light-hearted contention between them because Torres kept setting Cass up on optimistic dates, which the security chief was more than happy to smile through. But that was always as far as it went.
And despite their closeness, Cass had never told B'elanna about her history with Lis. The engineer had a reputation for gossip and the last thing Cass wanted was those kinds of rumors doing the rounds. Not now. Not when Lis and Nick seemed to be so happy and she was content to just be.
"Lt, it might have slipped your attention, but I am actually on duty," Cass said semi-sarcastically, smiling at the engineer.
"Cass, we've been out here for almost four years and I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I've ever seen you off-duty."
The tall woman shrugged. "Give me a break will you? It's the nature of the job." She looked down at B'elanna who, while resplendent in a fluorescent yellow one-piece, also had dark circles under her eyes. "And excuse me for mentioning it, but weren't you the chief engineer who pulled three double shifts last week? Miss Nobody-knows-my-engines-like-I-do."
"Oh shut up," Torres said good-naturedly. "That's different. There were repairs that had to be made. But look around you Cass, the only threat here is imminent sunburn."
"Come on B'elanna. This is Voyager we're talking about. Look at what we've been through the last four years. Borg, Hirogen, Species 8472 - every screwball and lunatic in the universe gravitates towards us." The engineer laughed. "It's true. When have we ever had a week go by without something bizarre happening? Why should this week be any different just because the sun is shining and the sand feels good between your toes?"
Torres turned onto her stomach, adjusting the large towel under her before settling down with her ridged forehead resting on the backs of her hands.
"You're getting bitter and twisted in your old age, Lansdown," she said, her voice muffled slightly.
Cass pushed herself up off the tree as she spied another familiar figure walking towards them.
"No," she said. "Just getting wiser with experience." She walked down the beach a little way, then turned back and yelled at the Klingon. "Here comes your boyfriend, Torres." She laughed as the engineer scrambled to sit up.
"Hi Cass," said Lt Tom Paris as he passed her shoulder.
"Hey Tom," she replied easily. B' elanna and Voyager' s top pilot had been involved for a few months in a fiery on-again, off-again affair. Cass' personal opinion was that there was no way it was going to last. But stranger things have happened, she thought as she walked down towards the waterline.
She turned to the north and began a slow stroll. Groups of crew members were scattered all over the beach engaged in various activities. Volleyball games, beach baseball, picnics ... and sex ... Cass grinned at one patch of foliage that was rustling suspiciously. No screams, so it can' t be a vicious example of native fauna, she thought with a chuckle. A muffled yelp came from the bush and Cass bit her tongue to stop herself laughing out loud. No screams yet.
She continued on with her patrol, checking in with the two-man security teams posted at various intervals along the beach. For about the millionth time in four hours she wished she was wearing something other than her uniform, as a trickle of sweat made its way slowly down between her shoulder blades. Ahead of her she could see Nick and Lis sitting together on the sand and she made her way towards them.
They look like they' re enjoying themselves, Cass thought to herself. Her friends had a picnic lunch spread on a blanket between them, and Nick was pouring champagne into a glass, which he then handed to his wife. It had taken every minute of their time in the Delta Quadrant to get Cass to the point where she could interact with her ex-lover and her husband with a degree of calm. It took me long enough, she thought. But at least now I can accept that their marriage has to run its course. She knew herself well enough to know that her heart would always belong to the blonde psychologist, and she had instead concentrated her energies on being the best Starfleet officer she could be.
And as long as she' s happy ... Cass strode towards the two scientists.
"Hello, Lt," said Nick as he poured another glass of champagne and stretched out on the blanket. More often than not he maintained the formality of her rank, even though their relationship had certainly eased into a peaceful acceptance of each other over the years.
"G' day Nick," she replied with an easy smile.
"Hi Cassie," Lis said. "You look hot."
"That would be because I am," replied the tall security chief. "One of these days some bright spark is going to design a uniform that' s actually appropriate for days like this."
Lis looked resplendent in a green bikini which highlighted the color of her eyes. Among other things, thought Cass wryly, before quickly turning her mind to other things.
"Nice spread," she said, indicating the tubs of coleslaw and egg salad, crusty French bread, caviar, and crab claws.
"Join us," invited Nick, smiling as he handed the security chief the glass of champagne.
Mmmmmm tempting, thought Cass as she took it from him, feeling the cool droplets of condensation on the outside of the glass from the ice-cold beverage inside. She took a tentative sip, groaning as the refreshing liquid soothed her dry throat. Not bad for synthehol, she thought. Never quite as good as the real thing, but not bad at all.
"Hang on a second," she said and stepped away from the blanket. She tapped her communicator. "Lansdown to Morgan."
"Morgan here," came the reply from her deputy, who was at the opposite end of the beach from her, coordinating the security teams scattered across the area.
"How are we doing Ray?" she asked casually.
"Nada boss," he replied. "Everything' s clear and calm. Latest report from Voyager is all quiet up there as well. Damned if this place isn' t turning out to be as sweet as it looked from the early scans."
"Mmmmmm," Cass said noncommittally. She knew better than to trust appearances on away missions. Especially on a planet where the only anomaly was a weird magnetic field that had prevented them using their transporters. Everyone had had to come down by shuttle, three of which were parked in a nearby clearing in the jungle. "Do me a favor … have Voyager run another scan of the area and keep three shuttle pilots on standby in the clearing, okay?"
She could almost hear him rolling his eyes.
"Humor me, would ya?" she laughed. "I' m going to be otherwise occupied for 15 minutes or so, and I' m overcompensating. So sue me."
Her deputy, whom she trusted to do a more than competent job, laughed good-naturedly. "No problem boss. Have fun. Let me know when you' re back on deck."
"Will do. Lansdown out."
Cass turned back to Lis and Nick and stepped onto a corner of the blanket. Gracefully she folded her legs under her till she was cross-legged on the red-checked material.
"I' m all yours for the next 15 minutes," she said, smiling as she swallowed another mouthful of cold champagne.
"Fifteen minutes? Wow, really letting your hair down, Lt," said Nick sardonically, offering her a paper plate and a napkin.
"It' s a dirty job, Nick, but someone' s got to do it."
Lis chuckled quietly, taking in the banter between her husband and her ex-lover. I would never have thought this could be possible, she thought. They' re not exactly bosom buddies, but they do seem to have come to some kind of peace with each other. She watched as Cass helped herself to portions of food, while Nick started eating his plateful. It' s amazing. I' m an incredibly lucky woman.
She still had moments of worry about the beautiful and solitary security chief. Moments when guilt about Cass' choice to be alone until she could be with the counselor was almost overwhelming.
Lis cocked her head to one side and watched the gorgeous, angular planes of the dark-haired woman' s face. So beautiful. And so much love to give. I can' t make her choices for her. I just hope she doesn' t come to hate me for it. Cass caught her eye and flashed her a brilliant grin, their eyes meeting in a warm wash of mutual understanding. Hell, I hope I don' t come to hate me for it, Lis reflected.
"So," Cass said finally, around a mouthful of egg salad. "What are we celebrating?"
Husband and wife exchanged meaningful glances and Cass found herself holding her breath. Uh-oh, she thought. Why do I get the feeling this is going to hurt?
Better to tell her now, thought Lis, recognizing the barely disguised delight on her husband' s face. I don' t want her finding this out via the lower decks gossip. And at least here I know Nick will be kind about it.
The blonde turned to face Cass and fixed her with an open gaze.
"We do have some news, Cassie," she said softly. "I' m pregnant."
Cass hoped like hell she was keeping her face calm, because inside she was a mess. It was like being kicked in the guts and she felt the air rush out of her in a long ragged breath. Get it together Cassie, they' re happy about it, she chastised herself.
"That' s great," she said, stretching her face into a grin. "Congratulations. Both of you." She reached out and shook the happy father' s hand. "When is the baby due?" I' ve got to get out of here. Lis looked at her kindly and Cass immediately tore her eyes away. She knows exactly what I' m thinking. She knows how this feels for me. Damn it.
"I' m about six weeks gone," the counselor said.
"That' s fantastic," Cass said again. "I' m really happy for you both." Her face ached from the smile she kept firmly in place. Her communicator chirped, startling them all. Thank God, she thought.
"Janeway to Lansdown."
"Could I borrow you for a few minutes, Lt?"
"Yes, ma' am. Where are you?"
"North of you, down by the water."
Cass looked to her right, up the length of the beach, finally spotting the diminutive captain standing with the much taller, more imposing, figure of Voyager' s resident Borg, Seven of Nine.
"I' m on my way, Captain." She turned back to Lis and Nick and shrugged apologetically. "Duty calls," she said, handing her champagne glass back to Nick. "Thanks for the drink." She stood up quickly, wanting nothing more than to be far, far away from the happy couple. "And thanks ... for telling me the good news." She smiled briefly though none too convincingly and stumbled away from the picnic.
Damn, thought Lis, closing her eyes against a wave of sadness. I wish I could have found a better way to do that. She opened her eyes again and watched the tall woman break into a jog as she headed up the beach. Was there any way of telling her without it hurting the way I know it did? She sighed.
"Hey," said Nick, trying to gain his wife' s attention. He waited till she turned back to face him. "She' ll be okay."
"I hope so," Lis murmured. "I' m so happy about this baby, I just want everyone else to be too." She leaned forward and kissed him lightly. "Thank you for being gentle with her."
He shrugged. "Believe it or not, I don' t actually get any pleasure from seeing her hurt, Lissy," he replied. "Once upon a time, maybe. But not now." He reached out and wrapped his arm around her waist, pulling her closer. "I' d much rather concentrate on you." He kissed her. "And our baby."
Cass jogged along slowly, her thoughts in turmoil even as her feet beat a steady path along the hard sand near the waterline. She felt like reality had walked up to her and slammed her between the eyes with something hard and blunt.
What is it Cass, she questioned herself. It' s not like you could possibly be surprised that she wants kids. She' s always said so. And truth be told you' ve always thought she would make a fabulous mother. So what the hell is it making you feel like your world just ended?
She slowed down to a walk, keeping her eyes on the sizable, slow-rolling waves washing up to the shoreline.
Be honest Cass. You always thought it was just a matter of time until she couldn' t stand being with him any longer. She scuffed at a piece of driftwood with her foot. And now you know just how committed she is to him, and their family, don' t you? Now you know just how long your wait is going to be. She swallowed, fighting the feeling that she was about to burst into tears.
I' m angry, she realized with a shock, surprised that it had taken her so long to recognize the emotion for what it was. I' ve waited so long. And for what? To watch them be happy together? Don' t I have the right to be happy? Up ahead she could see the captain and Seven standing together. The senior officer held a long fishing rod and seemed to be trying to explain something to the Borg. How much longer do I wait?
The daunting truth sat like a cold stone in the pit of Cass' stomach.
She' s never going to leave him. I' m going to have to wait for him to die. Bile rose up in her throat and a wave of nausea stopped her in her tracks. Great, she thought. All this and sympathetic morning sickness as well. That' s all I need. She swallowed hard and kept on walking, lost in deep and melancholy thought. Have I made a big mistake … staying alone or ...
"Are you unwell, Lt?" The cool clipped tones of the tall Borg brought Cass up short and she turned to meet the intense blue gaze of eyes that matched her own for both color and distinctiveness.
"Seven ... hi ... no, I' m fine. Thanks," Cass said distractedly. Get your head back in the game Lansdown, she berated herself. There will be time enough later to get morose about my life.
The statuesque blonde stood at ease, her hands clasped behind her back. She raised a skeptical eyebrow at the security chief, the only woman on board Voyager who could look her in the eye.
"I do not believe you can possibly be feeling Çfine' , Lt," the Borg said analytically. "Your face is flushed, your pupils are dilated and I believe a more detailed medical examination would reveal that your heart rate is elevated."
Cass put her hands on her hips, irritated that Seven was being as accurate with her observations as ever. "I said I was fine," she replied, letting a touch of annoyance show in her voice.
Captain Kathryn Janeway watched the byplay between her two crew members with amusement. The two women were strikingly similar in many ways. They matched each other in height, though Lansdown was more solidly built. Their eyes were markedly alike; both had long hair, though Seven' s was as white-blonde as Cass' was ebony-black. Seven' s face and left hand were marked by small remnants of the Borg implants which had linked her to the Collective. And both of these women suffer a degree of isolation, thought Janeway. Cass because she chooses it, and Seven because she' s still re-learning how to be human.
Seven had been on board Voyager almost a year after being severed from the Collective during the ship' s encounter with the Borg' s worst enemy, Species 8472. After the Doctor had removed most of the implants that had made Seven a drone, Janeway had felt compelled to take responsibility for the young woman. It had been a rocky road initially but lately the blonde beauty had been responding well to the captain' s maternal interest.
Maternal, my ass, Janeway thought sardonically as she watched Cass and Seven sparring verbally in the blazing sunshine. The Borg was wearing her blue tight-fitting bodysuit and looked as coolly delicious as ever despite the heat. Your interest in her is a long way from maternal, Katie, and it' s about damn time you started admitting it to yourself, if not to her.
"Captain?" Cass repeated herself, realizing her commanding officer hadn' t heard her the first time and in fact was staring at the tall blonde standing next to her. The security chief grinned, recognizing a besotted woman when she saw one. Interesting, she thought. A quick glance at Seven told Cass the young woman was blushing slightly under the redhead' s scrutiny. Verrrrrrrry interesting. "Captain," she said again, this time more forcefully.
Janeway tore her eyes away from Seven, embarrassed to find her two officers had finished their conversation without her even noticing. The Borg raised a clinical eyebrow, the implant around her left eye moving with it.
"I am beginning to think it is Captain Janeway who requires medical attention," Seven said dryly.
Cass snorted. "If I didn' t know better, Seven, I' d be tempted to think that you were displaying a sense of humor," she said.
That earned her a cool blue gaze all to herself.
"I was attempting to explain the concept of fishing," Janeway said, regaining her composure. "Without much success, I might add."
"It seems to be a most inefficient process," Seven said haughtily. "What is the point of expending so much energy to capture a basic food item that any replicator can produce in seconds?"
Janeway and Cass exchanged amused glances.
"Well, apart from being a useful survival skill, many people think that fishing is a sublime form of meditation," said Cass, tongue firmly in cheek.
"Meditation?" Seven' s expression reeked of skepticism.
"Sure," Cass replied. "It' s a quiet, calming pastime. Plus there' s the tactical side of it. Trying to out-think the fish."
"Out-think the fish," Seven repeated scornfully. "Perhaps ... fishing ... should become part of the Starfleet Academy entrance exam."
Both officers roared with laughter at that, provoking the tiniest of smiles from the statuesque blonde.
"We could do a lot worse Seven," said Janeway after she recovered enough to speak. She patted the ex-Borg' s arm affectionately. "Good to see that sense of humor developing nicely."
"The Doctor has told me that using humor can be an effective way to ..." Seven paused, searching for the right phrase. "... Break the ice."
The captain nodded and smiled at her young charge. "He' s right," she replied.
There was a pause while the blonde and her commanding officer exchanged a long look, much to the amusement of Cass.
Something' s definitely afoot, she decided.
"If you will excuse me, Kath- ... Captain," Seven finally said. "I must return to Voyager on the next shuttle to regenerate."
Janeway nodded and the tall blonde turned away, heading back up the beach towards the tree-line and the waiting shuttles.
"You wanted to see me Captain?" Cass asked quietly, happy to see the softening of Janeway' s features as she continued to watch Seven' s retreat.
With a sigh the captain returned her attention to her security chief.
"Yes," she said. "Walk with me a while, Lt." Together they continued north up the long, curving beach. Cass finally gave in to the heat and removed her jacket, tying its arms around her waist as they walked.
"I' m going to talk to one of our replicator programmers, Captain," Cass said casually. "I want to see if we can come up with a security officer' s uniform more suitable for this kind of weather."
"If it can be done without using up too much energy, then I' m all for it," the Captain replied. "Keep me informed on that project."
Janeway laughed. "I think we' re far enough from ship' s protocol to drop the formality, Cass," she said. "Besides what I wanted to talk to you about is more of a personal matter."
Cass wasn' t surprised. Over the last four years she and the Captain had struck up a good working relationship and she knew Janeway had come to trust her judgment and opinions. They had had several working dinners over that time, enjoying each other' s company and discovering a mutual love of the outdoors. Janeway didn' t do much socializing with her crew, for a lot of reasons, but she had a close-knit circle of trusted confidantes, and Cass was very much within it.
And she already had half a clue what this conversation was going to be about.
"What do you think of Seven of Nine?" the captain ventured.
Bingo, thought Cass with a smile. "I' ll be honest with you, Captain, I thought you had bitten off more than any of us could chew when you severed her from the Collective." She met Janeway' s cool grey gaze honestly. "Don't get me wrong, I think you did the right thing for her," she expanded. "I just wasn' t sure I could see how Seven was ever going to find her way amongst humans."
Janeway nodded. She pushed a lock of her auburn hair, now cut in a shorter style that took years off her features, behind her ear.
"I wasn' t sure either," she admitted. "But I' ve been very proud of the way everyone' s pitched in to help her. I know she can be ... abrasive ... at times."
Cass laughed gently. "I think most people recognize that she' s long on intelligence and still a bit short on the social niceties, Captain. Apart from B' elanna' s urge to throw her out of Engineering occasionally, I' m pretty sure everyone is adjusting nicely."
Janeway chuckled. "B' elanna' s temper and Seven' s stubbornness certainly make a unique combination. But it seems to be working. Even the Doctor' s social lessons seem to be sinking in. Who would have thought a hologram would have something to teach a human."
Cass decided to cut to the chase.
"I think she learns the most from you," she said, coming to a halt at a convenient outcropping of rocks. Both women found a comfortable stone to sit on, Janeway brushing some sand from her bare legs before she settled into place.
"I hope so," the commanding officer replied quietly.
Cass watched silently as a variety of emotions crossed Janeway' s face. She recognized that it was taking a big effort for the very private woman to come even this close to sharing her feelings with a junior officer. She' s the most isolated of any of us, Cass thought. Perhaps too much for her own good. She contemplated the confused look on the captain' s face. Maybe I should make this a little easier for her.
"You' re attracted to her," she stated.
A fierce look was her first reply and for a brief moment Cass thought perhaps she had pushed their off-duty relationship a little too far. But almost immediately Janeway' s eyes softened and a smile played across her lips.
"Yes I am," the older woman admitted.
"And that' s a problem?" Cass asked.
Janeway nodded slowly. "Could be. That' s what I wanted to ask your advice about."
For a few moments Cass allowed Lis and Nick' s news to penetrate her conscious mind once more, swallowing the aching lump in her throat with difficulty.
"I' m not sure I' m qualified to give advice on the subject of romance, Captain," she said gruffly, not meeting the older woman' s eyes.
There was a silence while Janeway studied the lost look on her security chief' s face.
"Trouble?" she asked shortly.
The dark-haired woman shook her head quickly, more to clear her thoughts away than to answer in the negative.
"Lis and Nick just told me they' re pregnant," she said, glancing up and smiling wanly at the captain.
"Ah," Janeway responded. It hadn' t taken a rocket scientist to know that Cass still carried a mega-sized torch for the blonde psychologist. She' s isolated herself just like I have, the captain thought as she watched Cass. Different reasons, same result. "I' m sorry. That must hurt."
"Yeah." Cass ran her fingers through her hair and took a deep breath. "I' m starting to wonder if I haven' t made a mistake all these years, keeping everyone at arm' s length. Denying myself a measure of happiness."
Janeway smiled gently. "Interesting. That' s almost exactly what I' ve been thinking about myself," she said.
"I' m sorry, Captain," Cass backtracked. "We' re supposed to be talking about your problems, not mine." She grinned rakishly. "Fire away, oh captain, my captain. I' ll give you my best advice, unreliable as that may be."
"Starfleet captains aren' t supposed to get romantically involved with their crew members," she said. "For many very sound, reasonable, sensible reasons."
"Starfleet captains don' t usually get stranded in the Delta Quadrant with slim prospects of getting home in their lifetime," Cass replied quietly. "And technically, Seven isn' t a member of the crew. She' s certainly not Starfleet."
"Oh, that' s stretching it, Lt, and you know it." The captain laughed, wagging her finger at Cass. She grinned briefly at her security chief' s rationalization. "Seven follows my orders." Cass snorted and Janeway laughed in response. "Most of the time at least. I have authority over her. The Starfleet regulations were written thatway to prevent the abuse of that authority. She' s young and inexperienced to boot. Don' t tell me the possibility for abuse of power isn' t there. Because we both know differently."
Cass folded her arms, stretched out her long legs and studied the tip of her boot for long seconds before she responded.
"There' s an old saying," she finally said. "As goes the captain, so goes the ship."
Janeway nodded, smiling to herself. "In other words, a happy captain makes for a happy ship."
"Mhm." Okay, time to push my luck just a little more, Cass thought. "So," she ventured. "Are you happy, Captain?"
Janeway blew out a long, ragged breath and stood up quickly, pacing around in a small circle, hands on hips.
"Cass, Cass, Cass, Cass, Cass. You certainly know how to cut to the chase, don' t you?" she muttered. Finally she stopped wearing a hole in the sand and stood her ground. A small wave broke and swirled over her feet. "No, I' m not happy, Lt," she admitted. "When we received the transmission from the Federation, including the letter from my fianc" ... ex-fianc" ... telling me he' d moved on with his life and married someone else ... well, I realized I may spend my entire life alone." She smiled sardonically. "I even thought that was okay … appropriate, given my responsibilities. But then ... Seven ... when I' m around Seven ..." She stumbled for the right words.
"You love her," Cass said simply.
Janeway sighed again. "Yes." She placed a hand on her forehead, trying to still her emotions. "But I don' t know that I have any right to ... to ..."
"You have a right to be happy, Captain," Cass cut in. "And so does Seven. Has she given any indication that she feels the same way about you?"
Janeway nodded, disconcerted to find herself blushing. "She has what you might call a crush," she said. "She' s so damn young, Cass. She' s never had an adult relationship. God knows what she must be thinking."
Cass smiled. "Then teach her, Captain. Do what you' ve been doing all along. Talk to her. Explain it to her. Tell her how you feel and what you think the options are." She chuckled at the captain' s skeptical expression. "She may be young in terms of human experience, but she' s a grown woman, with an adult brain, capable of making choices of her own. Give her the chance to make this one."
Janeway looked off in the direction of Seven' s retreat. "I want to ... so much." Cass just grinned, meeting her commanding officer' s steady gaze. "Are you going to take your own advice, Lt?"
The tall security chief shrugged her shoulders. "Unfortunately the woman I' m in love with is very much otherwise engaged," she said quietly. "Whether or not I keep myself isolated this way ..." She shook her head. "I don' t know anymore." She looked up at the captain, blue eyes meeting grey. "They' re happy, y' know?"
Janeway nodded. "I know," she said softly.
"It' s hard to argue with happiness."
"I' d like to try it some time," Janeway answered dryly.
"Now' s as good a time as any."
The two women looked at each other for long seconds before the captain finally nodded slowly in agreement. "Nothing ventured, nothing gained, eh, Lt?"
"Exactly. Why don' t you ..."
Cass was interrupted by a piercing scream from further down the beach that raised the hairs on the back of her neck. At the same time both women' s communicators erupted.
"Morgan to Lansdown!"
"Kim to Janeway!"
Cass and the captain were already sprinting towards the sound of the continued high-pitched howling.
"What' s happening, Ray?" Cass yelled as she pounded across the sand, discarding the jacket that had been tied round her waist.
"Trouble. Big creatures flying in from the south-east. Like a swarm. The scouts are already here." There was crackle on the line that she recognized as Morgan' s phaser firing several shots in quick succession. She looked away to the south-east and gasped at the sight. Hundreds of dark shapes formed a sinister, fast-moving black cloud.
"Get everyone to the shuttles, Ray, fast as you can." Two of the creatures were already over the beach, menacing a group of Starfleet officers. She could see several of her security staff trying to cover the largely unarmed off-duty people, herding them towards the clearing where the shuttles waited.
One of the creatures … a spiny, crablike entity the size of a small shuttle, had skewered a young ensign through the thigh with its pointed, serrated front appendage. The woman bloodily flopped about on the end of the limb and was the source of the screaming.
Cass skidded to a sudden halt and slapped her communicator again. "Ray, forget that! Get the shuttles to the beach. Pronto!"
Janeway caught up to the long-legged security chief. "Kim' s taking out as much of the main swarm as he can," she told Cass breathlessly. "But we can' t risk him firing near the beach."
Cass nodded. "Shuttles are on the way." She pointed west as two of the three craft on standby lifted above the line of trees. The third, she knew, was somewhere between here and Voyager, with Seven of Nine onboard. Janeway apparently thought the same thing at the same time and tapped her communicator.
"Janeway to Delta Flyer."
"We are already returning, Captain," came the cool tones of the ex-Borg.
Cass looked up again and spotted the Flyer swooping in to try and pick off the creatures that were already over the beach. Meanwhile Voyager' s wider phaser beams arced down from the heavens, cutting large swathes through the approaching swarm.
Not fast enough, she thought as she redoubled her efforts to sprint back along the beach. Nowhere near fast enough.
Lis had been in a pleasant half-awake state of drowsiness when the strange low humming intruded into her consciousness. Sprawled on her back with her head resting on her husband' s thigh, she was making the most of the opportunity for some real sunbathing. Mmmmmm, this is such a luxury, she thought as she buried her toes in the damp, warm sand.
"Mhmmmmm?" her husband had replied sleepily.
"Does this tune have another note?"
She slapped his nearby arm gently in lazy exasperation.
"The tune you' re humming, silly," she had answered.
"Lis," he said, blinking one eye open at her. "I' m not humming a tune."
"Okay," she had said happily, content to slide back into her somnolent state. The sound, though, had continued to be there. In fact, it had increased in volume. And there had been another sound under it, a kind of clicking that sounded like ...
Lis' eyes widened and she shot upright. Shading her eyes against the sun, she blinked several times before spotting the dark cloud out to sea.
A dark cloud that sounds like lots of little teeth chattering, Lis realized with a shock. My god, that' s no cloud. They' re insects.
A few of the creatures broke away from the swarm, swooping down towards the beach. Now, at closer range Lis could see they were much bigger than she had first estimated. Much, much bigger.
"Nick," she said hoarsely, reaching back to find her husband.
"Nick, get up."
"Waffor?" he muttered.
"Nick, I' m serious. Get up. We' ve got to get out of here."
The lead ugly had reached the beach, dropping to the sand with an eerie grace that made the hairs on the back of Lis' neck bristle. It skittled toward a group of women who were rapidly backpedaling towards the tree line.
"Why do we have to get of here?" asked Nick sleepily as he finally sat up and opened his eyes, just in time to see the creature impale one of his crewmates through her thigh with one of its front legs. "Holy shit," he muttered.
"That' s pretty much what I was thinking," his wife said as they both scrambled to their feet. "What are they?"
The exobiologist in Nick looked at the creature dispassionately for a few moments, even as the ensign' s screams echoed around them.
"Eight legs, segmented body. So arachnoid in that sense. But an external skeleton like a mollusk. Wings in a hard case, like an insect," he murmured. His eyes widened suddenly. "Who cares what the hell they are? Let' s go." He pushed his wife in the direction of the first shuttle, which had settled to the sand about 200 yards away.
Lis saw Cass and the captain sprinting in from the north and members of the security detail running in from all directions to give the others cover as they made their way back to the shuttles. The Delta Flyer was making passes over the beach, trying to keep more members of the alien swarm from joining their comrades.
Cass ran straight past Lis and Nick, heading for the injured ensign still flailing around on the bug' s serrated claw.
"Get out of here you two," she yelled as she ran past. "Head for the shuttles. Now!"
Lis turned to comply, all the while keeping her eyes on the tall security chief who was firing her phaser at the creature with little noticeable effect on its hard outer shell.
"Cass!" yelled Nick. "Aim for its underbelly. Just under the mouthparts. That' s your best bet for getting past its armor and into its brain."
Cass took a moment to nod in acknowledgement. Then she flicked her phaser setting to its highest mark and charged for the offending creature. The injured crew member had slipped into unconsciousness. Or she' s dead, Cass thought. Either way I' m not leaving her here for that thing.
Yelling at the top of her lungs Cass ran in, diving between the sharp-edged legs and rolling onto her back under the beast' s belly. She raised her weapon and fired a long and deadly blast into what she hoped was its weakest spot. An unholy squealing began and she felt the creature shuddering as it tried to escape the phaser' s heat. Then with a squelching pop the abdomen exploded, scattering ugly remains to the four winds and dolloping globs of green slime all over Cass.
"Oh, for fuck' s sake." She spat crud out of her mouth and wiped her face before slapping her communicator. "Lansdown to Morgan. Ray, aim low … for the underbelly. It' s their weak spot," she yelled.
"Gotcha, boss," he replied breathlessly.
Cass rolled away and ran to the injured woman, where she was joined by the captain.
"Hold her down, Cass," Janeway said, grimacing as she grabbed the piece of bug appendage still embedded in the woman' s thigh. Cass fell across the ensign, holding her still as the captain yanked the leg out. Blood began pouring out of the wound as Cass lifted the comatose officer and hefted her over her shoulder.
She grunted as she pushed herself upright. Come on, Lansdown you can do this, she thought. The captain covered her back as Cass started to run slowly up the beach towards the Delta Flyer which had landed not too far away. Out of breath and sweating by the time she reached the vessel, she was more than happy when Seven swung the door open and pulled the ensign off her shoulder.
"You got something with a bit more kick than a handheld phaser in there, Seven?" Cass panted.
"Yes, Lt," replied the ex-Borg. Once she' d settled the injured ensign inside, she returned with three phaser rifles. One she handed to Cass, one to the captain who had just caught up to them again, and one she hefted herself.
The three senior officers stood in a line surveying the scene spread out on the beach in front of them. The furthest shuttle away from them was lifting off. They could hear the comm traffic between the pilot and Voyager and knew they had a full load of crew on board.
The second shuttle, about 100 yards away from them, was still taking on people. All around them now, creatures were landing, scuttling towards the shuttles even as Voyager' s phasers sliced through the remaining swarm. All three shuttle pilots were making full use of their little vessels' weaponry and Cass flinched as she felt a beam flash over her right shoulder, singeing her hair.
"Incredible," the captain muttered. "Weren' t we all lying in the sun and talking about love just five minutes ago?"
"Captain?" said the startled ex-Borg, giving her commanding officer a quick glance.
Cass snorted. "Just another day in the Delta Quadrant," she replied cynically. "The next time someone suggests we take shore leave on a planet where we can' t use the transporters I' m confining them to the brig for the duration. Come on." She nodded towards the last remaining group, which included B' elanna, Tom, Nick and Lis, Samantha Wildman and her young daughter Naomi. Their route to the second shuttle had been cut off by several of the marauders. "They need some help getting back here," she said, noting the bugs' attempts to surround the group.
They started to run towards the trapped officers, firing as they did so to distract the creatures.
"Lansdown to Morgan."
"Morgan here," replied Cass' deputy, who was the senior officer onboard the second shuttle.
"Have you accounted for everyone?"
"Yes, boss. Everyone but the group between us."
"Okay. Get out of here. Fire off a few more rounds as you go."
"On our way."
Janeway, Cass and Seven formed up in a line and walked determinedly towards the bugs monstering the small group of officers. They fired constantly as they moved; hardly denting the creatures' hard shells, but at least pushing them aside enough till there was a clear path through to the Delta Flyer.
"Let' s go," yelled B' elanna, herding the 20 or so in her group towards safety. One armed security officer and Nick, who had picked up a large piece of driftwood he was swinging like a club, were covering their rear. Tom hoisted young Naomi into his arms and ran with the youngster as hard as he could. Lis helped an injured young woman, half-carrying her.
"Come on, people," shouted the captain, dropping back to help the injured into the shuttle. Seven joined her, bodily throwing one of her smaller crewmates into the Delta Flyer without ceremony. Cass continued forward, joining Nick and the security officer, Charlie Johnson.
"Fall back, Nick," Cass yelled as she fired up into the oncoming wall of bugs that was growing in number as more and more of the swarm joined their buddies on the beach. The exobiologist complied, dropping his piece of driftwood and stepping in behind the covering fire of the two security officers. "Run Nick, before they try to outflank us."
She and Johnson began backing back to the shuttle, keeping the line of bugs at bay with constant fire. She heard rather than saw Nick starting to run away from them, and could also hear the Delta Flyer' s engines firing up. Time to get the hell out of this little piece of Paradise, she thought.
"I' ll tell ya, Charlie, I don' t like the way these bastards are ganging up on us," she muttered to the ensign beside her. "I' m gonna count to three and then we' re gonna turn and run like hell, okay?"
"Yes, ma' am," said Johnson. "No argument from me."
"Okay then," she said, squeezing off several more shots, happy to see the bug in front of her explode as she hit its soft spot. That was a little too close for comfort, she thought as she shook another load of green goop from her face. "Here we go. One ... two ... THREE!"
Lis deposited her injured crewmate into the nearest chair onboard Delta Flyer and then made her way back to the door. Everyone was aboard now and Tom and Seven had taken the pilot' s and co-pilot' s chairs to prepare the shuttle for take-off.
Everyone' s aboard ... Quickly the blonde looked around, searching for the two faces she cared about above all else. Except Nick and Cass, she realized with a jolt of fear.
She joined the captain at the door and sucked in an involuntary breath as she took in the scene 50 yards from the safety of the shuttle. She watched as her husband dropped the piece of wood he' d been wielding and stepped behind Cass and the other security officer. At a word from Cass he started running and Lis found herself holding her breath as she watched him trying to find purchase in the slippery sand.
Within seconds she was aware of Cass and Johnson turning and running towards them as well.
Everything' s moving in slow motion, Lis thought anxiously. Come on, come on. The world telescoped in on her and she was painfully aware of every expression on her husband' s face, on Cass' s face. She could hear Janeway breathing hard next to her, was super-aware of her own heartbeat pounding in her temples. None of this is happening quickly enough. Behind the oncoming officers was a looming dark wall of clicking, hissing bugs, growing by the second.
And then the sunlight disappeared, a huge shadow falling over the shuttle, a dark shape coming between the Flyer and the three stranded Starfleet officers.
"No," Lis whispered.
Nick knew he was in deep trouble. He skidded to a halt as the formidable beast landed between him and the Delta Flyer. He was close enough to smell the strange metallic odor emanating from the bug, close enough to feel what passed for breath, blowing hot and squalid on his skin. He looked up into what the scientist in him deduced was a face - eight glistening, black, pupil-less eyes arranged around a beak-like mouth. Nick could hear Cass and the other security officer running towards him from behind and was vaguely aware of phaser beams lancing past, probing for the creature's weak spots.
For long seconds Nick stared up into the bug's eyes, knowing that these were not mindless animals but intelligent, thinking beings.
It's playing with me, he realized, a cold chill shooting down his spine. Before he could think of what he should do, the creature reached out with a long, swinging front limb, batting the small man sideways, away from the shuttle, back towards the waterline, effectively isolating Nick from his crewmates. Momentarily stunned, he scrambled to his feet, wincing as his body protested about the landing on the hard, wet sand.
Cass watched Nick flying through the air and felt her heart sink.
This isn't just about animals attacking, she thought. This is intelligence torturing a lesser being. Like a cat with a mouse. She and Johnson reached the Delta Flyer, where Lis was being restrained by Seven of Nine, who had a long, strong arm wrapped around the smaller woman. Janeway also stood in the doorway.
Cass took one look at the expression on Lis' face and knew there was only one thing to do. Quickly she pushed the junior security officer in the direction of the shuttle door and began to walk towards the bug which had thrown Nick away from salvation. She hefted the phaser rifle back up onto her shoulder and began firing, pumping salvo after salvo against the bug's hard exoskeleton.
Lis felt like her world had stopped. She couldn' t really see Nick, the bulk of the bug's body hiding her husband from her. Her ex-lover strode confidently forward, anger and defiance radiating off her tall frame as she fired. Lis could hear someone shouting, desperate words filled with anguish, and it took several seconds before she recognized her own voice. She fought against the restraining Borg-enhanced arm around her, struggling to get out of the shuttle.
"Dr Dayton, please do not fight me," came the cool tones of the Borg in her right ear. "There is nothing you can do that Lt Lansdown cannot do faster and more efficiently."
"No, no, I have to go help them," Lis said helplessly. Janeway leaned towards her and took the younger woman's face in her hands, forcefully turning her head until the blonde had no choice but to meet her grey eyes.
"Lis," the commanding officer said forcefully. "Let Cass do her job. There isn' t much time. Soon I'm going to have to order this shuttle to take off. Cass is Nick's best chance out there."
Lis stared blankly at the captain for a few seconds then slowly, silently nodded. She felt Seven's arm relax around her waist and the psychologist turned back to watch Cass' progress towards the bug which had isolated Nick down by the waterline. She was aware of the Delta Flyer's phasers working overtime to hold the rest of the swarm, almost all of which was now on the beach, at bay.
Nick tried an end run around the bug, dodging to the left and then to the right, but the many-legged creature was too fast and too intent on having some fun with him. Each time he tried to move sideways, the bug scuttled to block his move, herding him ever closer to the water. Nick had caught glimpses of the Delta Flyer, Lis' desperate face obvious in the doorway. He knew Cass was advancing towards his position, firing on the creature from behind. He could also see the main mass of bugs getting ever closer to the shuttle, which was at increasing risk of being over-run.
They're in danger because of me, he realized. They would be long gone and safe by now. Desperately he tried to think of a way out of the situation. There isn't anywhere for me to go. He saw phaser blasts ricocheting off the bug's back and watched as it seemed to become increasingly irritated by Cass' attack. She's putting herself at risk for me, Nick thought, surprised despite the amicable relationship he and the security chief had arrived at over the years. I can't let her do that, he suddenly decided. I need her to ...
At that moment a bolt from Cass' phaser rifle hit a particularly sensitive part of the bug's armor and the large creature wheeled on her, momentarily forgetting about the plaything it had found in Nick. Cass stepped back in surprise, but then regained her momentum, firing again as the big creature reared up on its hind legs, threatening her with its front pincers.
"Come on, Nick, now's your chance," she shouted.
On legs that suddenly felt like water, the scientist began to move past the bug, which now seemed intent on ridding itself of the annoying phaser hits. It leaned toward Cass and flicked at her with a leg, catching the security officer in the side and knocking her off her feet.
Cass watched the phaser rifle bounce out of her hands, and felt sharp burning scrapes where the serrations on the creature's leg had penetrated her t-shirt. Desperately she scrabbled across the sand for the rifle but was prevented when the bug pinned her through her calf to the sand. For long agonizing seconds she waited for the fatal blow she was sure was coming, but then the bug let her go, the barbs of its exoskeleton tearing at her flesh as it withdrew. She screwed up her face, determined not to give the creature the satisfaction of hearing her scream, and rolled onto her back.
What she saw gave her chills.
Nick had run between her and the bug when he saw she had been pinned to the ground. Distracted and annoyed by the man, the bug had let Cass go but was now obviously intent on an easier target. Nick shouted and waved at it, trying to take its attention away from the wounded security chief.
"No, Nick, what are you doing? Run!!" Cass shouted. She struggled to her feet and moved towards the scientist, but he pushed her back forcefully, and unbalanced by the wound to her leg, she stumbled backwards.
"Get to the shuttle, Cass," he replied through gritted teeth, maintaining eye contact with the predator in front of him. "It' s only going to let one of us go."
"We can both make it if we start running now," she retorted. "Come on, Nick. The longer we wait the less chance the shuttle has of taking off safely."
Nick thought about that. He thought about his wife and unborn baby and made his decision.
"Let's go then," he said, his eyes still firmly on the bug's face. He took two steps backward and then turned his back on the deadly beast. Cass watched, seeing Nick's brown eyes meet hers. She held his gaze, silently willing him to start running.
But suddenly he stopped and she couldn't work out why. A shrill screaming from behind her, from the shuttle's doorway, told her something awful was happening and only the widening of Nick's eyes gave her a clue. She dropped her gaze down the man's torso, horrified to see a huge, pointed bug pincer protruding from his stomach.
Oh my god, she thought. Oh god, how is he going to survive that? She knew then it was Lis screaming behindher. Oh god, how do I help him? Cass moved forward on instinct alone, watching with horror as blood poured from Nick's stomach and mouth. The bug jerked him around, his helpless body flailing around at the end of the claw like a rag doll. It shoved the man towards her and Cass made a grab for him.
Nick knew he was a dead man. Strangely, he hadn't felt the blow that was killing him. No pain at all, he thought. How odd. He tasted blood; saw it pulsing out of him, around the alien claw that had impaled him. It's almost like it's not my blood, he thought. The world rotated strangely around him as the bug waved him about, but he didn' t fight it. No point now, he thought. I'm just a trophy to it now. The bug brought him back down until his feet dragged along the sand and suddenly Cass was right in front of him. Summoning his last piece of strength he reached out to her, taking handfuls of her t-shirt in his hands and pulling her closer.
"Don't try to move," Cass said. "I'm going to try and pull you off."
"No Cass," he said, his breath coming in awful, gurgling rasps. He knew he was spraying her with blood. "Get ... to ... the shuttle ..."
"I can't leave you," she shouted desperately. "I can't."
"You ... must," he replied.
Back on the shuttle, Janeway had her hands full. Lis was hysterical in Seven's arms and it was taking all the Borg's strength to prevent the blonde psychologist from escaping the vessel.
"Captain!" The shout came from Tom Paris in the pilot's chair. "We have to leave!" he said. "We can't hold them off much longer."
"On my mark, Mr. Paris," the captain replied, wanting desperately to give Cass and Nick as much time as she could. From what she could see though, Nick was in a bad way. Damn it, I don' t want to have to leave either of them, she thought grimly, hating the decision she was going to have to make.
"Cass," she shouted. She saw the security chief glancing back over her shoulder, knew that the dark-haired woman would be aware of how fine they were cutting it.
"Go," rasped Nick, still gripping Cass' t-shirt. The mortally wounded man held her gaze for long seconds. "You ... have to ... look after ... Lis ... and ... the baby," he whispered hoarsely.
The bug had had enough. It jerked Nick again and Cass saw agony in the man's eyes now as the great wound in his belly became even wider.
Cass' eyes filled with helpless tears. "I will, I promise," she replied, hoarsely, recognizing now that there was no hope for the man.
"Go," he screamed and this time she didn' t wait any longer, turning her back on the awful scene and moving towards the shuttle.
"NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO," screamed Lis. "Don't leave him, noooooooooo. Nicholas, noooooooooooo!!!!!!" Seven wrenched the smaller woman away from the door even as Janeway barked at Paris.
"Let's go Tom!" she ordered.
"Aye captain," he replied as his fingers moved across the control panels.
Janeway turned back to watch Cass half-running, half-limping towards the shuttle and she felt the Delta Flyer begin to lift off the sand.
"Come on Cass," she urged, watching the wall of advancing bugs moving within striking distance. "Run!!" The captain felt Seven at her side.
"Help Dr Dayton, Captain," the Borg said calmly. "I will assist Lt. Lansdown." The statuesque blonde leaned out the door, extending her implant-enhanced hand towards the security chief. Their fingers touched and then their palms and then Seven took a firm grip around the dark-haired woman's wrist as the Flyer lifted up off the ground completely.
For long moments Cass dangled under the craft, her only contact the cool, strong fingers of the ex-drone. Then she managed to swing her legs up and around, finding the edge of the doorway and pulling herself up and over into safety. On a shouted word from the captain, Paris gunned the Flyer's engines and they were swooping up and over the marauding horde of bugs.
Cass crawled to the doorway and peeked over the edge. Frustrated by the shuttle's getaway, the bugs now turned their attention to Nick. They surrounded him and then dived upon him. Cass closed her eyes against the sight of the scientist's small body being torn to shreds.
Jesus, Nick, I'm so sorry.
Seven slapped a control panel and the Flyer's door slid shut.
"You are injured, Lt," she said.
"It's nothing," Cass replied bluntly. She pushed herself to her feet and, ignoring the burning pain from her calf muscle, moved towards the awful sound of Lis' grief. The stricken blonde was huddled in the captain's arms.
"Hold her while I find a hypospray of something to calm her down," Janeway muttered. She moved aside so Cass could take her place but Lis was having none of it.
"You left him there," she screamed, pushing Cass away from her. "How could you do that? You LEFT him there." She started beating on the security chief's chest with tightly-clenched fists. Cass tried to pull her close, tried to pin her arms by hugging her tighter but the smaller woman struggled free, pushing back from her. Before the captain could put the hypospray to her neck, Lis pulled her hand back and slapped Cass across the face with a stinging blow.
The hypospray unloaded its dose of sedative and the blonde fell back into her seat, unconscious. Stunned and hurt, Cass moved away, ignoring the sympathetic look from her commanding officer, and the curious ones from Seven of Nine and the other crew members scattered around the shuttle. She stumbled forward, finally finding a seat just behind Tom and B'elanna in the cockpit. She fell into it, resting her elbows on her knees and burying her face in her hands.
It was several seconds before she felt B'elanna move out of her chair and come to crouch by her side.
"You're bleeding, Cassie," her friend said quietly.
"It doesn't matter," mumbled Cass, not caring right now whether she bled dry. How can I argue with Lis? She' s right. I left him there. Could I have reached that rifle if I' d tried just a little bit harder? Did I do everything I could do get him out of there? Did I leave him there to die without doing all I could? She felt B'elanna wrapping a makeshift bandage around her calf and muttered a quiet thank you.
Janeway walked into the cockpit.
"Tom, as soon as we're within transporter range, beam Dr Dayton to sickbay," the captain said softly. She glanced down at Cass' enquiring look. "She's hemorrhaging," she murmured.