Title Graphic by Penumbra

Genre, rating: ST:Voyager slash J/7 (no established relationship, one-shot), rated R (for violence and some smoochies).
Summary, spoilers:
The Voyager crew bumps heads with a society that has more complexity than what was obvious initially -- and as always, politics tend to be a mess. No real spoilers, no references to specific episodes.
Legal yadda
: Characters not mine. Don't intend to keep them, will be returned in original packaging (though I might be tempted to do some indecent things to Seven). Not for profit.
Other words of wise
: Hopefully consistent Brit English spelling, some mild gore, live with 'em. I might also be maiming Trek canon regarding nanoprobes and common understanding of Janeway's mental stability (or lack thereof), but I'm sure you can make the leap of logic.
This story came about an idea I had one day while on the tram, and developed into the epic you see here. I also wanted to explore the idea of a J/7 relationship, but in my way, with no convenient transporter accident, inebriation, or well-timed malfunctioning of the holodeck needing to push them together…and no sudden realisations of how they are soul mates and have been madly, deeply, truly in love for all eternity without either of them clueing in on it before, despite their triple-digit IQs. In other words, a fan fic with no Harlequin novel rip-off romance. Don't know how well I did it, or if it turned out to be less than boring, but I'd love to know. Hint hint.
Thanks to Silent Bard who again infected me with the darned J/7 storytelling bug. With apologies to Iain Banks.

Email: penumbra@clinched.net

| Ch. 1-5 | Ch. 6-9 | Ch. 10- End |

Two, Three, Seven
© Penumbra 2002

Prologue: Setting the Board

The alien ship was a sleek, pale form on Doyen N'vide's screen. She drew a shapely finger along the soft curve of the ship's hull, marvelling at the aesthetic effort that was put into its design.

"Isn't she a beautiful work of art?" the doyen asked no-one particular. She attempted to decipher the necklace of simple, black ideograms running along the front edge of the ellipsoid hull, but they represented no scribe familiar to her.

Her second in command, N'drak, pursed her lips at the idle comment as she eyed the scan data. "It currently houses 135 identifiable life signs, with several variations of the same physiological foundations."

"A multi-species ship?" the doyen interpreted, the before so pleasing curves of the ship suddenly representing something far more sinister than anticipated. The fluidic muscles in her forehead fluctuated through several shapes, a clear sign of her shifting mood.

"It appears so," N'drak replied, unable to keep the mild derision out of her voice. "A few of the life signs represent species known to us, but most are unidentifiable. Also, the technology present in the ship's systems is only partially recognisable."

N'vide rapped all seven fingers of her left hand on the shielding of her command pod, thinking. "What an intriguing vessel. Let's proceed cautiously." Her ship, the finest technology of the Culture, was clearly no more than an even match with the alien ship. A direct assault on the ship would most likely result in severe destruction on both sides -- something N'vide was interested in avoiding.

"I propose Stratagem 284," Assault Officer N'sekth said, and the doyen turned her way, nodding.

"Excellent choice. Make it so."

The first of the cloaked subspace mines was ejected seconds later.

Chapter I: Blur and Oasis

"Ghuy'cha'!" Captain Kathryn Janeway of the USS Voyager exclaimed, surprising herself with the vehemence of the utterance; she usually wasn't one to employ coarse Klingon curses in her on-duty communication. However, she was alone and the object of her considerable ire was an uncaring PADD, so she felt safe indulging in her base nature.

The PADD contained the ship's collected status reports from the past month, and no matter how she had looked at the numbers, they still told the same story every time: Voyager was running on antimatter fumes, shoestrings, and ingenuity only. If they didn't find a way to fulfill their need for various agricultural, organic, and engineering supplies, their travels through the Delta Quadrant would soon come to an ungraceful and grinding halt.

Janeway sighed, throwing the PADD onto her desk, and leaned back in her chair. A compact, tough woman with intelligent blue-grey eyes, she had been specifically selected by Starfleet Command to command Voyager, the pride of their exploration fleet, but no amount of training could have prepared her for the reality that had faced her as they were thrown into the Delta Quadrant. For five years, she had run her ship with the knowledge that should she not utilise her brain to the fullest, they would eventually run out of shoestrings and emergency plans to fall back on. And now, all emergency plans had been utilised and said brain was tired.

She tapped the comm badge on her chest. "Janeway to Chakotay." Her voice sounded rough and tired even to herself.

"Chakotay here," her first officer replied.

"Please join me in my ready room, at your convenience."

A moment later, the door opened with a quiet sound and Commander Chakotay stepped in, having resigned bridge command to Ensign Kim, who was seen behind him moving towards the centre console and the captain's seat. Then the door closed, and there was just the tall, well-toned form of the commander, smiling.

"Let me guess -- the status reports?"

Janeway nodded sagely and indicated with her head for him to sit. He did so, sinking into the chair on the other side of Janeway's desk with a small sigh.

"I'm amazed B'Elanna can keep the ship running with what we have," he said mildly, an ironic smile on his lips. Janeway mirrored the crooked smile, nodding.

"Amazing, indeed. So wh-"

She was cut off by a muffled explosion that rocked the ship violently. Thrown out of her chair, her back collided with the wall of her ready room, but her grunt of pain was drowned out by the combined noise of the Red Alert klaxon and the whine of the inertial dampeners that attempted to restore order to Voyager's inner sense of gravity. Another explosion was heard, and the ship tilted sideways. Janeway caught a brief glimpse of Chakotay being thrown like a rag doll, his head colliding sickeningly with the corner of her desk, before her own head met the floor, hard. Dark spots danced in her eyes.

I need to get those active gravitational restraints installed on my chair here, too, she thought hazily, before lifting herself to a half reclining position, wary of any new disturbances. When peace reigned for a count of five, she tapped her comm badge.

"Ensign Kim, status," she said forcefully, shaking her head to clear it.

"Explosions of undefined origin. We have made an emergency jump from warp to a full stop. Reports are just coming in." His voice was a tad shaky, but strong.

"I'll be right there. Janeway out," she said. Turning with a pained groan, she saw Chakotay's limp form resting in an unnatural position on the floor between his chair and her desk. The sight adrenalised her, and as she ran to Chakotay and turned him over, she saw the profusely bleeding gash in his temple. There was a pulse, but it was weak. "Janeway to the Doctor. To my ready room," she barked.

Almost immediately, the Doctor shimmered into the room. "Please state the nature-"

Janeway cut him off, gesturing towards Chakotay's prone form. "Attend to him. I'll be on the bridge."

As the doctor bent down to examine Chakotay, Janeway rose and, giving her unconscious first officer a parting glance, rushed to the bridge. It was chaotic, but not as bad as it could've been: no severe injuries were present, and while all looked a tad dazed, the actions of her bridge crew were precise and professional.

As she approached the command chair, Ensign Kim rose from it, nodding to her. "I have the conn," Janeway said, sitting down and looking at her ops officer expectantly. "Well?"

"Ensign Leroux?" Kim said in reply, directing his and Janeway's gaze to the young ensign at the tactical station.

"The explosions have no discernible origin…and they left no indication of originating trajectory." The ensign's eyebrows knit together as she studied the readings. "The explosive device appears to be an anti-matter device that was detonated with a proximity trigger."

"A mine?" Janeway translated, her eyes narrowing.

"A disguised mine," Leroux elucidated, her hands flying over her display. "The constitution of the matter/anti-matter dipoles is unknown to our databases. The residue is emitting Berthold radiation that appears not to be harmful to humanoids. From the dissipation rate of the waste, I would estimate the age of the mine to be somewhere between one to six months."

"So it was not laid here for us?" Ensign Kim said, back at his ops console.

"Who knows?" Janeway said, darkly. The idea of having to navigate a minefield did not appeal to her. Her headache exacerbated. "Damage report?"

"Minor hull damage on decks 8 thru 11, nothing much. Engineering reports a damaged battery of dilithium crystals."

"Dammit," Janeway muttered. Her ship was running short of supplies even without any additional help from random troubles.

"Lt. Torres estimates warp speed capability will be restored in approximately six hours, after replacement and re-calibration. Impulse power is available immediately."

"Well, Lieutenant Torres has all the time she needs -- we're not going anywhere until we find out if there are more mines out there," Janeway said, rising. "Get on it, Ensign Kim. I'll be in sickbay. You have the conn."

---

In sickbay, she found Chakotay awake but groggy, gingerly feeling his temple. The dermal regenerator had sealed his head wound but the skin around it was still bruised and red. According to the Doctor, he would have a headache for the coming days.

After sending the commander to his quarters to rest, Janeway turned to the Doctor.

"Well?"

"Nothing much," the Doctor said nonchalantly, brushing off a non-existent fleck of dust from his sleeve as he studied a PADD. "Bruises, minor cuts, a broken leg for Crewman Nolek-" he said, indicating the Vulcan reclining on the one occupied bio bed, "who fell from a Jeffries tube."

"What of the residual Berthold radiation?"

"According to my analysis, it is not harmful to humanoid organisms. It may cause certain deterioration or mutation in some of our semi-organic adaptive systems, but nothing significant. I have briefed engineering on the matter."

"Semi-organic adaptive systems?" Janeway said. A small alarm bell went off in her head.

"The bio-neural gel packs of the data storage system, for example, which consist of gelatinous neural mass interfacing with a circuitry core," the Doctor explained, eyeing the Captain curiously. "Are you getting at something?"

Janeway waved him away and tapped her comm badge. "Janeway to Astrometrics." No reply. "Janeway to Seven of Nine." Still no reply.

"Captain, what…?" the Doctor said, worried.

"Seven. Borg. Semi-organic system," Janeway explained curtly. "Computer, locate Seven of Nine."

"Crewmember Seven of Nine is in Astrometrics laboratory."

"What is her status?"

"Seven of Nine is unconscious. Medical attention is advised," the computer said with a warm, unhurried tone, the words hitting Janeway hard in the gut.

"Doctor-" the captain said, her voice tight.

"I'm on my way," he said and, fingering his portable holo emitter, beamed his matrix straight to the Astrometrics lab. As he shimmered into nothingness, Janeway was already out of the door, running down the corridor towards the nearest turbo lift.

Upon entering the Astrometrics lab, she saw Seven of Nine lying on the floor, her hair and outfit stained by thick, oily, black liquid. The doctor was bent over her, his hands flying over his tricorder. Approaching carefully, her heart in her throat, Janeway kept her eyes on Seven. The dark fluid appeared to be leaking from her remaining Borg implants, and she looked terribly pale.

"Her nanoprobes are rejecting her body," the Doctor said, preparing a hypospray and nodding towards the slowly widening black pool he was standing in. The dark liquid was crawling up his black boots. "I can slow down their retreat, but the radiation needs to be eliminated." He pressed the hypospray on Seven's neck and as it shot the medication into her body, a shiver ran through the prone form.

Janeway bent down to inspect the ocular implant framing the former Borg's left eye. It was covered in the dark, viscous fluid, rivulets of it running to mingle with her pale hair. Tracing the eyebrow piece of the implant, Janeway smudged her own finger in the nanoprobe mass. It tickled her finger as it spread on its own, forming a thin membrane on her skin before extracting itself as it failed to recognise her as a viable host. Wiping her hand clean, Janeway stood up, deeply disturbed.

"Bridge to Janeway." Tuvok's voice came over the comm badge.

"Janeway here," she replied curtly, her eyes never leaving Seven or the Doctor.

"An unknown vessel has decloaked off our port side. They are powering up their weapons banks."

Janeway snapped ramrod straight, her eyes automatically drawn to the wall, as if she could see the new threat through the thick duranium of the outer hull. "Raise shields, go to yellow alert. I'm on my way," she said, turning to the Doctor. "Keep me appraised of her situation, doctor."

"Of course, captain," he replied. As he prepared Seven for an emergency beam to the sickbay, Janeway was already out of the door.

---

"They appear to be detonating mines similar to those we encountered," Tuvok said, his eyebrow twitching as he appraised the sensor data. "The mines have a cloaking device identical to what the ship itself possesses."

"And they have not targeted us?" Janeway asked, regarding the ship on the view screen with a critical eye. Possessing all the shape and grace of a beached whale, the dark grey ship was emitting short bursts of energy to seemingly random spots in space. Each shot resulted in an explosion that, while far away, made Voyager vibrate.

"No, captain. They, however, are hailing us."

"On screen."

The screen flickered to show an interior shot of a spaceship bridge of a very unusual construction. It consisted of a row of narrow, open pods, each inhabited by a bipedal alien and an array of chaotic-looking equipment. In the centre of the screen, the view was dominated by a vaguely humanoid alien with a bland, pale face.

"I am Captain Janeway of the Federation starship Voyager," Janeway began.

As she spoke, to her amazement, the alien on the view screen shifted its shape. Its face acquired the general proportions of the captain herself, all the way to the crown of fiery auburn hair that grew within seconds on the alien's head. It wasn't an exact visual replica of Janeway, but a reasonable facsimile thereof.

"Janeway. Pleased to meet you. I am Doyen N'vide of Culture salvager vessel Sliding Stones." The tone of voice it -- she -- utilised was pleasant, and the phrase formation mirrored Janeway's, even if the voice did not. "We apologise for the inconvenience the mines have posed for you." Her words were punctuated by another distant explosion. "Only a few remain."

"Thank you, Doyen N'vide," Janeway said, taking in stride the strangeness of talking to a replica of oneself. "According to our data, the mines are representative of your technology."

The alien nodded, raising a seven-fingered hand to brush her newly grown hair. The juxtaposition of familiar and alien physiological features was disconcerting to Janeway, to say the least. However, the alien appeared friendly; the shape-shifting gesture was probably a natural reflex for her species, Janeway theorised through her dismay.

"Yes. They are an unfortunate remainder of a local trade skirmish fought some time back in this remote region, and I fear we, the Culture, are not as effective in our cleaning work as we were in waging the conflict," N'vide said and offered what seemed like a strange, lopsided smile.

"Captain," Tuvok broke in. "The vessel is preparing a particle pulse."

On the screen, N'vide turned slightly, to regard Tuvok, and smoothly altered her appearance to resemble the dark-skinned Vulcan. "Yes. The pulse is harmless, designed to neutralise the residual radiation the mines sometimes leave."

"She is correct, captain," Tuvok supplied.

"Proceed, N'drak," N'vide said, her eyes never leaving Tuvok. One of the aliens in the pods behind N'vide nodded in assent.

"The Berthold radiation has been neutralised," Tuvok said after a moment.

N'vide shifted her attention back to Janeway, her appearance shifting fluidly. "Can the Culture be of assistance in repairing any damage that occurred to you?"

"Their technology, while dissimilar, appears to be of about equal level as ours," Ensign Kim supplied from the Ops console. "There should be no major adaptability problems."

"Any assistance that you can offer would be most welcome, Doyen N'vide. However, we are yet to assess the full spectrum of the damages we suffered. We would also be very interested in learning more about your people and your culture," Janeway said smoothly, smiling. The smile was mirrored by the alien, who nodded sagely.

"Receiving streamed information," Tuvok said quietly.

"We will busy ourselves with cleaning up the remaining mine material. Please contact us when you have fully assessed your situation. Sliding Stones out."

The screen switched to show the alien ship floating in space, and Janeway turned to Tuvok. His eyebrow twitched, which was a sign of extreme emoting in him.

"Quite a unique species, captain."

"Quite the understatement, lieutenant," Janeway answered, humoured. "Stand down from yellow alert. While Xenology has a field day, instruct department heads to do damage reports. Command staff meeting in one hour. I'll be in sickbay."

 

Chapter II: It's Always 4 am.

The colour on Seven's cheeks was more encouraging than what it had been before, but her face was still marred by the thick black nanoprobe liquid, matting the hair on her temples. Little of her was visible: most of her body was covered by a thermal blanket, from where a thin assimilation tubule sneaked out to a bag resting on her chest. The bag contained more of the dark liquid.

"She will need some time to re-assimilate the nanoprobe mass she lost, which will aid her recovery considerably. Fortunately I managed to save most of it. Generating the probe mass her body needs would put too much of a strain on her system." The Doctor's voice was quiet as he regarded her biometric readings on his screen. "She will recover fully, as soon as the absorption process is complete," he added, gesturing towards the bag.

Janeway didn't say anything, merely nodded as she stood on the other side of the biobed.

She looks so young and fragile, she thought, her hand reaching out towards Seven's cheek. She did not touch it, merely let her hand hover over the plane of the cheekbone, around the edge of the starburst implant, before letting the hand fall on her side.

"Keep me advised of the situation, Doctor," Janeway said, before departing for her meeting.

---

The staff meeting had been brief, but for a reason: there was no debate, they desperately needed help. Especially B'Elanna had been adamant about it, reminding that it was a matter of weeks, not months, before she would run out of necessary parts and materials to run the ship's power source. The aliens they had encountered seemed hospitable enough and willing to help them at their hour of need.

The Culture. An unusual name for an unusual species, if it indeed was their species name. The data they had sent had been a work of art in brevity, explaining the bare bones of their societal structure, but little of their unique physiology or cultural history. They appeared to have a long history of trading partnerships, some violent, some continuing in peace through hundreds of years; in Janeway's opinion, such a history often spoke of deep understanding of the value of mutually beneficial relationships. So, it had been decided that come morning, they would contact N'vide and Sliding Stones to begin negotiations.

At that moment, however, Captain Janeway was in her quarters, slouched comfortably if haphazardly on her sofa. A scattering of PADDs littered her immediate environs, a few even resting on her stomach, but she was more focused on the glass of wine in her hand than the information technology surrounding her. The cool light of the stars outside made the gloriously rich colour of the wine shimmer, as if it was liquid rubies she had chosen as her beverage, not merely replicated Château Picard 2048. Sniffing the wine appreciatively, she sipped it, savouring the aroma. Pushing the PADDs off her onto the floor with a clatter, she slid down and focused on the immobile stars outside.

They were an alien star field, nothing like the nightly sky she had learned to read by heart on Earth when she was young and wanted nothing out of life but to meet the stars, become intimately acquainted with the heavens. And here she was, at the far end of heaven.

The wine had made her mood melancholy. She was thinking of Earth, not longingly, merely wistfully; she had accepted the very likely possibility that the Delta Quadrant might be her home till the day she died. That acceptance had been long in coming, and while it did nothing to ablate her determination to see the familiar star patterns of the sky on Earth once more, it did remove the immediacy of the need. Getting home was not the sole priority in her life any more. Experiencing what this unknown quadrant had to offer, making sure her crew did not forget how to live life in the present while on their quest to find a way home, cultivating the relationships they had on this ship instead of pining for those that were left behind, those were her new priorities.

Speaking of cultivating relationships… Reaching down to the PADDs on the floor, Janeway fished her comm badge from underneath the unruly pile. "Janeway to Seven of Nine."

"Seven of Nine," came the cool reply.

"How are you feeling?"

"I…have recovered fully and am currently reviewing the data gathered during our encounter earlier today." Her voice was a bit uncertain, as if she didn't know how to take the Captain's personal interest in her well-being.

"Would you be willing to share a late-night snack with me? I have a few things I wish to discuss regarding the Culture."

"Of course, captain. I will be there momentarily."

Only when she signed off did Janeway notice the mess her quarters were in. "Ah, damn," she mumbled, set the wine glass on the sofa table and stood up, looking around. Stacking the PADDs on a small side table in haphazard towers, she proceeded to make a half-hearted attempt at tidying up, before giving up and heading for the replicator.

"So, what shall it be?" she thought aloud, nibbling on her lower lip.

"Would you like to have nutritional suggestions?" the replicator asked kindly.

"No, thank you," Janeway said firmly. If given half the chance, the replicator would have squandered her ration slips on something healthy and quite unsuitable for the purpose of indulgent munching. "I'll have…chocolate chip cookies and cold milk."

As the requested items materialised, the door chime sounded.

"Come," Janeway said as she carried the food to the sofa table. "Computer, lights up to two-thirds."

As the room brightened, Janeway turned to see Seven of Nine step in and stop by the door, her hands clasped behind her back. "Captain." Her voice was precise and neutral, but her eyes showed curiosity as they regarded Janeway. It took Janeway a moment to understand why: Seven rarely saw her in her off-duty clothing that consisted mostly of loose trousers and shirts.

"Seven," she said self-consciously. She could feel the reservation radiate from the young woman, but she had learned to regard it merely as a protective outer shell, which one must try to get through in conversation. "Sit down, have a cookie," she added, injecting warmth to her voice.

As Seven gingerly seated herself and sampled one of the cookies, Janeway settled back on the sofa. Regarding her companion quietly as she processed the experience of eating cookies, Janeway sipped her milk, letting Seven take her time.

"Interesting," Seven commented, still sitting upright, but her reserved air somewhat diminished. "Does this form of nutritional supplement have a particular history?"

"Why do you think it would?" Janeway asked softly.

Seven turned to regard her, tilting her head slightly. "I am merely assuming there is a reason why you chose it over all the other choices available," Seven said. She leaned gingerly against the backrest of the chair.

Janeway smiled and set her milk glass on the table. "Yes, there is a story to it, but I'll tell it to you some other day."

"You wished to discuss Species 2888?"

"Yes, the Culture," Janeway said, finding Seven's nonsensical, abrupt approach to conversing somewhat humorous -- from cookies to aliens in less than two seconds. "At your leisure," Janeway said, nodding as she pulled her legs under herself on the sofa.

---

"…in fact, three separate species, 2888, 2889, and 2891, of which only 2889 and 2891 can be fully assimilated due to the mutable physiological characteristics of Species 2888. The species distinction arises from actively practised genetic manipulation; procreation is possible only through artificial means, which has resulted in all the species to have only one gender. The species genetic separation is mirrored by societal customs which…"

As Seven delivered her dispassionate monologue, Janeway was listening with only half an ear. All that wine did me no good, she chided herself. More and more of her attention drifted from Seven's words to contemplate on her modulated, even voice, and on Seven herself.

During her life and career, Kathryn Janeway had met and known the full spectrum of humanity and that of several alien races, and thought herself as well-versed in studying people. But Seven…there was something about her that defied categorisation in a way she had not encountered before. Brilliantly intelligent, yet lacking in wisdom; not a girl, yet not quite a woman; calm, yet arrogant.

Human, yet Borg.

"…which results in incompatibility with Borg cybernetics. We…" Seven trailed off as she turned and found the captain staring at her, the expression on her face cryptic. "Captain?"

Snapping out of her reverie, Janeway laughed ruefully. "Sorry, Seven. I got distracted."

"So I noticed," Seven replied, her eyebrows knitting. She was obviously peeved at Janeway's wandering attention. "What, may I ask, distracted you so?"

Janeway dodged the question by sipping her milk and decided to ask a question of her own - she had many to choose from, given the unpredictable and enigmatic nature of the young woman before her. She made a random selection. "Tell me, Seven, do you find it lonely to be so unique?"

Seven's mouth opened in reply, but no sound came out. Closing her jaw, she regarded the captain intently, before trying again. "Captain-"

"Kathryn. Please." Janeway had to keep reminding Seven that she refused to be 'Captain Janeway' during her off-hours.

"Kathryn. I am uncertain of the meaning of your question. Can you please elaborate?"

"Well, I…" Janeway paused, searching for the right words. "As far as I know, you are the only Borg in existence who has been rehabilitated into her native culture. Thus, unique. I'm curious, what does this condition represent to you?" She was surprised she could articulate her thoughts so well, given the late hour, the consumed alcohol, and her considerable state of tiredness.

Seven relaxed minutely against the backrest, her hands folded neatly in her lap as she regarded Janeway intently. Her lips pursed in thought. "I would characterise my state of existence as 'lonely', but I fail to see such solitude as a necessarily negative aspect of my life here on Voyager, as you seem to imply with your choice of words."

"Hm." Janeway thought to disagree on the acceptability of loneliness, but thought better of it -- it was her own cultural bias, after all. "So what you do for fun, then?"

Seven tilted her head. "I find mathematics a fascinating form of 'entertainment'. Lately, optimising the stabilising coefficients in my Borg encryption formulae with the interest of assimilating that technology to Voyager's have occupied my free time. But…"

"Yes?" Janeway prompted.

"I find I function less efficiently as a singular identity than as a part of the Borg Collective."

Janeway didn't quite know how to reply to that, so instead, she settled on a sigh and downed the rest of her milk. Stealing a longing glance towards the replicator which could produce her another glass of that semi-decent wine in no time at all, she focused back on Seven. "Seven, I'm sorry you feel that you have merely lost, not gained, something. Voyager is, in a way, your Collective now."

"Correct. However, it is inferior to the Borg in its lack of immediacy and intimacy."

Janeway smiled ruefully at Seven's choice of words, uttered matter-of-factly as they were. She was not one to appreciate intimacy of the Borg variety. However, Janeway could certainly see how unquestioning adherence to only one line of thinking could be comforting, as insulting as such a thought was to her well-developed sense of individuality.

Seven's choice of words inadvertently started another line of thought in Janeway. Intimacy. She had stopped counting the number of her crewmen that had gazed at Seven in a carnal manner -- under their brows, outright when they thought no-one was looking, or unconsciously projecting their thoughts at inopportune moments. Their eyes greedily devoured every inch of Seven's body, its curves made tantalising still by the contour-forming suit she wore which revealed more than it hid. Seven herself seemed oblivious to the gazes, to the point where she was regarded as an ice queen, but Janeway couldn't help but admit that her blood boiled because of the undressing gazes. Lust as a sole motive for initiating personal contact was not acceptable.

She, the captain, had even caught herself one or two times with such speculative gazes. Appalled at herself at first, she had come to realise it was merely a natural response to the tangible sense of femininity that Seven's physiology projected. Or, in a word, Seven of Nine, former Tertiary Adjunct of Unimatrix 01, was exquisite. And perfect, Janeway added in her mind, keeping her eyes consciously fixed on the optical implant on Seven's brow.

As if sensing Janeway's trail of thought, Seven continued evenly: "While I am aware that some crew members would like to pursue a relationship of greater intimacy with me, I have not yet felt the need to indulge any of them in that regard."

"Why not?" Janeway asked immediately, before she could stop herself. She was not quite sure she wanted to know the answer to that particular question.

"Because, according to my research, any relationship of such nature must be founded on a mutual need."

Mirroring Seven's raised eyebrow, Janeway replied: "Yes." Her voice was warm but tinged with sadness, for she appreciated Seven's dilemma: her outer appearance made it difficult for anyone to approach her with motives devoid of lust or jealousy, which made cultivating even simple friendships difficult. Add to that the onus of being formerly of the Borg, and it was plain to see why Seven could accurately describe herself as 'lonely', regardless of the connotations of the word.

"So until I see it suitable to engage in such personal relationships, I believe you shall remain my only friend, Kathryn," Seven added, more softly. Her eyes, coloured the pale blue of Arctic ice, shone in the semi-darkness of the room, gazing enigmatically at Janeway.

"I…well, I can't really argue with your logic, Seven," Janeway said, instinctively reaching out to place her hand on Seven's. The metal of the Borg implants on the hand was warm and smooth, like polished stone left out in the sun. "But I value that you can call me a friend."

"I fail to see what other designation would be more accurate," Seven said, her hand twitching minutely under Janeway's. The captain pulled her hand away, reluctantly, not yet really certain of how Seven perceived physical contact not initiated by her. One more thing to discuss, then. A yawn punctuated her thought. But not tonight.

At the captain's yawn, Seven glanced at the wall chronometer pointedly, although Janeway knew accessing her internal clock was all she would've needed to make note of the time. Momentarily admiring the subtlety of the gesture -- she really has been paying attention to human behaviour -- Janeway nodded at the unsaid observation. "Tomorrow will be long day."

"Good night, Kathryn," Seven said, standing up and exiting her quarters, but not without a glance back at the last moment before the doors closed. The half a smile on Seven's face seemed almost relaxed, if sad.

"Good night, my dear," Janeway whispered to the empty room. For some reason, her soul held a warm, content feeling.

 

Chapter III: Into the Deep Unknown

Even before the computer had finished its announcement on the completeness of her regeneration cycle, Seven had detached herself from the Borg alcove in Cargo Bay Two, and was on her way towards her work area. After a detour via a sonic shower lasting exactly 15.9 seconds and the replication of a new outfit, she busied herself by reviewing her notes on the species they would encounter that day.

It was then that the doors to the cargo bay opened. From the corner of her eye, Seven spied a member of the engineering team, standing in the doorway looking uncertain. "Ensign Costas, may I be of assistance?" she asked, without taking her eyes off the stream of data on her screen.

"Uh, our power usage data show fluctuations in the power supply of your…" the ensign trailed off as he gestured towards the far wall. Darkly handsome, he was attempting futilely to make his stocky frame as small as possible.

"My regeneration alcove?" Seven said, puzzled. "I have detected no fluctuations."

Ensign Costas, somewhat emboldened, stepped in and approached the alcove, giving Seven a wide berth. "Nevertheless, I would like to run some tests, to see where the fluctuations originate." His eyes darted between the dark alcove and Seven. "If that's OK with you?"

Seven nodded gravely. "Proceed," she said, focusing again on the data on Species 2888 she was viewing. Costas bent down gingerly near the power couplings of the alcove and began his work; Seven spared only passing looks his way.

Seven found it curious that she should evoke such a myriad of emotions in Voyager's crew. Hatred, lust, and now fear. She was superficially aware of the long human tradition to first judge people by their outer appearance -- a superbly flawed method of assessment if Seven ever saw any -- but she was somewhat at loss on what she could do to dispel such notions of her. Humans are immensely difficult, she thought, fleetingly wishing to be back at the Collective where everything was uncomplicated and shared, before she reminded herself with the captain's words that her personal journey here on Voyager was a greater challenge than any she could have faced as a drone.

She agreed with Captain Janeway wholeheartedly on that subject. Seven had come to relish challenges, be they of logical or more importantly, of the immensely more complex human kind. Not that her fascination of humanity surprised her, the human brain being by far one of the most complex constructs in existence; understanding it was the greatest challenge of all. Compared to the workings of humanoid societies, the universe was but a collection of simple mathematical relationships. The true nature of humanity seemed to exist without any sort of laws governing its behaviour, a far more intricate collection of dynamics than any she had ever witnessed before. Being Borg had not been challenging, merely…efficient, a distinction Captain Janeway often reminded her about.

The thought of the captain made a faint memory tug at her conscious mind. Something she had seen -- dreamed, even? -- during her last regeneration period. Intriguing, Seven thought, pausing the data stream to focus her thoughts on the possibility of dreaming -- a concept she was familiar with in theory, albeit not in practice. Or I have not been, before. Fascinating. Humanity does come with variance of great quantity.

Still deep in thought, she paced quietly around the data console to crouch next to the ensign, to investigate the power coupling he was occupying himself with. He instinctively shrank back.

"Relax, Ensign Costas. I do not 'bite'," she said, focusing on the machinery.

That earned her a muffled sound of surprise from the ensign, who still wouldn't come too close, but appeared minutely more relaxed.

"Have you located the source of the fluctuations?"

"The phase variance between our power systems and the field generator in the alcove do not match exactly. I was re-calibrating the coupling, and it should be fixed now," Costas replied, tapping his tricorder.

Seven eyed the tricorder data. "Yes. Off by point-six microseconds. Thank you, ensign."

"You're welcome," he replied and straightened quickly. "If there isn't anything else…?"

Seven straightened, grasping her hands behind her back. "Nothing at this time."

Ensign Costas fled the Cargo Bay, leaving Seven behind to watch the massive duranium double doors with a quizzical expression on her face, before turning to regard her alcove contemplatively, a thought forming in her mind.

"Computer," she said after a while. The computer dutifully answered with a sound indicating it was ready to receive a request. "Cross-index Federation databases for 'life support power fluctuations' with 'aberrant mental imagery', sort by proximity."

"Processing, please wait," the computer replied pleasantly.

---

It seemed that Doyen N'vide, who had insisted she personally come aboard Voyager to conduct negotiations, had settled on looking like Captain Janeway.

Their scans had suggested that the Culture's shape-shifting ability was both autonomous and controllable, like breathing in humans; they assumed the shape of whoever they talked to, but could also stay in one form when they chose to do so. The shape-shifting was accomplished with a combination of extremely malleable musculature and adaptable tissue, the latter of which had proved to be impossible for the Borg technology to mesh with. Or, in Seven's words, species 2888 had "undesirably acclimatising physiology."

For Janeway, it was, mildly put, disconcerting. Since she was the one doing most of the talking, N'vide had apparently chosen to stick with Janeway's appearance. The replica of her, sitting across the table, had become more and more identical to her as they talked and N'vide had picked up more and more of the captain's nuances. As a special touch, the appendages of the Culture people were somewhat mutable: Janeway had been shocked to observe that N'vide had adjusted her hands so that two of her fingers were constantly bent and hidden in her palms, making her digit count mirror the Human standard.

There was a promise of a headache developing at Janeway's left temple.

"Of course, we would be delighted to exchange information regarding stellar cartography," Janeway said to N'vide, who nodded sagely, giving a brief look to Chakotay who was sitting next to the real Janeway.

"Since the trade dispute, the Culture have been woefully neglect in acquiring new trading partners. Your information on the species you have encountered will be very useful," N'vide said.

"Yes, I believe the arrangement will be mutually beneficial," Janeway said, smiling. In addition to much-needed supplies, the Culture possessed a wealth of information on some nearby regions of the Delta Quadrant they would need to go through in order to reach Alpha Quadrant.

"The journey to the Culture core systems will take no more than two of your days, even with your incapacitated engines. By then, our repair crews will have constructed most of the parts you need." This from N'drak; to make things more confusing, N'vide had brought her first officer aboard. She had also immediately assumed Janeway's shape and form.

Janeway bowed her head to the twin copies of her, acknowledging the generous offer with gratitude.

"We also hope you will send a delegation to meet our governing body. It is not often the Culture get visitors from so far away."

Janeway could certainly see the ghost of a smile on N'vide's -- her own -- lips, and she mirrored it. "To pass the journey, I would be honoured to invite you and your command staff to my ship for dinner tomorrow evening. I'm sure we have many an entertaining space story to exchange," Janeway countered.

"Certainly," N'vide said, nodding.

The Culture envoys rose from the table, immediately flanked by their two escorts who had, thankfully, retained their original form, as fluidly changing as it was. Janeway was sure one could get nauseous by just watching their facial muscles undulate as they breathed.

"It has been a pleasure, Captain Janeway."

Janeway nodded. "Likewise. Commander Chakotay will see you to your shuttle. Chakotay?"

He nodded, gesturing towards the door. Janeway noted with admiration that her First Officer didn't bat an eyelid when the two Culture envoys immediately morphed into his general likeness.

When the door closed behind them, Janeway turned to Tuvok, who had been monitoring the negotiations from an unobtrusive distance. "Command staff meeting as soon as Chakotay returns."

---

"Risk assessment, Tuvok?"

On Janeway's words, the security chief keyed off the schematic of the alien ship on the conference room screen, replacing it with a general overview of the Culture core systems. The highlighted planetary cluster consisted of several planets around a system of twin stars, the configuration allowing for some very original planetary movement.

"In a nutshell, please," Janeway added. The hour was late, and she was in no mood for excruciatingly detailed security analyses. Tuvok turned briefly towards her, lifting an evocative eyebrow.

"Briefly, from the limited information we have, the Culture seem to possess technology and information we are in great need of. So while there remains some risks," Tuvok said in his clear, modulated tones, indicating the schematic which showed several heavily fortified planes and moons, "they are acceptable given the grave circumstances regarding our supplies."

"The Culture do seem friendly," Chakotay offered, his hands resting on the table in front of him.

Janeway nodded. "Yes. Also, given their overwhelming numbers, it is unlikely they would regard us as a potential threat."

"Or worthy of exploitation," Tuvok added. "Their technology, while different, is roughly equal to ours, and their society is based on trade, not on unilateral acquisition."

"All right, then," Janeway said, placing her palms on the gleaming table and leaning forward. She still felt vaguely uneasy, for she knew she was taking a calculated chance based on possibly too little information…but it couldn't be helped. When she spoke, there was faint irony in her voice. "It is settled -- we will put our faith in them. Dismissed."

 

Chapter IV: It Never Rains in Space

Janeway set B'Elanna's report down and rubbed her temples, wishing it wasn't as early in the morning as it felt. It was cosmic irony that they had successfully regained warp capability, only to have B'Elanna inform her that their damaged dilithium containment units would allow them to travel only a handful of light years. The Culture were a godsend, despite the explosive way with which Voyager had made first contact with their technology.

Feeling restless and apprehensive for some reason, Janeway stood up, tugging at the hem of her tunic to settle it straight. "I'll be in my ready room."

"Yes, captain," Chakotay murmured smoothly. "Ah, before you go?"

Janeway turned back towards her darkly handsome first officer. "Yes?" she asked.

He flashed a smile. "Would you like to join me for a game of Velocity before our dinner with the Culture envoys tonight? It's been a while."

Janeway paused, thinking. "So it has. It's a deal, commander" she said and answered his smile in kind, before turning around and heading for the ready room.

As soon as she entered her private sanctum, Janeway made a beeline for the replicator, requesting hot coffee, black. As usual, the replicator delivered a lukewarm concoction that resembled coffee only in texture, while the taste was more reminiscent of engine lubricant. Janeway grimaced and gulped the drink down quickly, needing the caffeine more than the taste of coffee per se.

"Brr," she said and shivered as she set the empty cup down. "I need to start making my own coffee again."

Sitting down at her desk, Janeway leaned back and twined her fingers over her stomach, regarding the stacks of PADDs on the desk with a deflating mood. New inventory reports, crew assessments, all the bureaucracy it took to keep a Federation starship up and running. Janeway sometimes wondered why she bothered. Starfleet was tens of thousands of light years away; it was not like they could send an auditor to complain about missing personnel evaluations.

"Ah well," she grunted and reached for the topmost PADD on one of the stacks. She always had the internal debate about the need for such extensive paperwork when she needed to engage in it, but she did want to run her ship like a proper Starfleet vessel. Work didn't get done by fretting about it.

---

Muffling a curse and attempting not to appear as if she was running -- when in fact she almost was -- Janeway hurried down the corridor, wiping sweat off her brow. Her Velocity match with Chakotay had drawn into overtime, and while she had won, the additional round had cut considerably into the time for her preparations for the dinner with the Culture envoys. Of course, Chakotay was also attending but since he did not have to worry about hair or make-up, he had been in no hurry whatsoever. As she dodged crew members in the corridor, Janeway momentarily entertained the thought of adopting a buzzcut, but discarded the idea as highly unattractive.

A quick shower and other ablutions later, Janeway glanced at the chronometer in her bathroom as she was attaching the pips to her uniform. Damn. Memo to myself. Don't overindulge the competitive streak. It gets you into trouble.

As if on cue, Chakotay's voice came from her communicator. "Chakotay to Janeway."

"Yes, commander?" she said, snapping the final pip to its place.

"The shuttle bringing the Culture representatives has just landed. I'll be escorting them to the conference room."

"Very good, I'll meet you there. Janeway out," she snapped and hurried out of the door.

She got to the conference room just in time to exchange a few words with her command staff, before the door slid open to admit Chakotay, trailed by four members of the Culture. "Doyen N'vide, pleased to meet you again," Janeway said politely to their leader, not even blinking when she smoothly shape-shifted into Janeway's resemblance.

"Captain Janeway. Thank you for your kind invitation," N'vide replied, nodding. "I have transmitted your list of requests to Culture prime, and our political leadership has agreed to the trade of information against the parts."

"Very good," Janeway said and offered a smile. There was something bothersome about N'vide's tone, as polite as her words were. Janeway shook her head, chalking it up to the strangeness of having one's own mirror image talk back in an unfamiliar voice. "Would you please join me?" Janeway said, gesturing towards the table which was set for dinner.

While it was obvious the Culture were on alien territory at the dinner table, Janeway noted that their guests had obviously studied the cultural information Voyager had sent to them. Their use of utensils was innovative, to say the least, but as table companions, they were polite and deferential. She was glad; too many times in the past diplomatic dinners had been more than awkward, as two sets of cultural traditions clashed unexpectedly. As she let her gaze roam across the table, Janeway observed several of her command staff members deep in conversation with the envoys, filling the air with a pleasant cacophony of voices. Tuvok and Chakotay had engaged one of the aliens into what looked like a discussion on tactical manoeuvres, while at the other end of the table Seven was holding an intense conversation with the doyen's first in command, N'drak, as observed by an amused-looking B'Elanna. The chief engineer caught Janeway's eye across the table and nodded towards Seven, rolling her eyes in a manner that made Janeway hide her smile into a sip of wine.

"Captain Janeway."

Janeway turned towards N'vide, smiling. "Are you enjoying yourself, Doyen?"

"Very much so," the alien said, smiling in return. It was definitely not Janeway's smile even though it was her face. "I have always found meeting new travellers refreshing. New ideas, new customs, new tastes," N'vide said, gesturing towards her empty plate. "You have an interesting collection of individuals aboard your vessel."

"Yes, I guess I do," Janeway replied, tilting her head. "Most of them hand-picked by me," she added, instinctively glancing at Seven.

"Even her?" N'vide asked, softly, as she noticed the direction of Janeway's gaze. The alien nodded towards the Borg. "She is...unusual for your species."

"Why do you say so?"

N'vide took a sip of her drink, eyeing the milky content of the glass appreciatively. "I merely mean that it's not often my second in command meets someone who surpasses her in knowledge when it comes to matters of physical phenomena."

Janeway nodded, deep in thought. The feeling of something bothering her about N'vide came back, prompted by the obviously evasive answer. It was as if there was a piece of the Culture puzzle missing.

"It is as rare as my people meeting voyagers such as you who appreciate partnerships and the art of trading," N'vide added.

Janeway was almost tempted to make a comment about the Ferengi. Instead, she settled on a polite nod and a smile, steering the conversation to more neutral topics. It stayed there through the rather enjoyable evening

---

At the late hour, the lights of the corridor were dimmed for Gamma shift. Few crew members were up and about, so Janeway had the entire length of the corridor to herself. She had just escorted the Culture envoys off to their shuttle and felt the need for some quiet time to clear her head. The route she was taking was not the most direct one from the shuttle bay to her quarters, not by a mile, but she had felt that a stroll would do the trick. She could feel the earlier Velocity match in her muscles, too, and they definitely needed stretching.

It had been nice to catch up with Chakotay during the game, sharing old jokes and humorous taunts, Janeway mused. Their long acquaintance had long since progressed to a close friendship where, she was sure, Chakotay would be ready to take the next logical step. She, however, was not, even though she didn't know exactly why. He was a good man, handsome in a traditional sort of way, but something just didn't feel right. She lacked the desire to pursue him as a romantic interest -- in fact, the mere thought of such an act made Janeway roll her eyes as she rounded a corner.

"Nope, not gonna happen," she muttered, to the startlement of a passing ensign. Janeway didn't even notice him as she continued down the corridor.

So, nix on Chakotay, Janeway thought, and deflated somewhat to note that he was the full extent of her mental tally on suitors. Being a captain was indeed an onus she sometimes regretted having. Not only did it make her nearly unapproachable when it came to personal liaisons, Starfleet also had its word to say about the captain dating crew members.

"Fuck Starfleet," she said out loud. Startled by her own words, Janeway stopped and glanced behind her, to see if someone had heard her brief oath. Relieved to find the corridor deserted, she resumed walking, clasping her hands behind her.

Well, Katie, you have come a long way, she told herself, a smile twitching on her lips. Four years ago, she would not have combined Starfleet with such a crude expletive, but it seemed being stuck in the Delta Quadrant had had a cumulative effect on her respect for regulations that didn't make sense. And cussing the regulations is not the only thing that has come out of it, she added in her mind. It had been a long transition from being a captain all the way, all the time, to being just Kathryn Janeway on occasion. No pips attached to her collar, no need to put the interests of the ship always first…she had a budding need to sometimes just think for herself. To be selfish.

Analysing the root cause for her sudden need to be an individual away from Starfleet, Janeway came to no immediate conclusions, which frustrated her. There was certainly a hollow inside her that no amount of Starfleet regulations, work, or adventure could fill, but she could not put her finger on what exactly she was lacking. Personal fulfilment of some sort, certainly. A relationship? She mentally attempted to place Chakotay into the hollow space in her, unsurprisingly finding that he would not fit at all. But it was certainly a person-sized hole which she yearned to fill, she realised.

Great, Janeway thought wryly. Get a glass of wine into me, turn down the lights, and I get an immediate need to acquire a bed warmer. She paused at an intersection, sighed, and leaned her back against the wall, feeling the cool metal through her uniform. She gently banged the back of her head against the black display panel on the wall, repeatedly, until she felt good enough to stop.

So, back on track. Who would I date? she asked herself, presenting her logical mind a mental conjecture of daunting proportions. And more importantly, who would date me? The added thought made her smile crookedly. She knew the power her position held, and how it intimidated the heck out of most people; anyone she would be liable to approach with a romance in mind would probably wet themselves in fear of spending time alone with her. There simply wasn't anyone who could possibly regard her as just Kathryn and not as Captain Janeway.

Except for one person.

She banged her head against the wall again, harder this time. To say that her feelings regarding Seven were complex was to make the understatement of the century. From scientific curiosity to…what? When she had severed Seven from the collective, the deed had been little but an altruistic act to claim back one of her own from a fate she considered worse than death. Little had she known the loop that decision had taken Voyager, let alone herself personally. She had gained a frustratingly obstinate and self-possessed but irreplaceable crew member, a friend, a capable and brilliant science officer -- would it be fair to Seven to demand anything more of her?

Well, it's not like she's not capable of making her own mind, Janeway reminded herself. Seven certainly possessed that something that she had found Chakotay lacking in, that something that translated to intrigue and attraction in her, Janeway concluded as she ruthlessly analysed herself. It made her seek out Seven's company and enjoy it, to an extent Janeway had not experienced with another person since their departure from the Alpha Quadrant. It had been too long since she had been in a relationship to remember what it felt like to love someone, or be in love with someone, but Seven certainly presented potential, if Janeway could read herself right.

Would the former Borg fully understand the concept of dating, or embrace the thought of having that sort of interaction with Janeway, given their sometimes antagonistic working relationship? In other words, would she turn Janeway down? Would she be taking advantage of Seven…or would Seven take advantage of her?

"Only one way to find out," Janeway muttered to herself and gave the wall another head butt before detaching herself from it. "Here goes nothing."

The nearest turbo lift was just around the corner, and as Janeway stepped in, she said curtly: "Deck eight." As the lift began its descent, to her consternation Janeway found that she had butterflies in her stomach. They stayed there for the entire journey to Cargo Bay Two.

As the cargo bay doors opened, Janeway wished fleetingly that they wouldn't make such a racket. The thought was immediately forgotten, however, as she stepped in and spotted Seven behind her work console. The Borg paused as she heard the doors and turned to face Janeway. One of her eyebrows was cocked in a silent question.

"Seven, it's past midnight. Why are you still working?"

"I was analysing the telemetry data of the black hole cluster we passed a month ago," Seven replied evenly. She was still dressed in the charcoal outfit she had worn for the dinner.

"In other words, you didn't feel like sleeping either," Janeway murmured, humoured, and came to stand on the other side of the console, leaning against the edge with her forearms. She knew she was stalling, but couldn't help it. Already, her heart was hammering as if it wanted to burst out of her chest.

"Are you suggesting I was engaging in an act of procrastination, captain?"

Janeway smiled briefly. "Yes, I guess I am. And it’s Kathryn."

Seven's eyebrows contracted in a frown. "Did your dinner not agree with you, Kathryn?"

Janeway opened her mouth but found no words. Instead, she mirrored Seven's frown briefly. "Come again?" Seven begun to repeat, but Janeway waved to stall her words. "Never mind. No, dinner was fine. I just…"

"Didn't feel like sleeping?"

"Yes, I guess so," Janeway sighed. The conversation was going in circles, and not at all the way she had planned it to progress.

"I found the formal aspects of the dinner very tedious," Seven said, focusing back on her calculations.

"Diplomacy tends to be tedious on occasion," Janeway agreed. "But it is a necessary evil."

"However, the intricacies of human -- and alien -- interaction will never cease to amaze me. They are always fascinating," Seven countered with a faint smile, her eyes never leaving the display. Janeway found herself mirroring that smile, admiring Seven's graceful profile as it was illuminated by the flickering screen that presented data in speeds impossible for humans to read. She's so much more than just human, Janeway mused, not knowing from where the errant thought had so suddenly come to her head. So much more. Now or never, Katie.

"Seven…there was actually a specific reason why I came to see you," Janeway began, leaning back against a nearby pillar. Her palms were sweating profusely.

Seven turned to face Janway and clasped her hands behind her back, cocking her head in a manner that Janeway had learned to interpret as Seven giving her full attention. "From your serious tone of voice, I assume it was not to discuss telemetry data or diplomacy," Seven said in all seriousness. "Kathryn?" she prompted, after a moment of silence.

Janeway took a deep breath and focused her eyes somewhere over Seven's left shoulder. "Seven, would you be willing to go out on a date with me?"

The question came out calmly and nonchalantly, although Janeway thought the exertion would make her heart give out altogether, so hard was it beating.

"A date?" Seven asked quizzically, her eyes widening.

"Yes, a real date," Janeway said, managing a weak smile despite her impending heart failure. "You do know what that is, right?"

"I am well aware of the concept, yes," Seven said, and a rare smile graced her lips. "I would be delighted, Kathryn."

Seven's smile made Janeway weak in the knees, so she managed only a short nod in reply.

"However, regarding our impending away mission, your timing is unfortunate," Seven continued, tilting her head.

Janeway laughed ruefully and shifted her stance. "I freely admit to that. The mission shouldn't take more than a day or two, though."

"Shall we compare schedules when the mission has concluded?"

"A sound plan if any," Janeway said and detached herself from the metal pillar, relieved that her legs were able to hold her upright. She regarded Seven with a fond smile, as she stood still behind the work console. "In fact, I'm very much looking forward to it," Janeway said, unable to keep the smile from her lips.

"As am I, Kathryn," Seven's voice was uncharacteristically soft. "Good night."

Janeway nodded in reply and exited, the massive steel doors closing behind her. She fled down the corridor and once inside the protection of the turbo lift, rested her forehead against the wall. "What did I just get myself into?" she mumbled.

The turbo lift offered no answer.

---

With mild apprehension and considerable confusion, Seven regarded at the doors that had closed behind Captain Janeway. She really did not know what had prompted the Captain's actions, nor what she should think of it.

Social interaction of any kind always made her feel unhinged, and being a self-confessed perfectionist -- or 'control freak', as Lieutenant Torres had characterised her -- the mere thought of engaging in dating was daunting for her. The research she had done on the subject, as extensive as it was, was contradictory, full of archaic customs that represented no logical purpose, and apparently the whole field of intimate human relationships was wrought in peril.

Seven shook her head. Dwelling on the complexity of the subject was certainly not going to get her anywhere, so she would just have to take heart of Captain Janeway's continuing insistence that she enmesh herself in new experiences, without fearing the consequences.

However, it still bothered her that she didn't know exactly what had prompted the captain to make the suggestion of such personal interaction just then. Seven ran a quick mental inventory on her recent encounters with the captain, of which none exhibited any radical change in the way Janeway had treated her. Regardless, Seven felt deeply flattered of the mere fact that she had become the focus of such attention -- which started another tangent in her mind about the concept of self-esteem and on why exactly Captain Janeway's approval was generating such hubris in her. It was all becoming a blur of intersecting, conflicting theorems in her mind, the complexity of it all a tad frustrating.

"Hmph," she grunted and keyed in her private access code. "Seven of Nine, personal log. Stardate 52286.2," she began. "I am approaching a solution regarding the anomalous gravitational phenomena we observed in the black hole cluster on stardate 52232.9. The solution centres around the probable existence of dense fields of dark matter in the surrounding globular cluster nebula, which appears to affect the consistency of the black holes themselves. Lieutenant Nawab is providing invaluable help on the matter.

"Approximately three minutes ago, Captain Janeway asked me out on a 'date'."

She paused after that, searching for the right words.

"While her motives for such a specialised form of interaction could be accounted to her constant desire to acquaint me with all categories of human existence, the research I have conducted on the subject of romance and human copulative patterns suggests that a motive as shallow as the aforementioned is unlikely. I am thus left with no alternative but to assume that Captain Janeway desires to pursue an intimate relationship with me.

"I am…" Seven's words faltered and she frowned at the computer console. "I am yet to sort out my thoughts regarding the matter, but her motives should be easy to ascertain merely by asking her, which is exactly what I intend to do. Meanwhile, during idle moments I will give more thought on the conjecture of acquiring a companion of such excellence as Captain Janeway is, and what the repercussions thereof are to both me and her. End log."

 

Chapter V: Truth Trisected

Although there was a perfectly good visual presentation unfolding on the view screen behind her, Seven of Nine was monitoring Voyager's approach towards the Culture prime world as streams of telemetry data the ship's sensors transmitted to her work console in Astrometrics. To her, the value streams represented a far more accurate projection of the outside world than a mere visual output device could provide. It allowed her to form her own internal visualisation of their approach vector, the gravitational field changes Voyager adjusted to automatically, and the constitution of the planets they passed, all in perfect mathematical harmony.

She was monitoring the data with one eye only; ostensibly, she was preparing a compilation of the astrometrics data Voyager had collected of the Delta Quadrant to give to the Culture in exchange for necessary parts and materials. Glancing at the telemetry data stream, she noted they were entering a low geostationary orbit around the Culture prime world and estimated she would have an additional five minutes or so before she would be required to join the away team at the shuttle bay. She downloaded the astrometrics data onto a portable chip and logged off.

"Ah, there you are, Seven," Neelix greeted her as soon as she entered the shuttle bay. Seven's brow twitched momentarily at her disapproval of his presence -- she did not enjoy his constant attempts at making her engage in interaction with the rest of the crew -- but she took it in stride.

"Mr. Neelix," she nodded courteously, and turned towards the captain. "Good morning, captain."

"Morning, Seven," Janeway replied, pausing in her conversation with Tuvok to give her a brief smile. "You have the data."

"Yes," she replied, showing the data unit to her. "As per your request, I edited the contents so as not to reveal too much of the cultures we have encountered."

Tuvok's eyebrow rose at that. "Prudent cautiousness, captain."

"Just in case," she said, nodding vaguely towards the shuttlecraft they were to board momentarily. "I wouldn't want them to exploit our data to move from trading partnerships to more unilateral ones. Shall we?" This was aimed towards Seven.

"Everyone is present," she replied, starting towards the shuttlecraft after the captain.

Fitting all seven members of their delegation into the shuttle was tight, but manageable. At the helm, Tom Paris was already doing his pre-flight checks as Seven positioned herself in the co-pilot chair. Janeway took the chair behind her, flanked by Tuvok, the rear guarded by Neelix, Torres, and Ensign Leroux, one of Tuvok's tactical people. There had been more volunteers for the mission -- after all, it had been months since the crew of Voyager had had the opportunity to have shore leave -- but everyone going had to have a purpose. Seven was going in her capacity as the astrometrics expert, while Neelix was in charge of re-stocking their food supplies and B'Elanna seeing to their engineering needs. Janeway had had a brief argument with Tuvok regarding her leading the mission, but she had eventually won, after pointing out that it would seem improbably impolite for the Culture to have a lesser officer in charge. Her concession was allowing Tuvok to take extra muscle on board; hence, Ensign Leroux.

"Paris to bridge. Shuttle Schroedinger ready for departure," the young helmsman said.

"Bon voyage," came Chakotay's reply over the communicator. He was to stay behind in command of Voyager.

"I'm sure it'll be dandy, sir," Paris replied good-naturedly, and with practised ease, made the lift-off and guided the shuttle through the transparent force field that guarded the entrance to the shuttle bay. "Interior lights," he uttered, and the inside of the shuttle brightened.

As they rapidly accelerated away from Voyager and towards the planet looming under them, Seven noticed a number of Culture shuttles flanking them. She was aware that because of their exceptional physiology, the Culture could not utilise transporter technology, but for her it seemed very inefficient to park starships in orbit and then have to use shuttlecraft to get on firm ground. Regardless of the time-consuming aspects the captain had decided to use the cumbersome method of shuttle transportation as well, not only to show respect of their hosts' culture, but more importantly because the unique constitution of the planet underneath provided enough interference to make transporting a risky business.

"It seems we're getting the full honour guard, captain," said Paris as his assessment of the situation. The captain leaned forward to see better from the front view port, placing her hand on Seven's shoulder in the progress. Seven twitched minutely under the unexpected contact, and Janeway pulled her hand away, smiling at Seven distractedly.

"Sorry, Seven," she said, glancing at the status screen. "How many vessels do you count, Tuvok?"

"Thirty-seven. They range from one-man ships to large shuttles with the crew complement of eleven."

"We are making final approach," Paris said on top of Tuvok's words, and decelerated so rapidly that everyone was pressed against their seat backs. "Sorry about that," he mumbled, but everyone was too busy looking out the window to care.

What had been the spherical shape of a planet from the orbit was now filling the front viewport, in all the shades of blue and grey. Covered by copious amount of landmass, the prime world of the Culture had nary a plant; all of the available surface was covered in complex, metallic structures. The sharp coastline sported nothing but hard edges and right angles as the metal coat of the planet skirted the water as close as it could. As the shuttle approached ground and sped above the never-ending city, the view was a confusing blur of deep canyons between buildings and masses of rooftop decoration in every possible shape known to Euclid, and then some. No wonder transporting had been impossible; the interference generated by such a concentrated mass of metal structures was enough to throw off any communication, transporter, or scan signal.

The landing pad was on the roof of one of the dizzyingly tall towers, and Paris settled their craft in the exact middle with nary a bump. A host of Culture one-man crafts settled around them in haphazard formations that Janeway noted with an interested eye as they disembarked.

"It seems their concept of order differs from ours," Tuvok said to her in a low voice as they stepped down onto the hot landing pad.

Janeway nodded, gesturing towards the ground. They both eyed the wild tangle of jagged, curving, occasionally intersecting lines decorating the pad. "Landing markings, although of a kind I see only in my nightmares."

"We have company," Paris said, joining them and indicating towards the far edge of the pad.

Approaching them was a group of four Culture people, their hair fluttering in the stark wind. All were dressed in form-fitting outfits that were decorated in all the colours of the rainbow, the imagery purely abstract and reminiscent of the whimsical structures they had seen on the flight in, shimmering brightly in the harsh sunlight. Janeway was starting to feel the heat already and hoped the formalities wouldn't last long. She put on her best diplomatic smile.

"Janeway of Voyager. I am Leader N'koog of the Culture people," said the foremost person, quickly altering appearance to that of Janeway's, minus the hair that remained as a long strand of whiteness growing from the back of her skull. She was also much shorter than N'vide or any of the other Culture members she had had on Voyager for the visit. "Welcome."

"Leader N'koog, thank you for your invitation," Janeway replied, and so begun the tedious formalities of first contact interaction.

---

While her bed was bigger than the others', it was inconveniently situated at the centre of the large circular room. Janeway's brow furrowed as she set her luggage onto the mattress, eyeing the arrangements with a vaguely annoyed air.

They had been given one room only, and while it rivalled Voyager's cargo bays in size, it was still all one room. Aside from Janeway's large, round bed in the middle of it all, it had a number of smaller, gently sloping beds arranged along the walls in a configuration reminiscent of the bridge of N'vide's ship -- the Culture apparently lived, slept, and operated in open groupings like it. But while it was the custom of their hosts, that didn't mean she had to like it, Janeway thought grumpily. She took her personal privacy seriously.

"Finally," B'Elanna exhaled loudly as she dropped her gear on the floor and ungracefully flopped herself onto the bed.

"I can understand why you would find diplomatic courtesy tedious, lieutenant," Tuvok said to her from the next bed left of her, where he was stretched out, "but we still have a celebratory dinner tonight."

"How could I forget," she growled. "Why does diplomacy have to revolve around eating, in every alien population we meet?" Obvious from her tone was her deep reluctance to engage in any more polite discussion. Ever. Not that the strong emoting regarding the subject of diplomacy surprised anyone.

"The Borg do not require nutrition consumption during negotiations," Seven commented from B'Elanna's right. She was standing next to her untouched cot which she would not be using anyway, engrossed in a PADD.

"Well it's not like the Borg are known for negotiating at all," B'Elanna replied grumpily. "And somehow, plugging into a power source lacks the enjoyment factor a good meal can have," she added, rolling onto her side to face Seven.

The Borg lifted an eyebrow. "But the efficiency of the Borg method is certainly commendable, is it not?"

B'Elanna's face scrunched, as if she couldn't tell whether Seven was toying with her and her rhetorical question, or whether she was just being sincere. Narrowing her eyes, the lieutenant slumped onto her back. "Whatever."

Janeway smothered a smirk by turning to her luggage to unpack her dress uniform. Her chief engineer, while usually a very quick judge of people, was apparently finding their Borg crew complement difficult to gauge. There was genuine distrust radiating from B'Elanna whenever she came into contact with Seven, but mixed with that was always a dose of intrigue Janeway well understood as a scientist, and something else. Admiration? Fear of the unknown? Exasperation? Jealousy of the obvious brilliance of the Borg-enhanced mind? It seemed Seven didn't fit into B'Elanna's mental categories, either. Janeway was glad she wasn't alone in that regard.

Dinner was announced by an usher that, for once, did not mutate its -- his -- face to approximate the humanoid shape. In fact, none of the ever-present muscle fluctuations were visible on his visage. Silently, he bowed and gestured towards the door with all his seven fingers. With Janeway in lead, the whole entourage followed their quiet guide down the hallways of the building they were in. It was a massive affair, one of the tallest towers from what Janeway could deduce from the panoramic view the windows lining the hallway allowed. A cloudless sky, the shine of the double suns reflecting off the never-ending metal city, it was enough to make all of Voyager's team hesitate in their steps, enthralled by the view.

"Impressive," Tuvok commented, only to have Paris lean towards him.

"You have a knack for understatement, sir," he said under his breath.

Their usher was constantly glancing back, an unreadable expression on his alien face, as he gestured for them to follow.

"I'm sure we will have more time for sightseeing later," Janeway said quietly, nodding towards the usher. "Wouldn't do to be late."

"Yes, ma'am," Paris said, hurrying along to catch up with the captain and Ensign Leroux, who Tuvok had apparently assigned as the captain's personal bodyguard. The ensign kept close by, her angled features expressionless as she fingered the collar of her very new and very starched dress uniform.

"There's something different about him, captain," Leroux said quietly. "While the general physique is the same as our hosts', there seems to be very little of the adaptable muscle quality they have."

"This is due to the fact that our guide is of Species 2891," Seven said calmly. She had caught up with the captain, only to overhear the ensign's puzzlement. "While not obvious topically, their physique is fundamentally different from that of Species 2888."

Janeway's eyes turned to Seven, only to glance back to their usher. The alien had inhaled audibly, pausing in his walk to gaze back at them. As Janeway looked at him again, he quickly turned to resume their journey, eyeing them occasionally over his shoulder. Filing the puzzle away for later, the captain turned back to Seven. "A bit more discreetly, if you please," Janeway said quietly.

Seven glanced at the captain and opened her mouth to respond, but whatever she was saying was drowned by a sudden burst of noise through a large door their usher had opened. He indicated they should enter, and as they did, the usher's eyes followed Seven.

Continue to Chapters 6-9

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