Janeway led her senior staff onto the bridge, where they all scattered to assume their customary positions.
"I want status reports from all departments," she said loudly, standing before the two command chairs. "Mr. Paris, where are we exactly?"
Paris dropped into his seat at the helm, relieving Baytart and surveying the navigation console.
"We're in interstellar space in the Tokara sector," he told her. "About twenty light-years from the Demilitarised Zone and about a hundred light-years along the border from the Badlands."
"Right back where we started, give or take," Chakotay pointed out, trying to lighten the mood.
Janeway forced a wry smile, appreciative of his efforts. "What do we know about the Tokara sector?"
"It serves as one of the Cardassian Union's primary agricultural regions," Tuvok replied, calling up the information on his console. "A number of farming planets are located here that supply the Cardassian homeworlds. It is essentially one of the least fortified areas of their space."
"So all we have to do is dodge a few Cardassian farmers and we're home free?" Torres asked.
"Given our knowledge of the Cardassian mindset," Tuvok said, "We must assume that even a sector such as this will have warships operating within it."
"Tuvok's right," Janeway decided. "We'll set a course for Federation space and try to attract as little attention as possible. No subspace transmissions that could be picked up by the Cardassians until we're out of their territory. We've been out of touch for five months, another twenty-four hours won't hurt."
"Still," Chakotay said, "A damaged ship inside Cardassian space with fifty Maquis onboard isn't the safest place to be."
"They have no way of knowing you're aboard," Janeway told him. "And I have no intention of telling them. If we're intercepted we'll explain what's happened and deal with the fallout as best we can."
"I've set a course for the Federation," Paris announced.
"The warp core is still offline while we repair the damage caused when it nearly breached," Torres said. "I've left Carey in charge but I should get back."
Janeway nodded. "Do everything you can do speed things along, B'Elanna," she said. "I don't want to hang around here a moment longer than we have to."
In the mess hall, Kes sat silently in front of the large viewports, staring out at stars a galaxy away from the world of her birth. When she considered that every other Ocampan in the universe was trapped in an underground city, her being on the other side of the galaxy was even more staggering.
When she had requested a berth on Voyager after the whirlwind of events that had seen her rescued from the Kazon and witness the death of the Ocampa's godlike Caretaker, Kes had known that she would never get to see the ultimate destination of this incredible starship. The journey back to Federation space would, under normal circumstances, have taken seven Ocampan lifetimes.
But in a scarcely believable event, mere months after coming aboard, Voyager was cruising through space seventy-thousand light-years from Ocampa, mere days away from entering the wondrous Federation of different civilisations banded together.
"All I'm saying is that a little notice before transporting the ship to the other side of the galaxy would've been appreciated," Neelix called from his makeshift kitchen, raising his voice over the sound of metallic pots and pans being gathered up from where they'd fallen during the recent turbulence.
Kes smiled. Neelix had been complaining for the better part of an hour how inconsiderate B'Elanna Torres had been for activating the Sikarian trajector without warning.
"A shipwide announcement maybe?" Neelix continued. "A warning to hang onto something perhaps? No! Just plug it in and press go without telling anyone what's happening and practically demolish my kitchen in the process!"
"I heard that the trajector would've been no use once Voyager left orbit around Sikaris," Kes told him. "B'Elanna had no choice but to activate it since that was the only chance they had of it working."
"Sikaris wasn't going anywhere," Neelix called dismissively. "A few minutes' notice before hurling Voyager across the galaxy isn't too much to ask surely!? We didn't even end up in the right place! In the middle of enemy territory no less!"
"I think twenty light-years outside Federation space can still be considered a success after a seventy-thousand light-year jump, Neelix," Kes countered, grinning broadly at her Talaxian partner's irate manner.
"Not when it lands us in the heart of the Gartassian Empire!" Neelix retorted, still struggling to return his various cooking pots to their correct places.
"Cardassian," Kes corrected. "These are the people Commander Chakotay and the other Maquis were fighting before they were taken by the Caretaker."
"All the more reason to avoid suddenly appearing in their territory unannounced," Neelix insisted.
Kes rolled her eyes. Nothing she could say would convince Neelix of the miracle that had been achieved transporting Voyager back to the Alpha Quadrant. She wondered if anything short of the ship appearing directly in orbit around Earth would have satisfied him.
"Neelix, have you even stopped to consider where we are?" she asked finally.
The metallic ringing of pots and pans ceased, and Neelix popped his freckled head up from behind the countertop to look at her.
"The Alpha Quadrant?" he said absently.
"The other side of the galaxy," Kes said. "The trajector was a one-way trip. You will never see another Talaxian or see your homeworld again. Everything you know is gone forever."
Neelix regarded her for long moments. "Everything I need to know is sitting right in front of me," he told her simply.
Kes smiled, amazed as always at the total adoration that he felt for her. "Come and sit with me," she urged happily.
Neelix emerged from his kitchen, crossing the room and lowering himself into a chair beside his beloved Kes.
"What do you think will happen to us once Voyager reaches Earth?" she asked him. "Will Starfleet let us remain onboard?"
Neelix shrugged. "I hadn't considered it," he admitted. "I don't suppose Captain Janeway will have much use for my talents as a cook or a guide anymore. And I'd imagine that your hydroponics bay won't be necessary to grow food now that energy-conservation is no longer an issue."
"A new doctor and a full medical staff will probably come onboard," Kes added thoughtfully.
"We may have outlived our usefulness," Neelix concluded, his mood somewhat sullen.
"We still have your ship," Kes said, reaching forward and taking Neelix's hands in hers. "We can use it to explore the Federation together."
Neelix smiled warmly at her. "That sounds wonderful."
Kes leaned forward and kissed him.
"I have completed my scan of the sector, captain," Tuvok announced from tactical.
Janeway rose from her command chair where she'd been reading from a padd detailing what damage at been inflicted when Voyager had trajected across the galaxy. She had been pleasantly surprised to note that very little harm had actually been done to her starship, through a number of systems including long-range communications and more importantly warp propulsion remained unavailable.
The ship's emergency medical holographic program was also inoperative, through this fact had apparently been added as a mere footnote by Carey after he'd written the main body of the damage report. Not for the first time in the last five months, Janeway found herself momentarily confused at the pang of regret she felt that the Doctor wasn't active to witness Voyager's arrival in the Alpha Quadrant.
"What have you found, Tuvok?" she asked, banishing the unwarranted sympathy she felt for the hologram.
"These readings are incomplete due to the continued problems with our long-range sensors," Tuvok began. "However the Tokara sector is home to four class-M planets, all of which appear to be given over to agricultural purposes as per Starfleet records. I am detecting seventeen individual spacecraft, presumably of Cardassian origin though I am unable to be certain. I am also monitoring subspace radio traffic for any indication that Voyager has been detected. This appears to be a relatively welcoming locale, by Cardassian standards at least."
"Still, you'll forgive me if I hold off on booking my next shore-leave here," Paris threw in from the helm.
"Given that you are likely known to the Cardassians as a member of the Maquis," Tuvok replied, "I would advise against it."
Janeway grinned. Despite his actions on Sikaris, she was unable to remain angry at Tuvok when she considered what his disobedience had achieved. Had he not obtained the trajector, Voyager would still be in the Delta Quadrant, facing a decades-long journey with no guarantee that they would ever reach home. She could not forgive the betrayal, but she knew that she would eventually forget it.
At that moment, Janeway felt a slight reverberation through the deck that she immediately recognised. It was an almost subliminal sensation that soon became as familiar to a serving starship crew as the beating of their own heart.
"Torres to bridge," Voyager's chief engineer called delightedly. "The warp core is back online. It's not exactly running at peak efficiency and it's jury-rigged against virtually every Starfleet regulation, but it should be good for warp five all the way back to Federation space."
Janeway allowed herself a brief sigh of relief. "Excellent work, B'Elanna," she said warmly, turning toward the helm. "You heard the lady, Mr. Paris. Warp five."
"Yes ma'am!" Paris said enthusiastically, tapping commands into his console.
"Engage," Janeway commanded, watching in relief as the pinpoints of light that were Cardassian stars transformed into long streaks as Voyager slipped smoothly into warp.
After five months in the wilderness, they were finally going home.
Despite the fact that Voyager was travelling through Cardassian space, the realm of the Starfleet crew's long-term antagonist and the Maquis crew's mortal enemy, there was little that could dampen the mood of the one hundred and fifty souls nestled within the hull of the intrepid-class starship.
After five months spent a lifetime away from everyone and everything they knew in the farthest reaches of the galaxy, fighting for their lives against Kazon who wanted the advanced Federation vessel for themselves, Vidiians who wanted to harvest their organs to transplant into their own disease-ridden bodies, and other beings or anomalies who wished them harm, they had finally been transported within striking distance of their homes.
Everywhere he went on the ship, Chakotay could hear the unmistakable sounds of celebration somewhere in the background, permeating every section of the vessel. Throughout Voyager replicators were working overtime to provide off-duty crewmembers with food and drink, the careful energy rationing of the last few months forgotten.
Though Voyager wasn't quite out of the woods yet, everyone knew that the finishing line was only hours away.
As he walked through the large double doors that gave access to engineering, Chakotay found that the infectious mood of celebration that had overtaken the ship was only slightly less prevalent there. Music was being played over the large room's speakers, and many of the engineering staff were holding drinks. Some were chatting excitedly about their plans now that Voyager was home, and some of the more enthusiastic crewmembers were even dancing in front of their stations to the amusement of others.
Chakotay chuckled to himself, giving a dismissive wave to the few who noticed his presence and immediately looked guilty for engaging in such frivolity while on duty.
He wouldn't be the one to deny them their celebration.
Torres was seated quietly at the small monitoring station directly in front of the warp core, an untouched glass of champagne on the deck beside her.
"And how is our saviour?" Chakotay asked lightly.
Torres glanced up at him, forcing a smile. "Exhausted," she admitted. "Trying to hold together a warp core that I nearly breached a few hours ago and should be replaced, never mind brought back online and used to drive a ship at warp five."
"That doesn't even sound like a challenge for a woman who just transported a starship seventy-thousand light-years in a few seconds," he said teasingly, leaning back against the protective guardrail that encircled the damaged core.
"More of a challenge than you'd think," she groaned, leaning back in her chair and stretching her arms above her head.
Chakotay looked up at the swirling colours created by the annihilation of matter and antimatter within the tall warp core. "I suppose all this will be obsolete soon," he mused. "Soon everyone will be trajecting across space in the blink of an eye like the Sikarians."
"Not quite," Torres told him. "I've already been over this with the captain. The trajector operates within a neutrino envelope that needs to be amplified by the proximity of a compatible planet, one with a mantle composed of tetrahedral quartz. Without the crystalline structure of that type of mantle to focus and amplify the trajector field the device itself is useless."
"And planets like this don't exist in the Alpha Quadrant?" Chakotay asked.
Torres shook her head. "I've already checked the Federation planetary database," she said. "If they do exist here none have been discovered in over two centuries of interstellar exploration. They might be exclusive to the Delta Quadrant."
Chakotay shrugged. "Do you still have the trajector itself?"
Torres pointed toward a charred, half-melted lump of metal on a nearby console. "I took a phaser to it when it triggered the warp core breach," she explained. "But since Tuvok beamed aboard with it the computer will have a record of its exact quantum structure if Starfleet ever finds a way around the limitations and wants to recreate it."
"Maybe you should apply for the job," Chakotay suggested casually, endeavoring to find the correct balance for what he wanted to say.
"What job?" Torres asked defensively. "With Starfleet Engineering?"
"Somehow I don't think that my current status as a Maquis terrorist would look good on my application form," she said wryly.
"Your current status is chief engineer aboard a Federation starship," Chakotay reminded her. "You've held that position for five months, culminating in successfully transporting that Federation starship across the galaxy. Taking all that into account, plus the strings I have no doubt Captain Janeway would be willing to pull, I think Starfleet would be glad to have you back."
Torres eyed him suspiciously. "You can't be serious," she said.
Chakotay leaned closer to her. "I'm not having this conversation with any of the other Maquis onboard Voyager, B'Elanna. You more than anyone has exceeded everyone's expectations since the Caretaker took us from the Badlands. To go back to fighting the Cardassians when you have so much potential..."
His words trailed off, his point already made.
"What are you saying, Chakotay," Torres asked, regarding him closely. "That I should rejoin Starfleet while you and everyone else go back to fighting and dying to protect all our homes?"
"I'm saying don't think that's the only option," Chakotay said. "I don't even know the status of the Maquis now. For all I know they might have all been wiped out by the Cardassians while we've been gone, although I very much doubt it. The Maquis are strong enough to survive losing you, B'Elanna. You have the potential to go as far as you like with Starfleet, developing new propulsion technologies or designing starships. Anything you set your mind to."
"And what about you?" Torres asked quietly, a lump forming in her throat as the magnitude of his words hit home. "What will you do now that we're back?"
Chakotay smiled. "I think you know," he said, placing a fatherly hand on her shoulder.
With that, he pushed himself off the guard rail and headed back through the small crowd of celebrating engineers, leaving Torres alone to consider her future.
“Bridge to the captain.”
Janeway was roused from the inviting realm of unconsciousness by the sound of her closest friend and most trusted advisor, realising that she'd fallen asleep at her desk in the read-room.
“Janeway here,” she responded, cringing ever so slightly at the sound of weariness in her own voice, “Go ahead, Tuvok.”
“I apologise for disturbing you, captain,” the Vulcan apologised. “But we are approaching what appears to be the site of a battle. There is a heavily damaged ship drifting nearby.”
"Acknowledged, Tuvok,” she said. "Drop us to impulse, but keep our distance from the damaged ship, their opponent may still be in the vicinity.”
“Aye Captain,” Tuvok confirmed. “Bridge out.”
“Slowing to impulse,” Paris reported from the helm as Janeway emerged from her ready room and onto the bridge.
She felt the deck shudder softly as Voyager slid gracefully out of warp.
“The damaged ship is Cardassian, captain,” Tuvok announced. “It appears to be a military supply vessel of some kind.”
Janeway descended the steps to the command level, where she placed her hands on her hips as she considered main viewscreen. “Yellow alert,” she ordered.
Instantly, lemon-coloured strips of lighting began to pulse rhythmically around the bridge, and Chakotay took the opportunity to examine the sensor data on the personal terminal, which rose up between the two command chairs at his touch.
“There’re no lifesigns aboard the ship Captain,” Chakotay said, glancing up at the image of one of the Cardassian spacecraft, and the violet tendrils of drive plasma radiating from its shattered engine ports. "And their cargo holds are empty. Whoever attacked them was looking for something."
“Given our current position near the Demilitarised Zone,” Tuvok put in, “I believe there is only one logical explanation for such an attack on a Cardassian vessel inside their territory."
"The Maquis," Janeway said thoughtfully, glancing at Chakotay. "Seems a little audacious even by Maquis standards."
"A raiding party," Chakotay told her. "Probably in search of supplies. Some of my colleagues can be a little more enthusiastic than I am."
“Should we inform the Cardassians?” Tuvok asked.
"Not until we're safely out of their space," Janeway said dispassionately. "Alerting them to our presence now would place Voyager in immense danger. Mr. Paris, resume our course. Warp six."
Paris’ nimble fingers moved quickly over the complex control panel, and Chakotay watched the viewer image change as the helmsman gently eased Voyager in the general direction the captain had specified. “Course laid in Captain.”
Janeway dropped into her command chair, resting her hands on its arms. “Engage,” she ordered calmly.
Under Paris' control, Voyager leapt forward into warp speed and leaving the left Cardassian ship, now no more than a floating tomb for its deceased crew, millions of kilometres behind.