The soft chirp of the door chime roused Janeway from her momentary slumber, the twin panels slipping back to reveal Tuvok.
"Captain," the Vulcan said as he stepped inside, "A large number of people have gathered in the shuttlebay."
"The Maquis?" Janeway asked.
Tuvok nodded once, almost solemnly.
Janeway rose from her chair. "I suppose I knew this was coming," she said.
Janeway felt sick to her stomach as she entered Voyager's vast hanger bay. Tuvok had offered to accompany her but she had declined, knowing that this was something she had to do alone.
Off to one side of the bay was the Sacajewa, still in the spot where the transporters had rematerialised it hours earlier. In the centre of the hanger around fifty men and women dressed in civilian clothes had gathered in a loose formation, each of them carrying bags that were slung over their shoulders.
Every one of them regarded Janeway silently as she entered.
Chakotay was standing at the front of the group, attired in the same clothes he'd been wearing when he'd first beamed aboard Voyager five months and seventy-thousand light-years ago.
"You're out of uniform, commander," she said slowly as she approached him.
Chakotay smiled. "I think it's best if we all go our separate ways before Voyager crosses into Federation space," he told her.
Janeway sighed, surveying the assembled group. "You people are all wanted by the Federation," she said. "I have a responsibility to bring you all to a Federation court to answer for your crimes. That was the mission that brought us all together."
"Is that what you want?" Chakotay asked.
"It isn't about what I want," Janeway replied, feeling emotion begin to well up inside her. "If I let you all go free I'm betraying my oath to Starfleet and refusing to do my duty as a Starfleet officer."
"And if we remain onboard Voyager will soon be met by another Federation starship," Chakotay said. "And myself and all these people will spend the next few years at a penal settlement. Takagi has told me very little has changed in the last five months. The Cardassians are still killing civilians in the Demilitarised Zone and the Federation is still turning a blind eye. Our families and friends are still in danger."
Janeway looked at him for long moments. "Make good use of this head start, commander," she said finally.
Chakotay nodded. "Thank you, captain."
She tapped her combadge. "Janeway to Tuvok. I'd like you to perform a level-one diagnostic of Voyager's deflector shield system, starting immediately."
"Given that such a diagnostic would require the shields being taken offline I would question that proposal at this time," the Vulcan responded almost instantly.
"Carry out my orders, Tuvok," Janeway said.
"Aye, captain. I am taking the shields offline."
Chakotay reached into his jacket, withdrawing his own combadge and squeezing it between his fingers. "Chakotay to Takagi. We're ready here."
The familiar transporter harmonic filled the hanger, and Janeway watched as the assembled Maquis began to dissolve into sparkling light in small groups.
"Goodbye, Kathryn," Chakotay said warmly, handing his combadge to her.
"Goodbye, Chakotay," she replied, feeling her throat tighten as he dematerialised before being spirited away to one of the Maquis raiders.
Janeway stood alone in the empty, silent hanger for long moments. Finally, she turned and headed briskly towards the exit.
Voyager's bridge was busier than usual as the starship crossed into Federation space, filled with personnel who had gathered to witness the end of their phenomenal odyssey across the galaxy.
Janeway stood on the command level, surveying the command centre for the most familiar faces. Neelix and Kes were here, holding each other off to one side, watching the proceedings intently. Beside her, B'Elanna Torres hovered with an expression of nervousness and excitement, still clad in her Starfleet uniform. Janeway had promised to do all she could for the young woman, reassuring her that she knew a lot of Starfleet admirals and had a stockpile of favours that she intended to call in. Torres would serve a short sentence, there was no avoiding that, but once that was complete Janeway was certain that Starfleet would welcome her back.
"Five months, three days, eleven hours," Janeway said loudly, prompting a hush to descend over the bridge. "That's precisely how long Voyager spent in the Delta Quadrant. The quote on the dedication plaque of Starfleet's most famous vessel reads 'where no one has gone before' - I'd say we've done that and then some. Voyager has visited a region of the galaxy far beyond the reach of current propulsion technology, but when a new generation of Starfleet ships does eventually reach that part of space in the coming century, I'm proud to say they'll find the fingerprints of another Starfleet crew already there. We've advanced the frontiers of exploration, made first-contact with races a galaxy away from our homes, some of them friendly" - she gestured at Neelix and Kes - "Others not. We've also lost a lot of friends and colleagues as a result of being brought to the Delta Quadrant, good people who I am sorry aren't with us today as our journey comes to an end. It has been an honour and a privilege to serve as your captain, and although some of you may not have agreed with decisions I've made during that time, I hope you can at least respect and understand my reasons for making them. Wherever you all find yourselves in the coming years, be assured that my door is always open, and that you have a link with a hundred and fifty other souls who made this incredible journey with you. Welcome home, everyone."
A cheer rose up from the bridge, moving like a wave through the decks of the starship as Janeway's words reverberated through every section.
"Captain," Tuvok said once the elation had lessened enough that he could be heard. "We are receiving a Starfleet hail."
Janeway fought back a wave of emotion. "Where from?"
"A Federation starship," Tuvok told her. "The USS Discovery."
"Put it on screen," Janeway said, turning to the main viewer as it changed to display the image of a young Starfleet captain.
"This is Captain Paul Winter of the Discovery," the man said, a quizzical expression present on his face. "Are you in need of assistance? I'm afraid Starfleet records list your ship as having been lost five months ago."
Janeway smiled. "I think those Starfleet records will need changing, captain,” she said.