EMPATHOGEN
by E. L. Zimmerman

CHAPTER TWELVE

Aboard the shuttlecraft Maddox, Janeway and Chakotay rose through the atmosphere, achieved escape velocity and the proper orbital vector, and approached the Rintellan Satellite Defense Grid.

"How was the meditating, Commander?" Janeway asked, concentrating on engaging her first officer in small talk to keep her mind off ...

... the inevitable.

"Quite refreshing," Chakotay replied, smiling. "I don't know if Brall'tor shared this with you, but, at the base of the falls, there was a series of caves that must stretch deep within the planet." He touched a few controls on the pilot's console, adjusting their course for the Ship's Corridor in the Rintellan grid. "There was one cavern I located, in particular, that was located directly under the base of the falls." Smiling, he turned to her and added, "If I closed my eyes and used just a touch of my imagination, the constant rumble of water on rock sounded like jungle drums in the distance."

Their eyes met, only briefly, and the Captain turned back toward the Maddox's viewport.

Without warning, the shuttlecraft bobbled momentarily, the nacelles whining briefly in protest.

"We've just passed through the Rintellan Defense Grid, Captain," Chakotay announced.

As suddenly, Kathryn Janeway felt ...

... different?

"Did you," she began, shifting through a series of thoughts and visual images that involved the Voyager, Wyxlyn Falls, her cherry gown, the interrupted message from Harry Kim, and ...

Chakotay.

The spiral of reflections stopped, like a pinwheel, on the mental picture of her first officer. Despite her best efforts to the contrary, she couldn't think of a single, logical reason to avoid the topic.

"Did I?" Chakotay asked.

"Did you just ... sense something ... like a subtle change in the atmosphere as we passed through the defense grid?" she asked, willing herself to not face him.

She couldn't look into his eyes.

She just couldn't.

Chakotay shrugged. Reaching out to the console, he tapped a few keys, and the Maddox's flux instantly stabilized. "A momentary dizziness. Passing vertigo. Tuvok and I spoke about it on the surface. Without sensor analysis, we assumed that perhaps the Rintellan energy source was polarized in the exact frequency opposite our shuttlecraft's shields. A residual leak of a conflicting energy surge wouldn't produce any lasting harm."

She couldn't.

She wouldn't look into his eyes.

But ... her resolve crumbled, and Captain Kathryn Janeway found herself saying ...

"This defies every command instinct I've ever had," she began, diplomatically, carefully, "but I have a confession to make, and I need you to hear it."

Quiet, her first officer considered her. "What is it, Captain?"

Slowly, looking away from the console before her, staring down into her lap, she slowly acknowledged, "Chakotay, I've been thinking of you."

As slowly as it took the Captain to finish her sentence, her first officer conjured up a smile.

"Don't even think what you're thinking, whatever that may be. You know as well as I do that I'm too old for a ... schoolgirl crush," she openly chastised herself, turning back to the console, focusing on the blinking reds, blues, and yellows of the command panels.

Intuitively, she felt his eyes on her, slowly studying her stoic expression, her pursed lips, and, she hoped, her flowing, auburn hair. On the planet's surface, she hadn't the time to pull it into Starfleet regulation format before a rushed lift-off, responding to what she perceived as an unexplainable emergency aboard her starship.

"Kathryn," she finally heard him break the silence, "what makes you think it's only a schoolgirl crush?"

Abruptly, fearing the path the conversation could wind into, she snapped, "Because I can't allow it be anything but."

"When it comes to matters of the heart," Chakotay counseled softly, "the mind has very little place. That's something my father used to tell me as I was maturing into a man."

Facing forward, she stated, with as much emotional distance as she could muster, "Commander, the only way I've maintained professional decorum these last few weeks was by convincing myself that these errant thoughts of you were nothing but a fantasy. A passing flight of the imagination -"

"I get the point," he interrupted, sounding mildly insulted.

"A momentary psychological indulgence -"

A red proximity indicator blinked on Janeway's console, signaling that the Maddox had detected Voyager. Next, the shuttlecraft would initiate programmed spatial correspondence subroutines to establish ship-to-ship contact and intercept coordinates. Responding to her panel, she tapped the red light, and the indicator blanked.

"Don't mistake me, Chakotay," she admitted, her self-imposed barriers starting to crack. "You're ... a damned attractive man. Any woman would be as happy as a lark to have you. I'm just not that woman. I won't be. I can't be."

Then, she made the mistake of looking into his eyes ...

His deep, dark, handsome, inviting eyes.

Quickly, she shook off all feelings of attraction. "Under our present circumstances, I'm afraid, any relationship beyond friendship would be less than ... possible."

Pouting, she realized she had been monopolizing the conversation. "And why is it that I'm the only one doing all of the talking?"

Smiling, he admitted, "It's for your confession. I was sitting here, trying to play the role of the eligible suitor. The ever-polite and courteous gentleman. Kathryn, the truth is -"

Piercing the intimate dialogue of the shuttle's cabin, an emergency claxon rang from the pilot's console. "Warning," the computer stated. "Federation ship-to-ship docking hails have been reflected."

"Reflected?" Janeway asked. "What? What's going on?"

Chakotay manually triggered a docking hail, only to find that his controls squeaked at him negatively. "Captain," he said, "it looks like we're not welcome here."

Suddenly, phaser fire exploded against the Maddox's shields. Janeway felt the craft buckle beneath her as she and Chakotay were bounced around violently in their chair restraints.

"That was quite the reply," he snapped.

In command mode again, Captain Janeway considered her alternatives. She looked down at her own screens, only to find them dark.

"That first blast tactically disabled secondary shuttle ops," she reasoned aloud. "Whoever's firing at us is only trying to disable the craft, not destroy it."

"That's good news," Chakotay remarked grimly.

"My controls are dead," she exclaimed. "Are Voyager's shields raised?"

"Negative," Chakotay replied, glancing across his pilot's console to course plotting. The screen was dancing with new images. "But, our shields are down to sixty-seven percent."

Immediately, another phaser blast rocked the tiny Maddox's defensive screens.

"Make that thirteen percent, Captain," he announced.

"Get us out of here," she ordered.

His hands moved rapidly across the controls, touching the vector panel, steering the Maddox clear of its current flight path.

"Captain, one more hit, and -"

For a third time, the Maddox shuddered in the wake of a phaser assault.

"Shields are down," he stated.

"Chakotay," she ordered, catching only a glimpse of the vector plotting display, "take us to bearing one-one-nine -"

Still, the attack continued. The Maddox lurched wildly to port, and Janeway felt her shoulders tear painfully into the restraints. Almost simultaneously, a junction box directly behind her exploded, filling the cabin with a rainfall of incandescent sparks.

"Warp capability is offline!" Chakotay shouted over the crackling explosion. "We just lost our starboard nacelle!"

"How's maneuverability?" she asked.

"Practically down to zero!" he assessed quickly. Turning to face her, he added, somberly, "You might as well consider us sitting ducks."

A final volley ripped the Maddox, a sensation unlike anything Janeway had ever felt before. She bounced violently in her seat. The pilot's seat that Chakotay occupied tore from its mooring in the deck plates, and he plummeted backward, out of her field of view. As a result of the quake, she lurched forward, her head nearing the splintering shuttlecraft consoles at a dangerous speed ...

... when Kathryn Janeway materialized in Voyager's Cargo Bay Two.

Dizzily, she slumped forward, overwhelmed with an incredibly throbbing headache. Her surroundings began to swim and twirl, and she swore she heard the thundering pulse of Rintella's Wyxlyn Falls still in her ears. From somewhere in the distance, she thought she heard the familiar voice of Harry Kim call out her name before she collapsed to the cargo deck ...

... unconscious.

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