"It's a what?"
"A vortex. A time-and-space machine."
Kathryn viewed her increasingly concerned first officer with a small smile. "They don't quite remember. They think there were several of these living machines, scattered across the universe."
"Is the rest of the landing party all right?"
"Yes. I left Tuvok down there to take readings and they seemed to be enjoying Tom and Neelix's conversation so they remained as well."
"You left Tom and Neelix down there to talk to a time-and-space machine," repeated Chakotay, trying to convince himself that his captain had indeed suffered no harm on the planet's surface.
"Two-hundred-million-years, you get a little lonely, I suppose."
The comm chimed. "Captain."
"See?" Kathryn reassured her first officer before she answered Tuvok's hail. "Nothing to worry about."
That, he considered, was because she didn't know yet what had happened in the small weapons' room.
"Yes, Tuvok," she responded, still throwing a puzzled glance in the direction of Chakotay's concerned gaze.
"Mr. Paris and I have made an interesting discovery. The Guardians say they have the ability to move large bodies not only through time, but through space as well. Apparently this is how the race which originally designed the machines traveled."
"How large a body?"
"They're a little vague, Captain." Tom voice filtered through from a distance. "But I don't think Voyager would pose much of a problem for them."
"You're sure they understand?"
"What's with you B'Elanna? This is probably our last night in the Delta Quadrant and you want to play twenty questions with the neighborhood time machine?"
The half-Klingon slipped out of his grasp. "I don't like it. We've got no control."
"No we don't," agreed Tom, finding the situation completely familiar.
"And that doesn't bother you?"
"B'Elanna, you've checked everything out twice. You've had Carey and Seven check everything out twice. You've even had Chakotay check everything out and he couldn't find his way out of the engineering section without the guidebook." He reached out into the darkness and she took his hands. "Besides I have other plans for the evening."
"Yeah," she said distantly, still worrying over the thought of being propelled not by her engines but by some untapped force of the living machine below them. "Like what?"
"I thought we'd bite each other and make it official."
"What?" she repeated, jolted from her calculations.
"You heard me. I want to get married. I want to get married to you and I want to get married in the Delta Quadrant. Seeing as my scenario by necessity has to be completed within seven hours, we better get moving."
"You can't be serious."
"What's wrong? Don't want to marry me?"
"Yes . . . no . . . what the hell is the right answer to that question?"
"The right answer is to come with me."
He extended his hand. Still shaking her head to clear the stray engineering equations from it, B'Elanna merely stared at her insistent suitor. "Tom, if this is about going home."
"Maybe it is," he admitted, his hand still paused, reaching in her direction. "I don't know what will happen to us, but I know I don't want to lose you. Don't want you to lose me, hence the knot. Come on, B'Elanna. If I remember they do same-hour divorces on Riegel Seven. What's the risk?"
"Klingons don't divorce."
"Hmmm, well guess we'll just have to separate and live in different quadrants."
"Are you serious?"
B'Elanna stared into his unfamiliarly tense face. The whole place was going to hell in a handbasket. The captain was trusting her ship and their lives to some alien-derived vortex. The rest of the crew was delighted with the prospect of seeing home again and only she and Tom Paris stood in their cabin, dreading the return. "We could just ask to be let off the ship."
"Coward," Tom growled.
"Well, I'm not wearing white."
"Be hard to get the blood stains out," her suitor agreed.
"Holodeck?" B'Elanna asked, smoothing down the front of her uniform.
"You want to go Klingon first?"
"What do you mean first?'"
"Well we can bite each other and then marry. Or marry each other and then bite. The captain should be in her quarters."
B'Elanna pondered a minute. Kahless, with Tom it was hard to tell. Was he joking? Was she? "You seriously mean to do this?"
Odd to prepare for departure by making sure the engines were off-line. Chakotay sat in his customary chair in the center bridge and tried to find something useful to do.
"All stations are prepared," reported Seven.
Chakotay nodded, glancing at the display panel and feeling even more useless. The pervasive sense of anticipation had failed to spread to him as the time drew closer. A chapter in the book of his life was drawing to a close and he felt its passage with all its regrets. What he hadn't made of this version of his life. He fingered the bar that clipped to his uniform collar. Not Maquis, there were no more Maquis. Not Starfleet, the cool metal bar proved that. He'd proven that.
Kathryn joined him at the command center and Chakotay responded for one of the last times to the field rank. "Everything's ready."
The lift doors snapped open and he looked toward the back of the bridge. B'Elanna was late. Now there was a kindred soul who might not be so happy to see the Alpha Quadrant again. He'd thought about trying to find her last night then decided to leave her and Tom to whatever celebration they'd concocted. One of their more active trysts from the look of her cheek.
Seventy thousand light years, five years of their lives and in a second it was over.
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