They tell me we're home.
We finally managed to create a stable wormhole and direct its opening, and now here we are, back in the Alpha Quadrant, back in Federation territory, where we belong. Somehow, after all the hoping and dreaming and the stories I've heard all my life, I am not nearly as excited as I'd thought I would be. In fact, I'm depressed.
They tell me we've made it back home, but I have never left.
"Voyager, what's the hold up?"
And they are in too much of a rush to make me leave now.
"I guess they're waiting for us," I say glumly. With all the preparations for opening the wormhole, and the celebrations when we made it through alive and in one piece, I was too busy to think of what the momentous event meant for me. Then I buried myself in the packing and shipping and the learning of the ways and customs of this part of space just so I wouldn't have to face the reality. The reality is I'm being kicked out of the only place I have ever called home.
The Doctor hm'ed noncommittally. He glanced over his shoulder at me. "In a bit of hurry, isn't he?"
The Doctor's sardonically arched eyebrow elicits a smile from me. I can't help it. For days we've been transferring cargo and personnel to the Enterprise for the last leg of our trip to Earth. Now there's just the Doctor and I, and the pods containing the last of the Doctor's patients. That poor transporter operator probably thinks we're taking longer to depart than the rest of the ship did.
"I bet he wants your autograph," I tease. Thanks to Reginald Barclay, the Doctor has become something of a legend in the Federation.
He doesn't grace the comment with anything more than a faint, "Hm."
He reaches for his comm badge to reply to the impatient transporter tech, and pauses. I can't read his expression. Usually that means he's about to say something I won't like. No one argued when the Doctor announced he wanted to be the last one to leave Voyager. I hung around, assisting him with last minute appointments and packing. I'm sure I've been more a hindrance than help, considering I've only just begun my training. For some reason he has tolerated my steady company without comment. I brace myself, expecting him to tell me he didn't need anymore 'help' and to go on ahead. So his question understandably takes me by surprise.
"Did you pack everything?"
The question is so stupid and so incredibly late in the asking that I have to swallow back a laugh. "Of course I packed everything. They," I nod at his communicator, "have it all."
"Are you sure?" the Doctor asks solicitously. He has long since ceased to take my moods personally. "Perhaps you should take another look, just in case."
Okay, so the Doctor is hard to figure out sometimes.
And I'm really not in the mood to play games. He must sense this because he finally gets to the point.
"You haven't said goodbye yet, have you?" The certainty in his eyes says it wasn't really a question.
Typical me, I refuse to answer.
"That's what I thought," he says with a sigh and a shake of his head. He only needs to tsk, tsk me to make the image complete.
The Doctor looks up, his eyes losing focus a little. "Voyager to Enterprise." It is one of those oddly human stances you wouldn't expect a hologram to pick up – that of trying to peer through the hull of a ship to see the person you are speaking to.
"Enterprise." The vaguely familiar voice belongs to her Captain. "Is there a problem, Doctor?"
"No, sir. We're just..." The Doctor's gaze settles on me. "...turning off the lights."
The Captain is quiet for a moment. "Understood."
I believe he does. I think I do too, but I don't want to. "Take all the time you need."
"Well?" the Doctor asks after signing off.
"We have a little time," he says, turning back to fuss some more over his remaining patients. "What are you going to do about it?"
What am I going to do about it? What can I do about it? I don't want to leave Voyager, but I don't have much choice in the matter. Voyager is an old ship. She has been through more than she was ever designed for. She has seen people born and die, worlds come and go, been further than any other Federation ship has ever been, and now she is home. Now she can rest.
I wish I could.
I open my mouth to ask the Doctor what he meant, and close it again. He is humming his opera as he works, the way he does when he is really enjoying himself, or when he has dismissed his audience. He has never turned his back on me before for not understanding him. Yet, here he is, ignoring me.
Hurt, and I guess more than a little confused, I wander out of the transporter room. I do not go anywhere in particular. There is nowhere to go anymore. Not really. We're the last still aboard, and there is nothing left of interest to see or do.
I briefly consider going to the messhall, but I am not in the mood for anything replicated. And cooking isn't exactly my most accomplished skill. Anyway, the place just hasn't been the same since Neelix left. Who would have thought leola root stew could be missed?
While I debate, my feet make the choice for me. They stop moving just outside the shuttle bay. I don't know why. I haven't been here for months. Not since Lanna...
Well, anyway, the debris has been cleared away. I really shouldn't be surprised. The crew has always been good at keeping up with repairs. And we are all especially good at cleaning up after disasters. We've had enough practice. Besides, who wants to be reminded of the death of a shipmate?
The Delta Flyer is still here. I've never seen a shuttle look so bad. I guess no one has had time to repair her. Or the heart to. It belonged to the Parises, and they are no more. It'll stay here at the deep space station and join Voyager in whatever fate meets a decommissioned ship. I'm sorry to see it go, but it has no place in the Alpha Quadrant. Not without somebody to fly and love that heap of scrap metal.
I wish Uncle Harry had warned me, though. I have no doubt the Delta Flyer's continued existence was his doing. He's a romantic at heart. By all rights, it should have been salvaged and recycled by now.
Lanna would certainly have appreciated the gesture. She was her father's daughter. With her mother's fire and her father's passion, Lanna Paris was the best pilot Voyager had ever encountered. She was also the most free of the free spirits. A deadly combination, as the crash ultimately proved. Well, at least she would have appreciated the irony of going out of the universe in the same way she came in, screaming in a damaged Delta Flyer. Lanna was strange that way.
B'Elanna Torres-Paris died in the Delta Flyer while giving birth to Lanna. She and her husband had been stranded after a run in with a particularly nasty ion storm. My mother spent a lot of time with Tom Paris trying to teach him how to handle and care for a baby. I couldn't decide whether to hate Lanna for the attention she stole, or to love her for being a new playmate. I still haven't decided on that count.
My first taste of the affects of death on a person came in the form of Uncle Tom. I can still remember how subdued he was when my mother and I came over to help take care of Lanna. He was quiet, as if lacking energy. There was little of the joking around I was used to. He still tried to include me in activities and make me feel like a part of the ship, but I could tell his heart was never quite in it. That belonged to Lanna. I knew it from the smiles he wore when he held her. I've seen them on my mother's face when she held me.
He volunteered to lead the Aliini away from us while Voyager, helpless, made some much needed repairs. I don't know if he knew it would turn out to be a suicide mission. I like to think that a daughter put the spark back into his life and that Uncle Tom intended to come home. It's the romantic in me.
Captain Janeway went back to recover Uncle Tom. Uncle Harry, between his duties and Lanna, spent a lot of time repairing the Delta Flyer. He even let me help a little. Maybe he knew Lanna would inherit her father's passion for flying.
I feel a tickle on my cheek. I look at my wet fingers, not quite understanding. All I know is I can't stay here anymore. It hurts too much.
Maybe I will go to the mess hall. Coffee might settle my stomach. It's a good thing the Doctor can't hear my thoughts... he'd scoff at that idea. But coffee is to me what hot chocolate is to others: comfort food. No, I haven't spent much time around Captain Janeway, but I'm willing to bet it was comfort food for her, too.
I automatically detour around the shielded corridors, the two decks and four sections made uninhabitable by a last parting shot from the Aliini before we were finally able to leave their sphere of influence. It is a constant reminder to us that there are people out there who are bigger and stronger than us, and who don't take too kindly to trespassing. We did manage to procure a useful gift from them which the Aliini had no intention of ever giving us: the life pods.
Well, that's what the Doctor likes to call them. They look more like purple medbeds with lids to me. They are actually highly advanced stasis chambers, better than anything the Federation's ever come up with, according the Doctor's raves. They allow someone to interact with the being inside without removing the stasis field. A doctor could repair, say, a badly damaged heart by putting the person in stasis. Then as far as the heart is concerned, one beat it's injured, the next it's not. Theoretically, anyway. The Doctor had witnessed something similar being done on an Aliini ship, once. He just hasn't been able to discover how yet.
He does, however, know how to turn the things on and off. And, if I follow the Doctor's enthusiastic ramblings correctly, it's safer to put a seriously injured person into one of the life pods than into a standard stasis chamber.
Which left us with four working pods, one partially destroyed pod to play with, and hard decisions to make. The Doctor had told Captain Janeway from the start that he'd only put someone in one if the damage was beyond his ability to repair, and if he thought the patient stood a chance of recovery when Voyager made it home. Once all of them were filled, there was then the decision as to whether or not to oust one of the patients in favor of someone with a better probability at survival.
That unenviable task was left to the Doctor and Captain on more than one occasion. I know. My mother occupied one of the pods for three months. Imagine explaining to a twelve year old why her mother's last hope was sacrificed because someone else as far gone had a better chance. I think I took it well... after the tantrum. Well, okay, after I repaired the damage from said tantrum.
That's about the time I started to call Lanna my best friend. She had been accused on more than occasion of being a bad influence on me. I don't know. No one else could make me so angry and laugh so hard at the same time. Or draw me out of my shell when my mother first went into the life pod. Lanna was the only one who didn't handle me with kid gloves when my mother died the second time. If that's considered a bad influence, then I'll take her 'bad' over anybody else's 'good' any day.
We were known as the 'terrible twosome'. Boredom and curiosity don't mix well. Especially with Lanna's brains. She was the most creative troublemaker I've ever known. She was like a nova: hot, bright, beautiful, dangerous to be around, and gone all too soon. Oh, did Neelix and Uncle Harry have their hands full with her.
Yes, the Borg kids were closer to my age. But we didn't interact much. We couldn't seem to find much in common. It's not as if they had a normal childhood, you know. Not that my childhood could be considered normal, but still.
The trip to the messhall seems longer than usual. My feet must be dragging. Mentally seeing my mother scowl, I make a conscious effort at picking them up.
The mess hall, not surprisingly, is empty. I pause at the door, hesitant to interrupt its solitude. Silly. I shake my head at myself and order my coffee. I watch the cup materialize, puzzled. Maybe the Doctor was serious about turning the lights off. Surely someone should have turned off the power to this section of the ship by now. I'm too grateful for the aroma drifting my way to worry about the shutdown procedures.
Instead, I take my slightly-too-hot mug to a table near the view ports and settle in. This would be the perfect time for Neelix to show up. He always had a way of intruding on your thoughts when you were trying to be alone with your loneliness. It sure was an annoying talent. I miss it.
I wonder how he's doing? We left him at an Ocampan colony we found a few years back. How the Ocampans got so far away from their home system is still a mystery. They honestly thought they were the last of their kind. I'm not sure why Neelix decided to stay with them. They don't live very long and they didn't really need any outside help. He talked a lot of Kes before he left. She was his Ocampan companion when he first joined Voyager, before I was born. She left sometime before my earliest memories. I don't know. Maybe it was unrequited love on his part. Or some sense of duty or something. I'm ashamed to say I didn't ask, and Neelix never volunteered. Not to me.
At least he wasn't here for our last encounter with the Borg a year and a half ago. With Seven having been reclaimed by the Borg, Captain Janeway assimilated, and Tuvok's botched mind meld... It surely would have broken Neelix's heart.
I don't like where my thoughts are going, so I try chasing them off by moving again. I pass by sickbay without entering. I already know there's nothing there. I helped the Doctor pack up and move what he needed.
One of the life pods had been cannibalized to service the other three during the Borg attack. Its remains had long since been transferred to the Enterprise. The Borg Queen, safely ensconced in one of the life pods, was the first one to leave Voyager when we entered the Alpha Quadrant. Safely transferred to the courier ship with a contingent of armed guards, of course. Captain Chakotay left nothing to chance. The Queen's a sneaky one, and possibly the Federation's best chance at turning the Borg back for once and for all.
Unless the Doctor got tired of waiting for me, the other two pods are in the transporter room waiting for the word to be given.
Now I find myself inside a turbo lift without a command to give. Where to? Definitely not back to the shuttle bay. Going to my quarters would be an exercise in futility. I could tour the duty stations and make sure everything's been turned off, but don't have the heart for it. The only interest I ever had in engineering was back when I was a kid and following Seven around. 'Course, there's always the bridge... Nah.
For the first time today, my mood starts to lighten. I've been to the bridge once, when I was very young. It was one of the few things I could taunt Lanna with. We tried to sneak up a couple of times, but we were always caught before we even came close. I'm sure Neelix and Uncle Harry developed psychic abilities just to trip us up. And Captain Chakotay isn't here to say no, so...
The gloom that has been trailing me since we started the evacuation descends full force as I step off the turbolift. A room should never feel as empty as the bridge does now. I take in the quiescent stations and the patiently waiting chairs and feel like crying. A room like this, a bridge, begs to be occupied. It needs its Captain, the tacticians, the scientists, the engineers, the pilots… There is only me, and I'm none of the those.
I sit behind the pilot's station only because Lanna is not here to do so herself. She'd be thrilled at its central position, as if it were the most important role here. When we played in the holodeck, I was always the captain, though I'm not much of a leader, or the bad guy, because someone had to.
I play with the switches, finally find one to activate the view screen. The stars are a pretty, but meaningless, backdrop. And the Enterprise hangs just inside the view screen's borders, waiting.
If Lanna were here, she would make some half playful, half serious remark about starting her up and taking Voyager out of here. Lanna never cared if we reached the Alpha Quadrant, she was in it solely for the adventure. There was never anything for her here. Grandparents, maybe. Not enough to hold her here. Lanna belonged to the stars.
I was born on this ship and I grew up here. But I don't belong to the ship, not like Lanna did. Not like those who once occupied this room on a regular basis. I can name them all. I can almost see them in their accustomed spots.
Tuvok would sit – no, he's a Vulcan, he would stand – at the tactical station behind and to the side of the Captain's chair. He hasn't been the same since he tried to mindmeld with the Borg Queen in a desperate attempt to get information about Seven and Captain Janeway and the rest of the missing crew members. A lot of people owe their lives to him. The Doctor has hopes that mind healers on Vulcan can help him.
Uncle Tom would sit here where I am now. I bet he made some terrible jokes while on duty. Lanna must have gotten it from him. I can't imagine a Klingon, even a half Klingon, having a sense of humor like that. Well, then again, B'Elanna Torres did marry Tom Paris.
I look around the bridge. One of those darkened stations must belong to the engineering section. But if she was as passionate about her field as Lanna was about flying, then B'Elanna probably spent most her time down in Engineering with the warp core and all. Her presence on the bridge likely came in the form of a disembodied voice.
I turn my chair to the right a little and look over my shoulder. Captain Janeway would sit right there, just slightly off center so she could see the action without having to look over anybody's head. There is a lot of space there to pace when making decisions or giving orders.
Seven? I don't know. None of the stations call her name. Surely she had a space up here. It's a big bridge... it would seem empty with out her.
I don't know if Neelix ever had a station up here, but he sure associated with the bridge crew a lot. I wouldn't be surprised if Captain Janeway considered him an honorary member. Commander Kim will always be Uncle Harry to me, I don't care how embarrassed he gets. I hope his planned transfer goes well. I think he might be happy serving as first officer on a ship without all the unpleasant memories associated with it.
Captain Chakotay probably occupied the seat next to Captain Janeway until the Borg got to her. He will be giving up command to stand trial for actions he made before I was born. I hope whatever judge he gets takes into account the change of politics and his service record while onboard Voyager. I know he thinks of himself as a Starfleet officer now, and he makes a very good captain.
The Doctor, I imagine, made himself seen or heard whenever he felt like it. He's ornery enough. He's going to meet up with some technicians and physicians and other specialists to get the life pods figured out just as soon as Starfleet's finished debriefing everyone.
Some of the people who made Voyager what she is can no longer be here. The others who are a part of her have found somewhere else to go, some way to move on.
So what am I still doing here?
Packing up memories. The Doctor's right, I have forgotten something. I've forgotten that children are expected to leave home, to forge a home of their own. I have no interest in joining Starfleet. I'm only the Doctor's apprentice because it's a useful profession on a ship stranded far away from home. Maybe there is something in the Federation that will pull my passions the way flying did for Lanna. I give the view screen one last gaze before I turn it off. It's a big universe out there. I guess it's time to find my way.
"You look like someone who's finally made a decision," the Doctor comments as I rejoin him in the transporter room. "Did you find everything?"
"I think I did. Thank you."
The Doctor nods once at my gratitude, a ghost of a smile on his face.
I look at the remaining life pods on the transporter pad. Captain Janeway and Seven of Nine waiting on us, still. "Are they ready?"
A sad half smile crosses his face. "They've been ready for quite some time," he says softly.
Oh. I hadn't realized. All that fussing over the pods, his insistence on being the last one to leave Voyager, were all delaying tactics of his own. I hadn't thought that leaving would be hard for him, as well. We have something uniquely in common. We were both conceived in the Alpha Quadrant, born in the Delta Quadrant, and grew up on the ship. We're both children of Voyager. Now it's time we became adults somewhere else.
"Shall we go, Miss Wildman?" The Doctor grandly offers me his arm.
"They're probably getting tired of waiting for us," I say by way of answer as I take his arm.
"Undoubtedly." We take our places on the transporter pad beside the life pods. "Voyager to Enterprise, we're ready to join you."
"Can I?" I whisper, jumping in before he can speak the magic word.
The Doctor's melancholy smile brightens into an amused grin. He nods his permission. I smile back and raise my voice, unnecessarily, to be heard through his comm badge.
I've always wanted to say that. I just never realized it would be synonymous with 'goodbye'.