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355 Notice: Undefined variable: noimg in /home/davidh/psiphi.org/cgi/upc-db.php on line 270 Notice: Undefined variable: noimg in /home/davidh/psiphi.org/cgi/upc-db.php on line 287 Notice: Use of undefined constant ppin - assumed 'ppin' in /home/davidh/psiphi.org/cgi/upc-db.php on line 361 Notice: Use of undefined constant ppin - assumed 'ppin' in /home/davidh/psiphi.org/cgi/upc-db.php on line 394 Notice: Use of undefined constant pragma - assumed 'pragma' in /home/davidh/psiphi.org/cgi/upc-db.php on line 394 Notice: Undefined index: pragma in /home/davidh/psiphi.org/cgi/upc-db.php on line 394 Psi Phi: Notice: Use of undefined constant title - assumed 'title' in /home/davidh/psiphi.org/cgi/upc-db.php on line 400 Distant Shores [Star Trek Books Database]

Psi Phi's Star Trek Books Database



Notice: Use of undefined constant title - assumed 'title' in /home/davidh/psiphi.org/cgi/upc-db.php on line 444 Distant Shores


Previous: Strange New Worlds 8
Next: Other Times #1: (TBA)
Star Trek: Voyager
Trade Paperback / November, 2005
0-7434-9253-6

Edited by Marco Palmieri
"Da Capo al Fine" written by Heather Jarman
"Command Code" written by Robert Greenberger
"Winds of Change" written by Kim Sheard
"Talent Night" written by Jeffrey Lang
"Letting Go" written by Keith R.A. DeCandido
"Closure" written by James Swallow
"Isabo's Shirt" written by Kirsten Beyer
"The Secret Heart of Zolaluz" written by Robert T. Jeschonek
"Brief Candle" written by Christopher L. Bennett
"Eighteen Minutes" written by Terri Osborne
"Or the Tiger" written by Geoffrey Thorne
"Bottomless" written by Ilsa J. Bick

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Excerpt:

Neelix tried to take a breath and almost choked. Instead of air, his lungs filled with stone dust and powdered earth, snatching away his gasps into strangled wheezes. The shock of it made him drop to his knees. He coughed and spat, one hand pressed to his chest where the cavern's atmosphere cut him inside like razors. The Talaxian blinked dust motes from his eyes, and presently the pain beneath his ribs ebbed. He got up and took some careful steps, puffing like an old man. The rumble was dying away; an echo of the sound fading into silence down the tunnels. The ground beneath his feet seemed solid again; seconds earlier it had shaken like the deck of a boat in high seas.

"Oh," he managed. The lining of his throat felt like it had been run through a cheese grater and stuffed back inside him. Gritting his teeth, Neelix forced himself to stave off the daze that threatened to overcome him and move forward. His boots made broad prints in the layer of pumice-like sand the tremor had deposited on the ground. Patting his pockets brought a sour grimace to his usually pleasant and open face. His tricorder was gone, probably having fallen out of his coat when the rockslide had begun. There was a pile of glittering fragments near his feet, all that remained of the device shattered beneath a flat boulder. He sighed; the mix of peculiar ores in the cavern walls played havoc with the delicate sensors, anyway. Beyond anything but point-blank range, the portable computers had proven useless down here in the deeps.

Best to search the old-fashioned way. "Seven!" Almost instantly Neelix was coughing again, the shout irritating his lungs. "Gah," he snarled, and then called her name once more. He was rewarded by the sound of something shifting on the rocks, and then a groggy, weak noise--less a voice, more a feeble mew.

Not far. The Talaxian's hearing was perfect for this sort of thing, the minute perturbations in the air tickling the lobes of his ears and the whiskers of his beard. "Seven?" he repeated, and this time she spoke.

"Here," There was a faint glow coming from the palm beacon she had dropped, and Neelix took it up, turning the beam on the Borg drone. He was briefly glad that she couldn't see his expression behind the bright light. The grotesque gash across the woman's pale face was wet with blood, her skin ripped around the silver comma of her optical implant. The wound was messy and it turned his stomach.

"Are you all right?" he asked, and instantly regretted the obviousness of his question. Neelix quickly set to work moving a pile of small stones from where they had buried Seven's right leg.

The woman ran a hand over her face and torso, a very human gesture for someone who had so long been an inhuman. "My..." She seemed to be struggling to find the right words, "my function is impaired..."

Neelix's hand closed around something square among the rubble and he seized it eagerly. The casing on Seven's tricorder was broken but the device was still operating. He waved the sensor head over her body, watching the march of data as the unit scanned her.

"I... detect levels of neural damage in my neocortical processor," she said thickly, "isolytic leakage in bio-regulation moderator and preomenor."

"Ah," said Neelix, in what he hoped would be a calming, of-course-I-understand sort of way. The tricorder beeped as its diagnostic cycle ended and presented him with the same report, albeit phrased in terms the Talaxian could better grasp. "Your leg is broken in two places," he said gently, "and there's some internal bleeding." He forced a smile. "I'm sure your nanoprobes will be on the job! You'll be fixed in no time!"

Seven's gaze was unfocussed. "I was struck directly by several large stones," she said, in a matter-of-fact tone, "I require--" Without warning, her head lolled, like a sleeper on the edge of a doze. The tricorder chirped out a warning, but in the next moment she was awake again. She pointed into the gloom. "There is a medical kit in my equipment case."

Neelix found the backpack and the blue plastic box embossed with the Starfleet caduceus, recovering a hypospray and a vial of anti-infective. Seven's ragged breathing eased as he discharged the injector at her neck. "I'm going to try to contact the captain," he told her, gathering up the torch and getting to his feet. Neelix swept the lamp across the breadth of the cavern, tapping the communicator on his breast. "Away team to Voyager."

The combadge made a desultory click and stayed silent. He tried again, his face forming a frown as the torchlight illuminated the entrance vent they had used to descend to this level. The rock tunnel was gone, hidden beneath a mound of stone and earth that even hand phasers would be ill suited to breach. He tapped the badge over and over, rephrasing his message as if that might somehow help it get through to the starship orbiting high overhead.

"You are wasting your effort," Seven said flatly, "signals will not penetrate the strata of this area." She indicated the rocks. "The veracite ore and yurium present here block all energy transmissions below--"

"Yes, of course," snapped the Talaxian, irritation flaring inside him. He smothered the feeling quickly and gave the Borg a wan smile. "Not to worry. I'm sure Captain Janeway is aware of the situation. If you just sit tight and wait--"

"I have little choice," Seven responded. Her hand strayed to her head and she blanched. "I will require medical assistance quite soon."

"I'll do the best I can," Neelix rooted inside the medkit and recovered a handful of devices; he'd taken the Doctor's emergency first aid refresher course just like the rest of Voyager's crew, but half the gear in the case was alien to him. You're the wrong man for this job, said a voice in the back of his mind. She'll die if you don't get her out of here. He forced the thoughts away with another smile and gave the drone another dose of detoxin and stimulant. "This should help you." He glanced at the tricorder and hesitated. "How... how long do you think you can, uh..."

When Seven replied there was a line of anxiety in her voice that Neelix had never heard before. "My internal diagnostics indicate that neural shutdown will occur in less than nine hours. Brain death will commence approximately ten to sixteen minutes after that."

"Oh," he said. "Some doctor I am, asking the patient for the diagnosis, eh?" The attempt at levity was as weak as his grin. Neelix touched Seven's hand and gave it a warm squeeze, the metal of her implants cool against his skin. "Don't worry, Seven. We'll get out of this long before... I mean, we'll be all right."

"Your optimism is appreciated, if not actually beneficial."

He fumbled inside the backpack and recoiled when his fingers touched something damp and mushy. "The ration packs were crushed... they've all burst open and spoiled."

Seven eyed him. "I think it unlikely that we will starve to death."

"That's it!" Neelix replied, "Think positive!"

"We are more likely to perish in another earthquake before that occurs."

"Well, those Starfleet edibles are poor excuses for food, anyway. 'M-R-E', Meals-Ready-to-Eat indeed. Do you know what Mister Kim told me once? He said the name actually stood for Meals-Rejected-by-Entarans, and you know that species, they'll eat anything..." The Talaxian's voice trailed off. Suddenly he felt worn out and useless. "Will you be all right if I leave you here alone?"

"As I said, I have little choice in the matter."

Neelix frowned at her dour tone. "I'm going to scout around and see if I can find another exit from the caverns, perhaps another channel to the surface."

Seven blinked slowly. She was finding it difficult to stay awake. She offered him the tricorder. "You should take this."

He shook his head. "You need it more than I do. If there's fresh air coming in anywhere down here, I'll smell it." He tapped his nose. "I'll sniff it out." Neelix moved off into the dark, leaving the woman alone in her pool of artificial light. He glanced over his shoulder just once, and the look of almost childlike dread he saw on Seven's face made his blood run cold.

* * *

Neelix passed through the throat of the tunnel and into the cavern proper. There was light in here, after a fashion, a myriad of glittering flecks of yellow-green matter threaded throughout the strata of the rocks. Neelix was no geologist, but he'd seen enough of the ore in his time to recognize the element the humans called veracite. The planet was rich with it. An exotic substance laced with energy, veracite was used by many pre-warp races as a power source, but the side effects of proximity to it--mainly the disruption of any technology with a duonetic field--made it anathema to most spacefaring species. Not that there was anyone on Nyma IV to be concerned with that... at least, not any more. From space, the unremarkable brownish-green planet seemed exactly like the hundreds of other life-bearing worlds that dotted the wilds of the Delta Quadrant, and on the surface Voyager's survey teams had found nothing but a few higher order primates and the expected panoply of flora and fauna. It was only on the eighth day, when the crew had just started to grumble about "a wild goose chase", that things had become much more interesting. Performing a low-altitude sweep of Nyma IV's eastern savanna region, Ensigns Duarte and Chell picked up something on the sensors of their shuttle that read like refined, starship-grade metals.

And there it was; a dolmen, Chakotay had called it, a structure akin to burial stones left behind by some of Earth's precursor civilizations. The marker concealed the entrance to the tunnel network, and soon they were inside the long-dead arteries of the world, passing through lava tubes that crossed in a broad web. Just as Janeway predicted, people had lived down here. The tunnels were rife with pictographs and drawings, and in the caverns there were the cities.

Millions of years ago, vast basalt bubbles hardened into stone vaults hundreds of feet tall. The people that had come to Nyma IV mirrored their civilizations on other worlds and forged communities underground. They lived and loved and died under the constant glow of their veracite sky. Neelix entered the huge natural atrium and felt the same emotion he had the first time he had seen it, a mingling of awe and sadness. Voyager's crew had been the first sentients to set foot in here for centuries.

They had only mapped about a quarter of this cavern's interior when the tremors began. He wondered about the others; Tom and B'Elanna were working the next cavern over--had they made it out in time, or were they just as trapped as Seven and he? Neelix shook his head to rid himself of the black mood lingering about him. No. I have work to do. I have find a way out. He threw all thought of caution to the wind and began a quick circuit of the cavern's inner wall. This was not the careful survey he had been sent to do; this was an emergency.

Neelix found her at the plaza of red stones where he'd left her before the quake. He was pleased to see that the tremor had done little to disturb the buildings; it seemed that only the tunnels were prone to cave-ins like the one that had injured Seven.

As it always did, her face lit up when she saw him; even now, the brilliance of her smile stung him inside like some bittersweet joy. "Neelix! I was worried!"

He returned the smile as best he could. "Kes, thank the Forest you're all right."

She saw his concern instantly. "What's wrong?"

"Seven of Nine has been wounded."

Kes's hand flew to her mouth in surprise. "Oh no. But she's--"

"She's badly hurt," Saying it made Neelix feel tired. "I've tried to stabilize her, but I thought you might--"

"You did the best you could?" Kes asked.

He nodded. "Yes, but I'm not really that experienced with medicine."

"You did the best you could," repeated the girl with a nod of complete certainty, "That will be enough."

"I hope so."

She stepped closer to him, and Neelix caught the intoxicating smell of her hair, the same mix of fresh flower oils that always sparked thoughts of their first meeting. "I... I was afraid something might have happened to you...."

Kes shook her head. "I took shelter in one of the temples when the ground started shaking, I was fine," she soothed. "These buildings have withstood these quakes for millennia, they're sturdy enough to protect me. And besides, you had to think of Seven's welfare first."

"Yes..." Neelix swallowed hard. "We should start looking for another tunnel, sweeting. If there's an aftershock we could all be buried alive down here."

She smiled again. "That won't happen. Come on, this way." Neelix followed two steps behind Kes as she led him to the empty moat that ran the perimeter of the cavern. She was so light-footed before him she made him feel big and clumsy. Her pace was almost playful, as if they were skipping across the sands in a resort holoprogram and not the perpetual twilight of this cave-city. Kes's vitality was always infectious, but here and now it seemed to leave Neelix behind. He felt strangely dislocated from the girl.

They moved quickly. Without the need to document and scan every inch of the rock face as Starfleet regulations and away mission protocols demanded, Neelix and Kes felt their way past the dry aqueducts and ancient channels. Everywhere along the border of the cavern complex there were more and more of the carvings and decorations. Vast friezes and mosaics made from differing shades of veracite covered swathes of the walls, disappearing into the dark above them. Neelix paused to sniff the air, but there was nothing but the scent of aged stone. It reminded him of the museums he had visited on Talax with his sisters as a boy, the vast dusty halls full of old relics; it was the smell of antiquity.

Kes touched one of the mosaics, her slender fingers tracing the shapes. A smile broke out on her face as she found the image of a dancing woman. "See, Neelix. She could almost be my mother."

He followed her look, for a moment seeing the murals on the walls instead of just the walls themselves. There were Ocampa everywhere, frozen in what seemed to be a depiction of a festival of some sort. Children and adults played and laughed, frolicking in a glittering river made from chips of mica. Kes looked into the mosaic eyes of the people in the mural, almost as if she were searching for something.

"It's very beautiful, but we really don't have time to sightsee," said the Talaxian. "We have to keep searching for another tunnel."

She threw him another grin. "Yes, of course."

They moved on, Neelix scanning the rock face for anything that resembled a channel or vent, while Kes stopped and started at every new piece of stone art or statue. He could hardly blame her--how long was it since she had been in the presence of her own species, even if it was just their relics? Neelix felt a pang of familiar guilt. She had given up so much to join him on Voyager's journey, leaving her homeworld behind, turning down the chance to remain with Tanis and the other Ocampans they had encountered months later... at times he felt unworthy of her friendship. He clamped his teeth shut with an audible snap. This train of thought was insidious and he made a physical effort to push it away.

Kes didn't seem to notice; she was absorbed by the unfolding story written across the rocks. The initial surveys of the murals indicated that they were a pictorial record, the odyssey of a group of Ocampans that had left their planet around the time the alien known as the Caretaker had arrived in their system. Tom Paris had found a frieze that showed their rattletrap starship falling into a funnel in space--most likely a wormhole, Mister Vulcan had opined--and emerging close to the Nyma system. It seemed that the Ocampans had taken this good fortune as a sign from their deities and made the fourth planet their home. Neelix was struck once more by the loneliness of the place, something that seemed completely lost on Kes. He could not look at the old, silent city without musing on what had befallen these vital and happy people, while she saw only the wonders they left behind.

His mind drifted back to Seven; the Borg Drone had been the one to discover the first clues about the Nyma colony, rooting through the databases of a derelict Vok scoop-ship. The name 'Ocampa' had instantly raised flags in Voyager's computers and started a search that lasted for several weeks, backtracking the piecemeal navigation charts from the Vok craft and filling in the blanks with spacer hearsay. All of them had known from the start that they were pinning their hopes on a very slim chance, but it was a possibility that Janeway could not afford to ignore. The Ocampa's ersatz Caretaker had been the one to drag Voyager unceremoniously across the entire galactic disc from the Alpha Quadrant, and the prospect that the Nyma colony might hold some clue--any clue--toward reversing that jaunt had to be investigated. Neelix's adult life had never been tied down, always rootless and free, but on some level he had always felt at home out in the void. Not for the first time, he found himself thinking of his alien friends and pondering what it must feel like to be so far from their places of birth. The cities in the caves here hinted at great secrets concealed in their depths, and he could imagine the anticipation of the crew, each of them hoping that this time they would find the way home, but also afraid that Nyma IV would be just another in a long line of disappointments. One more distance marker on the endless road back toward Federation space.

Any question of investigating the ruins would have to wait, however. Seven's life was the priority now. They had almost completed their circuit of the dry moat and all the watercourses and access channels visible were either filled with rubble or far too high up the walls for them to reach. Even able-bodied with ropes and tackle, it would have been nearly impossible, and there was no way Neelix would be able to haul a crippled Seven up the sheer, glittering fascia.

He smelt air.

Neelix's whiskers went tight with surprise. Yes! There, in the shadows ahead, there was an oval mouth cut in the rocks, decorated with veracite discs. It was wide enough to get a brace of Rinaxi sand-oxen down it, and the distinct scent of surface air was seeping through. Kes caught his enthusiasm and ran with him. The Talaxian fumbled in an inner pocket for his penlight and turned the fine, bright beam on the channel entrance. The pumice powder was slick across the floor of the tunnel.

"No," he said aloud, pushing himself up into the yawning cave. Neelix virtually threw himself into the dark, the torch beam darting about him like a mad lighthouse. "No!" His denial rebounded off the slick basalt walls. Perhaps twenty or so meters further up the tunnel there was a broad cairn of fallen rocks, deposited there when the ceiling had given way in decades past. Stones the size of shuttlecraft had landed in wild disorder and there were gaps between them where thin traces of air could still move freely. The faintest of breezes found their way through, teasing the Talaxian's delicate senses with the false prospect of escape. "No, no, no!"

Neelix was rigid with frustration and anger, casting out a fierce kick at some loose pebbles. His hand curled around the penlight and for long seconds he hovered on the edge of smashing the torch on the ground in impotent fury.

In the dimness, he felt Kes's hands on his arm and her touch made the hot rush of emotion subside. "Neelix, don't worry. You'll find another way out."

"There isn't another way out," The words tumbled out of him. He'd been denying it to himself but now it was staring him in the face. "I surveyed the other parts of the moat before the tremor. There are three tunnels in each cavern, and the other two are blocked, just like this one." He let her guide him back out into the city-cave, every footfall heavy and leaden.

Kes gave his wrist a squeeze. "You have the strongest survival instincts of any person I've ever met, Neelix. I know you'll get Seven to safety. There's no doubt in my mind."

His frustration ebbed under the calm surety of her voice, but still the Talaxian felt tired and melancholy. "Kes, I...." He ran his fingers over her face, touching the delicate curves of her ear. She was so very beautiful. It made him sad to think that Kes was entombed here along with him, but there was also some secret, selfish part of Neelix that wanted her company more than anything in the world.

She caught his hand and took it in hers. "What's wrong? Talk to me. You know you can tell me anything."

The words would not come. They lay inside his chest like rough-hewn lumps of metal, refusing to rise and be spoken aloud. He worked so hard to maintain his good humor and personable aspect aboard Voyager. Neelix had taken it upon himself to become the ship's good soul, to be the person that kept the spirits of those star-lost people buoyant. To the best of his abilities, he made sure he kept a warm smile for everyone on the vessel--but some days it was so hard. The captain, Commander Chakotay, Harry and Tom and B'Elanna, little Naomi, even Mister Vulcan and the Doctor... they were all such decent people, their hearts so close to the surface. In a way, he felt responsible for them. They'd been dumped in his backyard, and like any good neighbor, Neelix wanted to help them find their way home again.

But some days it was so hard. So hard to be the happy guy when inside he was crowding out with regrets and unsaid things. He took a shuddering breath and looked into Kes's pale, elfin eyes. How could he tell her the truth he felt at that moment? Neelix knew that the chances of rescue from the caves were now practically zero. This far down, Voyager's transporters would not be able to penetrate the rock to recover them even if the ship's sensor grid could actually peer through the layers of interference; if they tried something radical like phasering their way in, the energy-conductive veins of yurium would dissipate the beams and likely cause another, fatal collapse. A cold ball of ice formed in Neelix's stomach as he accepted the reality of the situation in its full, awful truth. They would not be found in time. They would die down here.

"The captain's going to do all she can to mount a rescue," said Kes, reading his thoughts in the expression on his face. She didn't need to delve into his mind to do it, she knew the tautness around his eyes and the thinning of his lips.

Neelix studied her and again he felt the distance between them; it hurt more than the grim fate he was afraid of. This could be your last chance, he told himself, the last opportunity you will ever have to open your heart to her. "Kes, I wanted to say something to you, but I don't.... I'm not sure of how to..."

She became quite still, watching him carefully, letting him find his way.

"We were so close once... it wasn't easy for me," He looked down. "I'm just worried that I wouldn't be able to tell you how I feel, before we..."

Kes silenced him with a touch of her hand. "Neelix, don't think that way. I know that Voyager is coming." There was such certainty behind her words that he blinked and stuttered to a halt. She smiled again. "Come on, I have something I want to show you." Kes beckoned him after her and he followed her up from the dry moat and into the ruined township. He walked on through the arches and plazas of the Ocampa community, the faint glow of hope the girl gave him warring with his morose mien.

* * *

At first he thought it was an arena or perhaps some kind of theater-in-the-round. Set at the bottom of a progressive set of tiers, the hexagonal atrium seemed to be little more than a bare expanse of marbled stone. There were large pillars, also hexagonal in cross-section, one at each point of the geometric shape and a lone pillar in the middle of the arena. Kes nimbly skipped down careworn steps in the tiers and Neelix picked his way after her; the place had been built for dainty Ocampans, not the larger feet of a Talaxian. The marbling in the rock was peculiarly regular, he noticed, and it was only when he was standing on it that Neelix realized the stones and pillars were actually covered with writing. He could read a little Ocampa and recognized some words in the scrolling cuneiform texts, radiating out from each of the columns like rays from a star.

"These are names?" he asked, receiving a nod from Kes. "Are these the people who lived in the city?"

"I think so. This is a mnemosia."

"I don't know what that is."

She gestured at the pillars. "We never had any of these on Ocampa... but I saw pictures of them in our histories and... and other places." Kes knelt and ran her finger along a line of words. "The ancient Ocampans, the ones who had stronger mental abilities, they used to build these in their cities. People would visit to hear stories from their elders."

"So it is like a theater, then? Or a library?"

Kes walked over to the central pillar. "A little of both, really."

Neelix indicated the carvings. "Where are their stories?"

"Here, in a way. These are the names of the people who remember the stories."

"I still don't understand."

She laid her hands palm down on the pillar and let them flow over the inscriptions. "My people could influence the structure of the stones. They... imprinted them. They placed telepathic patterns in the rock, like a recording." Kes's eyes sparkled as she marveled at the idea. "The Ocampa who came here must have rediscovered the talent. They used the veracite to create a... a psychic cathedral, I suppose you could call it."

"Can you..." Neelix gulped, "Can you, uh, hear anything?"

She smiled back at him. "Not yet. But I can feel them."

The Talaxian looked around; at any other time he might have been awed by the majestic scope of the atrium, but the thought of vast tracts of history left behind by a dead population brought him back to his own--their own--predicament. He tried to keep the morose tone from his voice. "Kes, perhaps we should go back to Seven. We've been gone quite a while and she'll be concerned. I don't like leaving her alone too long."

"She would say you are being irrational," Kes said lightly, "and Seven would never admit to being worried about anything."

"Still," said Neelix, walking away, "We should go."

"I want to stay a little longer." Neelix turned back to argue with her, but he saw the look of determination in her eyes. "This is important to me. Please."

He frowned again; he knew her well enough to know that no amount of talk would change her mind once she had it set on something. "All right, but promise me you'll be careful. And if you feel another tremor coming on, make sure you get to cover."

"I promise." She blew him a playful kiss and settled to her haunches, losing herself in the carvings.

His misgivings building, Neelix made his way back toward the other tunnel.

* * *

Seven's eyes snapped open as he pressed the cold nozzle of the hypospray at her neck, her hand instinctively coming up to block him. "It's all right, it's just me!" Neelix said. "You were passed out when I came back."

"What... what is that?"

"Corophizine, just a booster shot." Her hand dropped and Neelix discharged the hypo. "There. How do you feel?"

"Your question is redundant." The Borg retorted, and Neelix gave a quick smirk. That was the Seven of Nine he knew and loved. She blinked and ran a finger over the star-shaped implant at her ear. "My chronometer has ceased to function. How much time has elapsed?"

"Not much, less than an hour..."

Seven scowled. "Some of my internal mechanisms are dark. They may be shut down by damage or lack of input. I have numerous warning flags from my subprocessors calling for an immediate return to my regeneration alcove." She looked away. "I dislike this sensation. I feel... useless."

"You're far from that," Neelix insisted, "you're the very model of Borg efficiency!"

She arched an eyebrow. "You may desist in your cheerfulness, Mister Neelix. I do not require it."

"Everyone needs cheering up sometimes," he replied, but the confidence in his voice faltered. Do I mean her, or me?

"That is an overly irrational statement."

"Huh," Neelix said with a nod, "Kes said you'd say something like that."

Seven's eyes narrowed. "Kes?"

"She wanted to look over some of the ruins, a temple I think, I didn't see any harm in it--"

The Borg halted him with a raised hand. "You spoke to Kes? Recently?" Suddenly she was looking at Neelix with a level, measuring stare.

"Well, of course!" A chuckle escaped from his throat. "I told her to come back with me, but she's just so hard to say no to."

"Neelix," said Seven, and her tone was deadly serious, "Kes... the Ocampa female... she is not here."

"No, she's in the cavern," he jerked a thumb over his shoulder, "I just said that." From out of nowhere, Neelix felt a cold, creeping sensation crawling up his spine. Seven's expression told him something was very, very wrong.

The Borg shook her head. "You misunderstand me. Kes left Voyager over a year ago, shortly after I joined the crew. Her psychokinetic powers became unstable... she became a noncorporeal life form."

"What are you saying?" The words seemed flat and dead in his mouth. "I saw her! I spoke to her!" Neelix flashed a look back down the tunnel, "She's in there!"

"Perhaps you suffered a head injury in the rockfall--" began Seven.

"No! I know what I saw! You must be mistaken..." He staggered and sat down heavily. "I..." The mind of the Talaxian reeled with the shock of Seven's bald statement. Kes, gone? It's not possible!

And yet, it was. When he concentrated, Neelix could clearly recall the moment; the sudden flash of golden light, the strange wash of turbulent emotions that flowed through him as Kes had... well, as she had ascended into something impossibly distant from a physical form. He could taste the brisk sweetness of the moon-ripened champagne he had shared with her on the day she had changed, that flower scent of her hair returning all over again. She was gone. She's been gone for months! It came back to him in a sudden torrent of memories, the last smile from her before she merged into the stars. The moment slipped back into his mind with potent, damning force and his stomach turned over with sick dread.

"How could that happen?" he said aloud, "I accepted her as if it were perfectly normal. I didn't forget about her leaving the ship, I just... I just didn't remember it."

"You must listen to me carefully," said Seven, her ice-blue eyes never wavering from him, "What you think you saw in the cavern is not Kes. You may have encountered some sort of shape changer, or an illusory projection. In large quantities, the minerals in these caverns have been known to produce hazardous psychoactive effects in some humanoid species--"

"What are you saying to me?" Neelix snapped back at her, his face coloring, "That I've gone mad?"

"Who or whatever you spoke to is not what it appears to be. It may only seem to be your former companion."

He rose angrily to his feet. "You weren't there, you don't know what I saw!"

"Neelix, you must be rational."

"I am rational!" It was practically a shout, the harsh words rebounding off the walls of the tunnel. "I'll prove it!" He turned and strode away. "I'll bring her back here!"

"Neelix, no!" Seven called after him, struggling to move from her position. "You are endangering yourself!" Her words died in her throat as a faint sound reached her ears, the most minute of twitches in the rock corridors--there one moment, gone the next.

Far off in the caverns, stone moved on stone. Another tremor was building.

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