|Kill or Cure
Despite the fact that her head ached, her eyes were sore, and her neck hurt from the way she had spent the last few hours bent over the reports that littered her desk, no-one would ever have guessed that Kathryn Janeway was tired. With an air of professionalism, she conducted the meeting as though she had just awoken from a solid eight hours sleep, and not as a woman who had only cat-napped her way through what had been an exhausting night.
After the events of the previous day, all of which had seemed to pass in a hurried blur, she had been left reeling. Five of her officers - four of them members of her senior staff - had disappeared, and it was up to her and the people now sitting in front of her in the briefing room to come up with some sort of plan to first find them, and then bring them safely back to Voyager.
It was not going to be an easy task, she knew.
With Borg efficiency, Seven had dissected the reports supplied by the remaining search team members, critically examining every tiny point, every seemingly innocuous detail - all to no avail. There didn't seem to be a shred of evidence which would lead to the whereabouts of the five missing men, or, indeed, anything that would even point to what had become of them. To all intents and purposes, the officers had simply vanished.
Having realised that they would need to start the search again from scratch, Janeway proceeded to inform the others of what she, Seven and Tuvok had decided on earlier.
"Ensign Vorik. I want you to work with Seven. You are to help her produce an in-depth report on *everything* within a fifty mile radius of the shuttle - both above ground, and below it. The ship's sensors will need to be recalibrated to detect the smallest, and what we would normally think of as the most inconsequential items. I want your guideline to be 'leave no stone unturned'. If, at the end of your investigation, you haven't found anything helpful, the area to be covered will be increased. Seven has all the necessary details; she will inform you of them as and when they are needed."
After Vorik had acknowledged the order, the Captain turned her attention to Samantha Wildman. "Ensign. You are to assist Commander Tuvok. I want you to go over all the data we've accumulated on this area of space in the last two weeks, paying particular attention to the region immediately surrounding this planet and its moons. I want to be informed of even the tiniest speck of dust that doesn't seem to belong here. Don't worry that it might not be important - I want to know about it anyway. Understood?"
"Understood, Captain," Sam confirmed.
"Good. Now. I need suggestions. How do we retrieve the shuttle without the risk of losing more crewmembers?"
The question was directed at everyone in the room. Tabor and Gerron both shook their heads, still too overawed at being asked to join a senior meeting to put any suggestions forward. It was Tuvok who came up with what seemed to be the only option that was currently viable. "With all due respect, Captain, I believe the only course of action open to us at this time is to leave the shuttle exactly where it is. We should not attempt to move it until we know exactly what we are dealing with."
Janeway nodded. "Yes. That was the plan I was going to run with unless anyone had anything better to offer." She took a deep breath, placing her hands on the desktop as she stood. "Very well. The shuttle remains on the planet. Now. Let's get to work, and let's find our missing colleagues. Dismissed."
The darkness was kept at bay by softly glowing orange lights that were set high above, in the roof of the cavern. They flickered occasionally, and reflected off the sharp, crystal-encrusted rocks that formed a large, almost circular enclosure, creating the illusion that flames were dancing where the jagged walls curved to form the roof.
Part of the wall concealed the living quarters of those unfortunate enough to reside there. Entrances had been cut out of the rock, and each led to small excavated areas that their occupants were forced to call their homes. In the doorway of one, two figures looked out, scanning the expanse of uneven and dusty ground that lay between their home and the distant wall opposite.
Neereta shivered. It was even colder than normal. The air that filtered in from the overhead vents was icy. She pulled the thin material of her tunic tightly to her, and turned to look at Fenarew. "Brother. If we are to help the newcomers, we must get to them now. If we do not, they will surely perish. It is far too cold for anyone to survive overnight outside the dwelling places."
"You are right, Neereta," Fenarew agreed, staring at the bodies that lay unmoving on the far side of the open space. "Let us go now."
Neereta nodded, and moving carefully she and Fenarew picked their way across the rough ground, trying to avoid the parts that were sharp enough to cut into their feet. "The woman, of whom Mherkal spoke," she said as they stopped, and she knelt down next to one still figure.
"Does she live?" Fenarew asked as his sister tentatively placed her fingers against the newcomer's neck.
Neereta was silent a moment, feeling carefully for the rhythm that would allow a positive answer. When she found it, a small smile appeared on her lips that were turning blue with the cold. "She lives, brother," she reported happily.
"Then let us take her first," Fenarew said, bending. He took hold of the woman's shoulders while Neereta grasped her legs, and together they picked her up and began the task of carrying her back to their dwelling place.
The journey back was difficult. The woman was heavy, and Neereta and Fenarew had to stop on several occasions to rest, their own bodies lacking the necessary strength to bear her weight for more than a few minutes at a time. Eventually, though, they succeeded in getting the newcomer to the shelter of their home, carrying her through the doorway into the dark interior, where just one tiny point of light in the ceiling prevented total blackness. Mherkal sat just inside, watching.
"There will be trouble. Mark my words well," he said as his brother and sister laid the woman down, not far from where Rhudrin was sleeping soundly. "The others no longer follow the ways of our people. And the Galandruns… Well…" Mherkal shook his head, causing long strands of blond hair to fall across his face as he moved. "They will be most unhappy," he stated. "As will the rest. It will be difficult to turn their thoughts around."
"Neereta and I have already discussed this with you, brother," Fenarew said to the older man. "I know that *you* are unsure, but *we* are willing to try. Although we cannot escape this place, we have lived in darkness long enough. It is time we took a stand, and made our way back towards the light."
Mherkal gave a soft, thoughtful sigh, watching as Neereta covered the tunic-clad woman with her own rough blanket. "It *would* be good to once again live as we should," he remarked wistfully. He sat silently for a while, pondering the situation as his sister continued to make the woman as comfortable as she possibly could. Then, with a decisive nod, he spoke again. "I pray that all will listen to your words, brother. I will support you in your endeavours."
"Thank you, Mherkal. Would you begin by watching over the woman while we collect her kinsmen?"
Mherkal shook his head as he stood up. "No, brother. Let our sister watch her. I will help you fetch the others. Come," he said, walking towards the door. "We should hurry."
Neereta stirred, woken by a quiet but persistent moaning which came from one of the newcomers. Carefully, she eased herself away from her sleeping son's side, wrapping Rhudrin's night time blanket tightly around him in order to ease the cold which her absence would bring. Treading softly, she crept across the small room, stopping beside the man whose small sounds of distress still continued. She looked down at him with compassionate eyes, and sighed.
Since her brothers had brought the last of the newcomers back to their dwelling place, they had all slept soundly, but several hours had now passed, and whatever they had been given in order to render them unconscious was beginning to wear off. She prayed that the after-effects would not be severe.
Neereta bent down. With gentle hands she smoothed back the damp, black hair that covered the man's forehead, and a worried frown appeared on her face. He felt clammy, and she noticed that his skin was beaded with sweat. He had a fever, she realised. but all she could do was to try and comfort him. She had no medicines; nothing that she could give him except her attention. Using her fingers, she wiped away the small droplets that clung to his dark eyebrows, then caressed his cheek as he moaned again, louder this time. "Hush, now," she cooed, talking to him in the same tone she would use to soothe Rhudrin. "Sleep. I will look after you. I will be here, by your side. Sleep."
Sitting down beside him in the dark room, she repeated her soft words over and over until he eventually quietened and turned on to his side, moving closer to the blond-haired man who lay next to him. She smiled, relieved that, for now, he was sleeping peacefully. Trying not to disturb him, she rearranged his blanket, pulling it up around his shoulders and covering as much of his body as possible with the meagre material. He stirred slightly, but soon settled again with a few more whispered words of comfort.
Neereta sat back and studied both the sleeping man and his colleagues. It was obvious to her that, prior to being captured, their lives had been good. They were all well-built - larger than her or her brothers - with solid bodies that boasted toned muscles and unblemished skin. They hadn't wanted for food, that much was very obvious. She wondered where they had come from. The men's appearance wasn't too dissimilar from that of her own people; they lacked the dusting of dark brown spots on their temples that was a common characteristic of the Jexoult, but otherwise they could easily have been mistaken for her kinsmen. And apart from the ridged forehead, the woman had similar features, too.
The newcomers' arrival had raised so many questions, but Neereta knew there would be time enough in the days ahead to acquire the answers. So, setting aside her curiosity for the moment, she got up and quietly made her way back to where Rhudrin was still sleeping soundly, joining him in slumber shortly afterwards.
The light filtering in through the entrance had increased, and the small room was no longer as dark as it had been overnight. Mherkal rubbed his eyes as he sat up, woken, as usual, by the stinging sensation that emanated from the silver band around his left ankle. Ignoring the pain, which he knew wouldn't subside until he'd reached his work station, he rose wearily and stretched, then walked quietly towards the doorway, reluctantly heading out to begin yet another day's unpleasant schedule.
On the ground behind the departing figure, and unnoticed by him, one of the newcomers stirred.
Slowly hauling himself into a sitting position, Tom looked around. His eyes were sore and his head throbbed, making it difficult at first to focus on anything. Once his vision had cleared, though, complete astonishment registered on his face. "What the hell…?"
He stared upwards, peering through the dim light at the roughness of the rock ceiling above him, and came to the conclusion that he was in some sort of cave. But how he got there, and *why* he was there, he just couldn't fathom. Frowning, and with his brain working overtime to try and come up with some sort of explanation of what had happened, he turned his gaze to the floor, and the area immediately around him.
Despite the gloom, he could make out the forms of several people nearby, apparently sleeping. He wasn't sure who they all were as it was hard to see their faces, but one he did recognise. Reaching out, he grasped the blanket-covered shoulder of the dark-haired man lying next to him, and shook him, urgently. "Greg? Greg! Wake up!"
There was no response, except for a few grunts as Ayala turned over to lie on his stomach, so Tom grabbed the blanket and pulled it away. He was about to shake Greg again, when a soft voice stopped him.
"Please. Let him rest. He has a fever."
Tom turned around, and found a young woman crouching down a few feet away from him. He peered at her, the light from the doorway illuminating her more clearly than any of the other figures he'd seen in the small room. She was very pale, but Tom wasn't sure if that was normal for her or not. He was certain, though, that she shouldn't be as thin as she was. "Who are you?" he asked. She looked just a little wary of him, so he kept his tone gentle. "Where is this place?"
"My name is Neereta and I am of the Jexoult," Neereta replied, edging a little nearer. She looked closely at Tom's blue eyes, and was certain that they shone with truth and honesty. She decided there and then that he *was* genuine, not a spy introduced into their midst. "My kinsfolk and I are held captive here, as are you and yours. I cannot tell you where 'here' is, though; I do not know."
Tom shook his head, perplexed by Neereta's answer. He couldn't recollect anything that had led to his apparent capture; he could only recall sitting in the shuttle after collecting the last of the research equipment. He'd been conducting the pre-flight checks and… He couldn't remember finishing them. He opened his mouth to question Neereta further when someone came rushing in through the door.
"Quickly. I need your help, Neereta. Fenarew! Get up, brother. There is one more who is need of us."
Mherkal hauled his brother to his feet as Neereta stood, looking questioningly at him. "Of whom do you speak, Mherkal?" she asked.
"Another newcomer, sister," Mherkal answered, already on his way out the door. "Although it may already be too late. It seems he was left after we retrieved the others. I believe he spent all night in the open."
"Then we must hurry."
Tom watched, uncomprehendingly, as Neereta and her brothers rushed out. He wasn't entirely sure what he should do, but instinct told him to follow. Rising quickly, he set out after the others.
Almost as soon as he'd left the room, Tom came to the uncomfortable realisation that he was barefoot. He glanced down at the ground, noting the uneven and, in some places, sharp rock, and did his best to avoid the worst parts. Without slowing his pace too much, he followed Neereta and the two men, and only stopped when they did, next to the unmoving form of the newcomer.
Tom looked down at the all too familiar figure lying close to his feet, and his face paled with sudden shock.
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