"I think we've rested long enough," Chakotay stated, starting to rise from the boulder that he was perched on. He didn't get very far though before Tom's hand grabbed at his arm and pulled him back down.
"Just a while longer, Chakotay. Please. You don't look too great y'know."
"I'm fine, Tom. Really," Chakotay insisted as he reluctantly sat back down. "We need to get going. We're behind schedule as it is."
"I know, Cha, but we set out before it was even light this morning and we've only stopped twice. If you push yourself much more you're gonna overdo it, then we'll get even further behind," Tom said, taking Chakotay's hand in his. "Another half an hour is all I'm asking for. Please."
Chakotay sighed, then nodded. "Okay, half an hour but no longer. We need to get closer to the beacon and find somewhere a little less open before the storm hits."
"What storm?" Tom asked, looking puzzled.
Chakotay pointed out across the valley to where dark clouds were gathering on the horizon.
"Those clouds are headed in our direction," he said, turning to face Tom. "I'm not sure how long it will be before they reach us, it all depends on the wind speed. It could be a matter of two or three hours, or we may get lucky and the storm won't reach us until tonight, but we need to be somewhere less exposed when it does arrive."
"Okay," Tom said, glancing again at the clouds. "But we can afford to rest for now. According to the tricorder readings, we're only about two hours walk from the beacon."
"Providing the readings are accurate, yes," Chakotay stated. "We know we're heading in the right direction because of the scans we did before we left the shuttle, but I don't think we should rely too much on the tricorders to give us the correct information regarding distance. I have a feeling that we're closer to the beacon than the readings suggest."
"I think we are, too," Tom said, rubbing his thumb over the back of Chakotay's hand. "I didn't say anything before because I thought I was just imagining things, but every now and again for the last half an hour I've felt as though something was calling to me. I know that sounds weird but I don't know how else to put it."
"It doesn't sound weird, Tom, that's exactly how I would describe it as well. It's as though..."
Harry walked towards them and Chakotay stopped talking, briefly opening his link with Tom instead.
// We'll talk about this later, // he said silently.
Tom nodded, then turned his attention to Harry. "Feeling better now?" he asked as Harry sat down next to him.
"Yeah," Harry replied, slightly embarrassed. "I don't care what the tricorder said, those berries were far from safe. Remind me never to eat them again."
Tom laughed and shook his head. "Poor Harry. Those berries really didn't like you, did they?"
"No, they didn't," Harry responded glumly. "But I don't know why they didn't affect you two the same way."
"We were just lucky, I guess," Tom answered with a grin.
"Either that or the stuff Neelix has foisted upon us over the years has made us immune to any adverse side effects," Chakotay suggested as he removed his hand from Tom's, then stood up.
Tom smiled and stood also, realising that Chakotay was itching to get underway again. "That was a quick half hour," he remarked as he grabbed his pack and eased it back on.
"It was long enough, Lieutenant." Chakotay said with a smile. "Let's go."
Chakotay picked up his pack and, after Harry had collected his, they set off, heading higher up the mountain.
They made steady progress for the next hour, picking their way carefully along a narrow ledge that eventually became wider before it changed direction and led them further into the mountains. The clouds had drifted closer, occasionally blocking out the sunshine that the men had enjoyed for most of the day, and it was starting to get cold.
Chakotay looked up at the sky, noting the gathering clouds, and he realised that they would have to find shelter very soon. As he went to voice his opinion, a loud humming sound caught his attention. He turned around, trying to locate the source of it, and noticed that Tom was doing the same thing.
//Where's it coming from, Tom?// Chakotay asked silently.
/I don't know, I can't tell. It seems to be everywhere at once,/ Tom replied as he glanced across at Chakotay. /But it doesn't seem to be bothering Harry. I don't think he can hear it./
//No, I think it's only meant for us,// Chakotay agreed as he looked over to where Harry was standing. The ensign was gazing up at the dark clouds overhead and seemed to be oblivious to anything else.
Chakotay turned back to the path and moved further along it, listening carefully. The sound seemed to either diminish or increase in volume depending on the direction he faced so Chakotay turned around slowly, finally stopping at the point where it was loudest.
In front of him, about 200 yards away, was a very large, almost square-shaped rock standing virtually on its own in the centre of a clearing. Chakotay pulled his tricorder out and scanned the area but, according to the device, the rock didn't register any unusual readings and it wasn't the source of the beacon.
Chakotay frowned at the tricorder. It seemed to suggest that the signal they had been looking for was coming from further away, at least another hour's walk, and it gave no explanation for the sound that he and Tom could hear.
/It's that rock,/ Tom stated as he walked over to Chakotay and stood next to him. /That's where the sound's coming from./
Despite what the tricorder said, Chakotay was convinced that Tom was correct and he nodded his agreement as Harry joined them.
Harry followed their gaze to the unusual rock and frowned. "That doesn't look entirely natural," he commented, pointing towards it.
"I was thinking the same thing, Ensign," Chakotay replied. "Let's go take a look."
"Yes, Sir," Harry responded and the three men moved carefully forwards.
As they approached the rock Tom touched Chakotay on the arm. /Have you noticed? It's changed pitch,/ he commented, as the sound grew higher.
Chakotay was about to reply that he *had* noticed when suddenly, as they got within ten feet of their goal, there was silence. Chakotay and Tom stopped and looked at each other, both wondering what had happened, until Harry called out to them and beckoned them over. He had been slightly ahead of the others and now stood close to the rock, staring at a smooth area that was just below eye level.
"Look at this," he said, pointing to a block of twenty shapes that appeared there. "What do you think it means?"
"I don't know," Chakotay remarked as he studied the designs. "But it must have some significance. Let's check the rest of the rock, perhaps we'll find something else."
As he finished speaking and went to turn away, Chakotay noticed that some of the shapes appeared to be glowing. He watched silently as they began to flash on and off in a set order. He was unsure whether to mention what he could see in case it wasn't visible to Harry but his dilemma was solved when the Ensign moved away without commenting and he and Tom were left on their own.
"Do you see it, Tom?" Chakotay asked quietly.
"You mean the sequence of shapes in my mind? Yes, I do," Tom replied.
"No," Chakotay said, pointing to the rock. "I mean the shapes here, they're flashing. Look."
Tom peered at the designs and shook his head. "I can't see anything flashing," he said, turning to face Chakotay. "All I can see is what's in my head."
"I don't understand," Chakotay stated, frowning. "We usually have the same experiences."
"We didn't yesterday, when you were unconscious," Tom remarked. "Your mental hold on me was really strong during my little adventure but you still didn't remember anything about it. Not until I relived my experiences with you late last night."
"That's right," Chakotay agreed, remembering the strange feeling of being inside his own body that Tom had shared with him. "Perhaps we should try that now, use our link to show each other what we can see."
"Okay, let's give it a try," Tom said, taking Chakotay's hand in his own.
He opened up his mind, allowing it to join with his lover's and, as their thoughts became one, both men began to see the flashing shapes that Chakotay had witnessed start to combine with the static sequence that Tom had seen.
/If you follow the flashing sequence by starting with the first shape in the other one, the two are almost the same,/ Tom commented.
//Yes, there are just four instances where the shapes don't match.//
/Do you think it's some sort of key?/
//That's the most likely explanation, yes.//
/Let's try touching the four shapes in the same order on the rock and see if anything happens./
With their link still in place, the two men turned their attention to the designs on the rock. Rain was starting to fall as Tom reached out to place his finger on the first of the four shapes. He touched it lightly, then moved to the next one and then the next. As he went to touch the last one, Harry returned and moved to stand behind the two men.
"What are you doing, Tom? Have you found something?"
Tom heard Harry's question but he didn't reply. His finger was still moving forward and, with a slight feeling of apprehension, he gently touched the last shape.
Tom felt a faint tingling sensation run through his body and when it ended he found that the rock was no longer in front of him, his surroundings had completely changed. He looked anxiously to his right and was relieved to find that Chakotay was still standing beside him, but there was no sign of Harry.
"Welcome," a familiar voice said. "I am very pleased that you are here."
"Azai," Chakotay acknowledged as the Derzai appeared in front of them and smiled. "So the beacon *was* meant for us."
"Yes," Azai confirmed. "But you have done exceptionally well to find this place."
"Well, getting here wasn't exactly difficult," Tom commented, glancing around the small room that they were now in before returning his gaze to Azai. "We had a clear path through the nebula and that 'key' wasn't very hard to work out. The only thing that almost stopped us was the rock slide."
"Yes, that was unfortunate," Azai said. He gestured across the room to where three chairs were placed around a small table. "Come. Sit down and we will talk."
"We need to know about our colleague, Ensign Kim, first," Chakotay stated as he took a seat. "Where is he? Is he okay?"
"He is fine," Azai assured him. "There is no need to worry. He is unaware of what has occurred."
"What d'you mean?" Tom asked, puzzled. "He must've seen us disappear or whatever it was we did."
"You did not disappear. Your physical forms are still where they were and you will return to them afterwards."
"I'm not sure I understand. How can I be there and here at the same time without Harry noticing that something's wrong with me?" Tom questioned further.
"Your body is there, your consciousness is here," Azai explained. "When both are united again it will be as though they were never parted. Time has no meaning here so that, no matter how long it appears to you that you are with me, your mind and body will recombine at the same moment that they separated."
"But we'll remember all this?" Chakotay asked, leaning his arms on the table and looking enquiringly at Azai.
"Yes, you will remember," Azai replied, nodding. "And you will learn. That is the purpose of this place. Although, I must confess that I am very surprised that you arrived here on your first attempt. That is unusual."
"In what way is it unusual?" Chakotay queried. "I mean, as Tom said, the flight was pretty straightforward and the 'key' was just a matter of finding the correct shapes and touching them in the right order. If that was supposed to be a test, then it was hardly difficult."
"You misunderstand," Azai stated. "You are correct in assuming that you were tested but it was not deciphering the key that was the test. The test came before that."
"Please explain, Azai," Chakotay requested. "What sort of test did we undergo?"
"The sound that brought you to the rock; that was the test. If you had not been receptive enough, if your gift had not matured to the necessary level, you would not have heard it and you would not have received the two halves of the key."
"So, I was right," Chakotay said, glancing at Tom. "We do need to be at a certain point before we learn anything else."
"Yes," Azai said, smiling. "But not many reach this level as quickly as you two have. Most have to wait much longer before they pass the test and there are some that never reach the correct level to pass.
"Your gift has grown extremely well and, with the use of your link, you have found the path that will lead to happiness. It is time. Although I still cannot influence you, I will now give you access to the knowledge that will, if you choose, allow you to use your gift to its full potential."