Chakotay and It

It wasn't a spirit quest. It didn't feature a single mystical animal or a word of cryptic advice from a long-dead relative.


It was just a dream -- an ordinary, unremarkable dream, the sort no one remembers in the morning.


But Chakotay remembered it because he kept having it. Over and over again. Almost every night since Voyager's return to the Alpha Quadrant, Chakotay dreamed of the desert.


The dream would start out being about something else. He'd dream he was in a shuttlecraft with Seven of Nine or walking down a corridor on Voyager, and then he would turn his head or a corner, and suddenly there would be nothing but sand and cloudless skies and blazing light. It was never an actual place he'd been; it could have been any desert in any quadrant.


Nothing really happened in this dream desert, except that his dream self would begin to walk in the sun and sand and would keep walking until his real self woke up.


"Do you find it disturbing, this dream?" Seven had asked when he told her about it.


He'd closed his eyes, recreating in his mind the white light and the unshadowed dunes. "No, not really," he'd answered finally. It was true. There was nothing threatening or lonely or depressing about the dream desert. Even the temperature was comfortable.


"Then I would advise you not to worry about it," Seven said, with a trace of her old dismissiveness. "Your medical examinations have revealed no physical problems. So it must be one of those psychological adjustments to our return that the doctors warned us to expect."


"Yes, that's probably all it is," Chakotay had agreed, smiling at her. He'd felt suddenly eager to drop the subject. He didn't like to admit it, but he still wasn't completely comfortable discussing personal issues with Seven. Every time he tried, he felt silly and false, like a character in a bad holonovel.


Seven had smiled back, disconcerting him still further. A Seven of Nine who had emotions and expressions -- if he had been asked even a year earlier, he would have said that of course such things would be good for her. But now she had those things, and now. . .well, now she seemed like a stranger.


~ ~ ~ ~ ~


Weeks passed. Things happened. Debriefings ended, the Voyager crew dispersed, the Maquis went free. Seven accepted a permanent Starfleet commission, and, because he lacked the energy to start a different life, Chakotay did the same. He began an assignment as consultant to Starfleet's newly-formed Office of Delta Quadrant Affairs.


And he continued to dream of the desert. Of being surrounded by sun and sand and brightness.


One day, as he sat as his desk pretending to work, he received a message from Seven: "Be at the Presidio Park for a picnic. 1830 hours."


Chakotay smiled slightly. It was in her writing that the old, peremptory Seven still occasionally surfaced. He found her tone both comforting and painful, a reminder that so much -- and so little -- had changed.


When evening came, he walked to the park, following Seven's comm badge signal to a secluded bench. He felt a flash of concern when he saw her, sitting with her shoulders hunched, wearing the Starfleet uniform that he thought looked all wrong on her -- bulky and stifling and just not Seven. She raised her head at the sound of his step.


"Hello, you," he said, trying to sound cheerful and tender but suspecting he was failing at both. "Where's this picnic you promised?"


"There is no picnic. It was a ruse. I simply wanted to talk to you."


"You don't need a ruse for that."


"I suppose not. But. . .I find that what I have to say makes me nervous. It seemed easier to be indirect."


"This is about us, isn't it? You and me," Chakotay said.


"Yes. In a way."


He sat down next to her and waited, realizing that he was less curious about what she would say than about how he would react. He didn't know which would make him feel worse -- if she said she no longer wanted him, or if she said she still did.


"I have the opportunity to join a new space mission," Seven said at last, turning to face him. "A long mission."


Whatever he had expected, somehow it hadn't been this. "How long?"


"At least three years."


Chakotay felt suddenly impatient. He slept each night holding this woman in his arms, her body tight against his, and yet they still seemed unable just to talk to each other.


"What are you trying to say, Seven? That you want to go? That you want to end things with me? Do you want to know if I'm willing to wait for you?"


"Are you?"


"I don't know," he replied honestly. "Do you want me to?"


"Many Starfleet families and couples endure long separations," Seven said, not answering the question.


Chakotay took her hands, his impatience gone. Her implant felt cool against his skin. "Seven, tell me what you want, what you feel."


Her gaze shifted to the empty space beyond his shoulder. "The old Seven would have said that wants were irrelevant, and she would have disdained feelings. But I no longer know that Seven. I know only that I feel unsure and restless. As to what I want. . .I want to return to space. I want to be back on a starship."


She looked at him then. "And I want to serve with Captain Janeway again."


Chakotay had heard, vaguely, that Kathryn was heading up a new mission, something about wormhole exploration. He hadn't paid attention, hadn't wanted to know.


It was his turn to look away.


"You are upset?" Seven asked.


"I. . .no. No, I don't think I am." He took a deep breath and continued, "Seven, I haven't been lying when I've told you I love you. I do. But I've come to realize that I don't think we should build a future together. Things haven't felt right for weeks, at least not to me. And I've gotten the impression that they don't feel right to you, either. Do they?"


She hesitated. "I am not certain that I know what 'right' is supposed to feel like. If you're asking if I see a long future for us, I would have to say 'no.' But. . ." she pressed her lips together, frustration clear on her face.


"But what?"


"But I don't know why that should be! You say you love me, and I believe that I love you, too. We do not argue. We enjoy many of the same activities. We have interesting conversations. And our sexual relationship is quite enjoyable. So why do I feel as if. . . ."


"As if you want to be thousands of light years away from me?"


His tone was light, edged with laughter, and she jerked her head in surprise. Then she smiled wryly. "Well. . .yes. Why do you find this amusing?"


"Because you're learning that life doesn't always make sense. Human life in particular."


Seven nodded solemnly. "Yes. I have observed that humans are generally confused, discontented, and full of yearning for what they cannot have."


Chakotay laughed aloud, feeling lighter and freer than he had in months. "Oh, no, you can't trick me with that Borg act any more, my dear," he said, standing and pulling her to her feet beside him. "I'm on to you. . .you human, you."


Seven's answering laugh no longer struck Chakotay as discordant or disconcerting. He realized that he liked the person she had become -- now that he was not facing the prospect of spending his life with that person.


"Come on," he said, aware all at once that he was ravenous. "Let's go find some dinner."


~ ~ ~ ~ ~


They ate at a small bistro with an eclectic menu and old-fashioned incandescent lighting. They shared a dessert, sampled alien liqueurs, talked, wept, drank, planned their separation, held hands, smiled, drank some more.


Eventually, Chakotay had drunk enough to be able to say, "Seven. About your new mission. . .with Kathryn."




"Tell me why you want to serve with her again."


Seven leaned forward. "I. . .she. . .we aren't finished, Captain Janeway and I. I don't know how else to explain it. But I know I cannot feel settled until we are finished, and the only way I can think to do that is to go back into space with her."


Chakotay kept his voice neutral. "Are you in love with her? If you are, going on a mission under her command probably isn't your wisest move."


"I don't know if it's about love, Chakotay." Seven spoke quietly, intently. "For a long time I thought it was about resentment and anger. And perhaps it is, at least in part. But it is something more, too. I believe she feels it as well."


"Does she, now?"


After the briefest of pauses, he said, "Are you ready to go home? It's getting late."


"Chakotay." Seven stopped him with her hand on his arm, just as Kathryn has so often done. "I was careful never to discuss Captain Janeway with you, because I sensed that the topic unsettled you. But I think, now, that I made a mistake in remaining silent. Because she has always been with us, between us, whether we spoke of her or not. I have said that she and I aren't finished. I do not believe that you and she are finished, either."


"We never started, Seven."


"I am not speaking of a sexual relationship. But you were once friends, and now you are estranged."


"I don't really want to have this conversation with you. . ."


"Very well. But I think you ought to have it with yourself."


"Someday, Seven. . .I promise."


They left the restaurant and walked silently, companionably, back to their quarters. Only when they were in bed, in the dark, did Chakotay say what had been in his mind.






"When you're on a mission. . .and you fall in love with the captain? A captain can't love you back. Not even if she loves you back."


~ ~ ~ ~ ~


Weeks passed. Things happened. Seven left on her deep space mission; Chakotay attended the pre-launch party with her and had a pleasant, if superficial, conversation with Kathryn, who had chatted easily but looked a little strained.


"Ready for space again so soon?" he'd asked, smiling down at her.


She smiled in return, her face coming alive, the strain vanishing. "Oh, yes," she'd almost whispered. "Yes, yes, I am."


Seven was wrong, Chakotay thought. He and Kathryn were not estranged. Not really. But. . .


But, as he had told Seven, he didn't really want to have a conversation about Kathryn. Not even with himself.


His life took on a fairly comfortable pattern, less disrupted by the end of his relationship with Seven than he'd expected. Every day, he donned a uniform and went to Starfleet Headquarters and talked about the Delta Quadrant, a place already as remote in his mind as it was in fact. He boxed, he meditated, he read, he went hiking in rugged holo-programs.


And he dreamed. Of the desert.


~ ~ ~ ~ ~


Seven had been gone about six months when Chakotay embarked on his own away mission. Scans of a small planet on the edge of the Alpha Quadrant had revealed energy signatures that resembled some of those that Voyager had found in the DQ.


He could have declined the assignment, but he didn't mind the idea of getting off Earth for a bit.


He traveled as a passenger aboard the USS Glenn, an Intrepid-class starship whose resemblance to Voyager neither comforted nor plagued him; it was just another ship.


But to his surprise, not being First Officer did bother him; he missed the pulse and excitement and camaraderie of the bridge. He was glad when they were finally orbiting their destination, and he could attend his final briefing with the Glenn crew members who comprised his away team.


"We can't isolate the source of the DQ readings," said one of the ensigns. "They just seem to be all over the planet."


"Surface conditions?" Chakotay asked.


"Pretty much a typical, uninhabited M-class world," said Khuv, the science officer. "It's a hot one, though -- mostly desert."


Chakotay absorbed this information in silence, his eyes on the report Khuv handed him. A desert. Coincidence, surely. But the thought of walking alone in sand and sun was damned appealing.


"We'll just have to do an old-fashioned foot-and-tricorder search, then," Chakotay said, rising. "Assemble at 1400 hours."


At the appointed time, he headed to the transporter room with something approaching genuine enthusiasm.


~ ~ ~ ~ ~


The actual desert, once he found himself deposited in it, was not quite the sun-baked, white-sand-and-blue-sky paradise of his imagination.


The sky was closer to orange, and the sand was split by ragged juts of tall, dark rock. But still, it was a desert. He felt the same compulsion to stride through it that he felt in his dreams.


"No life-signs, no incoming ion storms, nothing that seems threatening," Khuv announced. "It's probably safe for us to split up, Commander. Cover more ground that way and get out of here sooner. Damn, it's hot."


"Good idea, Lieutenant," Chakotay said crisply. "Standard search pattern and check-in procedures. Let me know of anything unusual. Good luck, people."


He watched with relief as they all walked away, and then he headed off into the sand himself.


~ ~ ~ ~ ~


Only after covering almost a kilometer of rock-strewn landscape did he bring his mind back to the mission. He had thought of nothing as he hiked, his mind aware only of heat, light, and sharp shadows. But a flash of movement near one of the stone outcroppings reminded him of why he was there.


His tricorder showed no life signs or anomalous readings; the DQ energy signature was gone. Yet the movement continued. As Chakotay watched, a dark, fur-covered shape emerged from the sand, shaking what appeared to be its head and stretching two long, thin appendages. As far as Chakotay could tell from his vantage point behind another rock, the appendages were arms that ended in hands with opposable thumbs.


"Well, don't just hide back there," said a deep, irritated voice. "Come out where I can see you."


Chakotay checked the tricorder again, but it still showed nothing.


"I won't show up on your primitive little machine," said the alien voice scornfully. "Come out. I'm not going to harm you."


If Chakotay had learned anything in the DQ, it was that one should greet alien assurances of safety with a certain skepticism. Still, he could hardly be said to be safe standing behind a piece of rock only half his width. So, holding his phaser as inconspicuously as possible, he stepped cautiously out of shelter.


"Oh, I say, really," huffed the alien. "Put away that weapon. You humans and your need for rampant destruction."


"I don't want to hurt you," Chakotay said. "But I'm not going to put myself in jeopardy, either. Can you tell me who you are? My name is Chakotay. I'm a member of. . ."


"My, aren't you the chatty one? Oh, of course. . .you think we're engaging in that all-important 'first contact.' Well, the truth is, I made contact with your species several of your centuries ago. I daresay you've read all about it."


"Er. . .no," Chakotay replied. "I'm afraid I haven't."


Two tubules suddenly emerged from the alien's head, startling Chakotay slightly. He realized that they were the being's eyes, which it seemed to extend and retract at will.


"I should have known better," it said resignedly, "than to have high expectations for one of your kind." It took a deep breath and swelled its body to twice its original size. As it returned to normal, Chakotay felt something in his hand. He looked down.


It was an ancient book, squat and thick and bound in blue with gold lettering. "Five Children and It," read the title. "By E. Nesbit."


"Go on," said the alien impatiently. "Turn to page 14."


Chakotay fumbled a bit; he wasn't used to printed books. But on page 14, he found a drawing of very old-fashioned children standing around a fairly close representation of the alien now in front of him.


"Read. . . aloud, if you please."


"'The children stood round the hole in a ring,'" Chakotay read, "'looking at the creature they had found. It was worth looking at. Its eyes were on long horns like snails' eyes, and it could move them in and out like telescopes; it has ears like a bat's, and its tubby body was shaped like a spider's and covered with thick, soft fur; its legs and arms were furry, too, and it had hands and feet like a monkey's.'"


His voice trailed off as he skimmed several more paragraphs, searching for details about the alien's species. Finally he found a name.


"You're one of these psammeads?" he asked. "A sand-fairy?"


"Not 'one of these psammeads,'" snapped the being crossly. "I am the psammead -- that one, there. In the book."


Chakotay's disbelief must have shown on his face, because the psammead continued, "Surely you don't think that every species shares your pitiful life span."


"It's not that. It's this story. . .this book. It's a work of fiction. Made up, invented. Not real."


"Use what little sense you have. Obviously I exist -- here and in the book. So it cannot all be fiction, can it, Commander Chakotay?"


"How do you know my rank? I never said. . . "


The psammead snorted in disgust. "You reveal your parochial narrowness with every word you utter. Let me explain as simply as possible: I am a singular being -- I have lived for eons, I can travel the universe at will, I can transform any matter, I have telepathic abilities that make your Vulcans and Betazoids seem even thicker than humans. In short, I am your superior in every conceivable way."


Chakotay began seriously to wonder if he were hallucinating as a result of the dryness and the heat. He returned his attention to the book, reading quickly about the adventures of the children as they tried to cope with the unexpected consequences of having found a sand-fairy that granted them wishes. They had wished to have wings and to be "rich beyond the dreams of avarice" and to be "as beautiful as the day," and of course these escapades had ended in comic disasters. The idea that such events had actually happened on Earth in -- he squinted at the copyright date -- 1902 was hard to credit, even for a human who had spent almost a decade in the Delta Quadrant.


He struggled to make sense of it all. "Are you part of the Q Continuum, then?" he asked the psammead.


The telescope eyes shot outward, the eyeballs quivering angrily. "Your pathetic ignorance is the only thing that saves you from being vaporized where you stand!" hissed the sand-fairy. "The Q Continuum, indeed! No psammead has had anything to do with those upstarts since Earth's megatherium times. You've never seen us starting universal civil wars because of someone's petty tantrums about death. You've never seen us trying to bribe alien females to bear our offspring! Don't insult me like that again."


Chakotay found the little creature's posturings a bit amusing, but he was careful to conceal the thought. He didn't want to give offense, not if these aliens had powers approaching the level of the Q. It wouldn't do to underestimate a new species based merely on a comical exterior.


"I'm sorry," he said quietly.


The psammead smoothed its long, rat-like whiskers and retracted its eyes. "That's all right," it said. "No doubt I reacted a tad strongly. I forget that not every species knows the full depravity of the Q. It's true that our abilities might seem similar to you, but allow me to assure you that we are more different than alike."


Chakotay thought a change of subject might be wise, so he held up the book. "I'm still curious," he told the sand-fairy. "How did your experiences on Earth come to be part of a children's fable?"


"Well, I should think it's obvious," replied the psammead, its arrogance returning. "The book is fact masquerading as fiction. I did meet a group of Earth children, one of whom grew up to write that book. Edith, she was called. She was a smart girl for a human, and an even smarter woman. She understood that my existence was too important to ignore, but she knew she could not tell the whole truth. If you find my story hard to accept, how do you think the people of Edith's time would have reacted? They would have locked her away -- that's how barbaric humans were then. And," it added, waggling its eyes, "I'm not at all sure that they aren't just as barbaric still."


"If you know as much as you claim, then you'll know how much we've changed in the last several hundred years," Chakotay replied shortly. He was no longer as patient as he'd once been, and the alien was beginning to get on his nerves. It was frustrating. . .to have come all the way across the Alpha Quadrant, to have felt once again the thrill of exploration. . .and then to discover nothing but a furry version of Q. . .


He looked up to find the psammead staring at him. "Careful," it said softly. "I'm willing to make allowances for you, because I can tell you're a decent sort. But. . . "


"I don't mean to annoy you," Chakotay told it. "But perhaps you could try not to annoy me." He hadn't served all those years with Seven and Kathryn without learning the occasional value of directness.


"Is that your wish?" asked the psammead.


"No," said Chakotay quickly, mindful of what had befallen the book's children when they'd made wishes too hastily. "Do you mean E. Nesbit is telling the truth about that, too? Do you really go around granting people's wishes?"


"Not in just that way, of course. I talked about 'wishes' because I needed to explain things to those children in terms they could understand. The physics of time/matter transformation was simply beyond them. As it is beyond you. But you have at least progressed past believing in magic and wizardry. For the children, however, 'magic' was all the explanation they required."


"I see. And what are you doing here, if I may ask?"


The psammead considered. "You may," it said at last. "I don't have to assume this particular physical form, you know. But every now and then, I feel the urge to spend a century or two sleeping in hot, dry sand. It rejuvenates me -- a holiday, if you will. It's very taxing, having to be aware of the entire universe at once. Rather like constantly existing at your Mr. Paris's Warp Ten. Sometimes one just needs to get away."


"I can certainly understand that," Chakotay said with a smile. At that moment, the USS Glenn and Starfleet and Earth seemed wonderfully remote and unreal. He'd needed rejuvenation, too, and his subconscious mind had led him to the cleansing sharpness and clarity of the desert. He could feel his spirit healing in the purifying heat.


He was about to speak further when the desert and rocks began to shimmer in front of him, the images dissolving like fog.


~ ~ ~ ~ ~


When the fog cleared, the planet had been replaced by a standard starship corridor. Chakotay saw Kathryn and Seven walking toward him, but they didn't register his presence.


He whirled toward where the psammead had been, but the desert landscape and furry alien had completely disappeared. There was nothing behind him but more corridor. He turned back to see Kathryn keying a code into a door pad.


"You'd better come to my quarters, Seven," she was saying. "I'm not about to have this conversation in the hallway."


They walked through the open door, and Chakotay immediately found himself inside with them, although he hadn't been conscious of moving.


Now that he had a moment to catch his breath, he could see that they were not on Voyager. It was a newer ship, presumably Janeway's latest command. Seven, in her Starfleet uniform, stood with her back to the door, her chin held high. Kathryn faced her, smooth hair framing a face that was sharper, more planed than Chakotay remembered. The two women stared at each other steadily, their breathing the only sound in the room.


Chakotay wanted both to get the hell out of there and to see what happened next. Before he could choose, Kathryn stepped forward, put one slim hand around Seven's neck, and drew the blond's head down to her own.


They kissed silently, passionately, their arms drawing each other close. Then Seven moaned softly, deep in her throat, the way she had done when the arms encircling her had been Chakotay's.


Kathryn released her and moved away, wiping the back of her hand across her mouth.


"There. That's what you wanted, isn't it?" She spoke harshly. "And yes, damn it, it's what I wanted, too."


"Kathryn, we. . ."


"But that's the end of it," Kathryn interrupted. "That's it, that's all there is, now and for as long as you're under my command. Do you understand me? Lieutenant?"


"Yes." Chakotay flinched at the rawness of Seven's voice.


"Oh, god, I'm sorry. I'm so fucking sorry," Kathryn whispered. "But I can't be in love with someone on my crew. I can't go through it again, Seven. I can't. I won't."


Seven struggled visibly to control herself. After a long moment, she said calmly, "Our tour of duty will be over in two years and three months."


The corner of Kathryn's mouth lifted in her familiar half-smile, and Chakotay closed his eyes as memories phasered through him. He barely heard Kathryn's softly-spoken next words:


"Yes. Two years and three months."


~ ~ ~ ~ ~


When Chakotay opened his eyes, he was back in the desert, facing the psammead's piercing stare.


"Sit down, man," it said. "You look as if you're about to collapse."


Chakotay lowered himself slowly to the ground, still not sure where he was or had been.


"What. . .?" he croaked.


"It was your wish," said the psammead simply. "Not that you voiced it, of course. You're very good at denying reality to yourself. But she was right, that blond girl. You are not yet finished with the other woman. You have been wishing to know where you stood with her. So I showed you."


Chakotay's laugh was bitter. "It doesn't appear that I stand anywhere with her, does it?" he said.


"Oh, spare me the self-pity," commanded the psammead. "If you were honest with yourself, you'd admit that you weren't dissatisfied with the way things were between you and your charming captain during your years in the Delta Quadrant."


"That's not so. I wanted her. . ."


"Of course you wanted her. But only on your own terms. Which is natural, I suppose, for a power-hungry species like yours. But when she didn't accept your terms, you were willing to make her feel guilty and let the crew feel sorry for you at her expense."


"Dammit, that's not true!" Chakotay's gut twisted; he couldn't remember the last time he'd been so furious. "She changed. . .she turned hard. . .Christ, she would have killed. . ."


"Oh, stop, please!" the psammead begged melodramatically. "I'm sure I don't know why you're trying to justify yourself to me. Because frankly, I don't care. I'm not your spiritual advisor, or whoever it is you humans turn to when you don't want to think for yourselves. Save your confessions for someone who might actually want to hear them. Like your Captain Janeway."


Chakotay rubbed his hands over his face wearily. "I don't know what I'd say to her. I don't even know if she'd want to listen."


"Well, that's that, then, " replied the sand-fairy brightly. "As I say, it's nothing to me. But still, I'm not blind. I see exactly what happened. She hurt you, and so you withdrew your support from her; you left her alone out there, high and dry. . .An odd expression, that," it muttered, musingly. "Why humans think being 'high and dry' is a bad thing, I have no idea. When we're in our desert form, we psammeads fight to stay dry at any cost. Once I got the tip of my whisker wet. . ."


"Yes, well," it said hastily, catching sight of Chakotay's rapidly darkening expression. "That's a story for another time. I have nothing more to tell you, in any case. The last thing I want to do is get myself involved in human affairs of the heart. You'll have to work it out for yourselves. Now, if you don't mind, I'd like to get back to my nap."


It began to burrow back into the sand, but Chakotay was too quick for it. "No, you don't," he snarled, grabbing the long, furry arms. "You're going to be asleep for 200 years; you can afford to stay awake for a few more minutes."


The sand-fairy sputtered in outrage. "Unhand me!" it demanded. "I refuse to subjected to mindless human violence."


Despite his anger, Chakotay almost smiled. He didn't think he'd ever heard anyone, human or alien, say "unhand me" and mean it seriously. He let the alien go and stood up.


"Just what is it you want?" the psammead asked querulously. "No, don't tell me. I know. You want me to show you other things about that woman, that Kathryn. Well, why should I?"


"Because it will afford you a few minutes of interest, something to ease the boredom of eternal existence," replied Chakotay evenly. He was guessing about the boredom, but suspected he wasn't too far off the mark. The psammead was more like the Q than it wanted to admit.


"Hmmpphh," grunted the sand-fairy. "For someone with no hope of eternal existence, you certainly pretend to know a great deal about it. Now mind you, I don't say that I agree with you about the boredom. But it would be interesting to observe your reactions. All right. I'll give you fifteen minutes. On the condition," it said sternly, "that you do not report your encounter with me to your colleagues."


Without giving Chakotay a chance to respond, the psammead went on, "Now don't be tiresome and start second-guessing me. You keep forgetting that I know what you're thinking. For instance, at the moment you're asking yourself, 'if it's so important to that psammead to keep its presence a secret, why doesn't he just erase my memory of our meeting?' The answer is simple. Despite your impression of me as foolish and comical -- oh, don't try to say otherwise -- I come from a species that has high ethical standards. We don't interfere with other species' mental processes except in extreme circumstances.


"And second, I'd like to see if you will keep your word. Oh, I know your plan -- you're thinking that you'll agree to keep our meeting secret, even though it means violating your Star Fleet protocols, as long as I pose no threat. If I start becoming dangerous, you'll break your word. Well, that's fine -- I know you'll never need to speak, because I know I'm no threat. In fact, I hope never to see you or your kind again.


"Now, then -- to sum up my offer. I will show you other images of your Kathryn, and you will keep our meeting a secret, unless I pose some danger to your people -- which I of course never will -- but if I or my kind ever do -- which we won't -- then your pledge of secrecy is no longer binding."


It ran out of breath at last and tilted its eyes toward Chakotay quizzically. "Well?" it asked.


"All right," said Chakotay slowly, "I accept your . ."


But before he could finish, the desert sandscape again began to shimmer.


~ ~ ~ ~ ~


At first he saw only a series of pictures, like old-fashioned still photographs. Some were of events he recognized; others weren't. There was Kathryn, older, white-haired, kneeling to brush leaves off a gravestone. Kathryn and himself in her ready room on Voyager, sitting close to each other, drinking tea. Himself, standing and smirking as Tuvok aimed a phaser at Kathryn's head.


Gradually the pictures slowed; he remained longer in each scene, began to hear people speaking, see them moving.


"The witness will answer the question," was the first full sentence he heard. He was in what appeared to be a courtroom; Kathryn, in dress uniform, was standing in front of a panel of admirals.


"I ask you again, Captain Janeway: during your years on Voyager, did you engage in a sexual relationship with your first officer?"


Kathryn's face was a mask. "Yes."


A low murmur, almost instantly checked, from the admirals.


"How long did this relationship last?"


"Two and a half years."


"How long before your return to Earth did the relationship end?"


"Three years."


"Why did it end?"


"Things changed. We changed. We agreed to go our separate ways."


"Was this parting amicable?"


"Yes, definitely. We remained friends and colleagues; our working relationship was never jeopardized."


"Captain Janeway. Are you seriously asking this tribunal to believe that you could cohabit with your subordinate. . .with the same criminal you had sworn to apprehend. . .that you could sleep with this man. . .and then abandon him. . .without it having any adverse effect on your performance as a command team?


Kathryn's eyes flashed, but her voice remained steady. "I repeat: our working relationship was never jeopardized. And for the record, Chakotay is no criminal, and I never aban. . ."


"That will be all, Captain."


~ ~ ~ ~ ~


The courtroom disappeared, leaving Chakotay with his jumbled thoughts. Had he been seeing an actual alternate universe? A time line in which he and Kathryn had been lovers, and things hadn't worked out? A time line that proved her right about the personal and political dangers of their starting a relationship?


The next scene began before he could do more than formulate his questions. This time, he was on an alien planet, standing in a sunny street thronged with pedestrians. He felt a jolt when he saw himself, in civilian clothes, walking toward his current self. But the selves didn't meet -- the second Chakotay stopped before a large stone building and went inside.


The observing Chakotay tried to follow, but found himself unable to move forward. All he could do was crane his neck enough to see that the building was a hotel or lodging place of some kind.


And then, coming from a different direction, he saw Kathryn, also in civilian clothes -- a long garment of swirling, sheer, wine-colored layers that helped her blend in with the similarly-dressed locals. She passed close to him as she, too, turned into the hotel.


Without having moved, Chakotay found himself inside as well.


For a moment, he was alone in a small, dim room, but then the other Chakotay emerged from an alcove, drying his hands on a towel that he tossed onto a low chair.


A knock on the outer door brought a smile to the other Chakotay's face, a smile that made the watching Chakotay shiver slightly.


The door opened, and Kathryn entered. She stood just inside the room and looked around, her eyes wary.


The other Chakotay was at her side in two strides; in another quick move, he twisted her arm until she was forced to her knees in front of him.


"So the doctor wants the captain to take some shore leave, does he?" the other Chakotay said, his voice lightly mocking. "You know what that means, don't you, Kathryn? Two whole days in which I get to give the commands."


Kathryn raised her head slowly, and her expression was so seductive and so hungry that Chakotay caught his breath.


"Command me, then," she said.


~ ~ ~ ~ ~


Chakotay was glad to leave those images behind him. They unsettled him, as did his growing erection. It wasn't that he objected to a bit of sexual role-playing -- quite the contrary, in fact. But the intensity of that pair, the depth of need they seemed to feel. . .He shook his head, wanting only to move on to a different scene.


It wasn't long in coming. He found himself in Kathryn's quarters on Voyager -- except that his own things appeared to be there, too. And now he could see himself, lying asleep on the sofa, a padd clutched in one hand.


Kathryn, her hair long and loose, came from the bedroom clad in only a thin silver robe. When she saw the sleeping Chakotay, she knelt beside him. Smoothing her hand over his hair, she kissed his cheek and gently removed the padd from his grip.


She sat still for a moment, holding his hand in her lap. Then she brought it to her lips and began sucking each finger, one by one.


The other Chakotay woke and regarded her silently, his expression tender. Slowly, he slid his free hand under her robe and eased it back, baring first Kathryn's shoulders and then her breasts.


The watching Chakotay couldn't remember feeling so weak and excited by the mere fact of nakedness since his days as a hormonal teenager. But he had dreamed of Kathryn's body for so long. . .had dreamed -- oh, god -- of doing what the other Chakotay was doing right now. . .of lowering Kathryn to the floor. . .of opening her legs with his knee. . .of hearing her throaty voice begging for him. . .of thrusting into her. . .


Involuntarily, he moved toward the entwined couple.


And found himself back in his desert, with the rocks, the sand, and the psammead.


~ ~ ~ ~ ~


"Seen enough?" inquired the sand-fairy with annoying placidity.


"Tell me," Chakotay demanded. "Were they. . .?


"Were they what? 'Real'? Part of a genuine alternate universe? Or were they just some of your fantasies brought to life?" The psammead sighed theatrically. "I should have known that such insignificant elements would matter to you. For a supposedly spiritual man, Commander, you are far too literal."


"Tell me," Chakotay repeated. "I need to know if what I saw has happened somewhere, or is happening now, or is going to happen. . ."


"Are you asking if I've shown you the future? Come, come. Surely you know that I couldn't poison a time line in that way. As I think I have already made clear, I have quite an ethical code to abide by. I face moral complexities that you couldn't even begin to imagine."


"Damn it!" Chakotay shouted. "Tell me what I just saw!"


The psammead was miffed. "It's so very nice to see how much you appreciate my gift," it said. "And now you're asking for more! Well, I will tell you this much, Commander Chakotay of Star Fleet. When speaking of the ancient creation myth of Adam and Eve, your poet John Keats wrote of Adam's dream about Eve -- 'he awoke and found it true.'"


"And just what the hell does that mean?"


"It means, sir, that the line between fiction and reality and between dreams and waking is much fuzzier than you are willing to believe. And those are the last words I will utter upon the subject."


Shooting out its eyes for one more Medusa-like stare into Chakotay's face, the psammead disappeared under the sand so quickly that catching it was out of the question.


Chakotay was left alone in the hot desert.


~ ~ ~ ~ ~


Weeks passed. Things happened. The away mission ended, Chakotay submitted all the requisite reports, and the USS Glenn brought him back to Earth. As his life gradually returned to post-Voyager normal, the meeting with the psammead began to seem as remote as the DQ.

Or at least, the psammead itself seemed remote. The visions it had shown him, on the other hand, did not.


Nor did the implications of what he'd witnessed. He'd seen a life in which he and Kathryn had tried to come together, but had ultimately failed. He'd seen a life in which they snatched powerful, clandestine sexual pleasures in secret couplings on anonymous alien worlds.


And he'd seen a life that they apparently faced together, in passion and intimacy and mutual support.

Maybe the damned psammead was right, he thought one evening as he relaxed over a bottle of wine. Maybe it doesn't matter if any of those visions was real. At least they gave me a chance to live a lot of different lives with Kathryn, not just one. I don't have so many "What ifs?" any more.


"So maybe I am finished, after all," he said aloud, toasting himself with his wine. It was not as if they could ever go back, he and Kathryn, to those early, heady days when their love had seemed possible. But they could go forward, to renewed friendship, perhaps, or to something new, different. . .better.

Chakotay sat silently for a while, feeling a contentment he hadn't known for a long time. Yet as he poured the last of the wine into his glass and drank it down, he was assailed by one final regret.

"Ah, Kathryn, my love, " he said, savoring the deep red taste and feeling both strong and giddy. "Now I know what I should have wished for. I should have asked that psammead to let us have one -- just one -- no-strings, glorious, rip-roaring great fuck."


Leaving the glass and bottle on the floor, Chakotay took himself to bed.

And did not dream of the desert.