"Kathryn, this can wait," said Chakotay, hurrying to keep up with Janeway as she strode to the transporter room. "You're the ship's CO, you shouldn't risk yourself until you know it's safe over there."
"Lieutenant Carey can be in command until I get back," said Janeway. "Lord knows he wants it anyway."
"Captain, I must concur with Chakotay," said Tuvok. "Ensign Wildman is capable of managing the scientific team."
Janeway stopped in her tracks and turned to face them both. "Enough, both of you. I'm going over there and that's final. You can file a protest with Starfleet command when we get back."
Chakotay laughed. "Maybe I'll file it in person." He sobered up. "All right, you're the captain. But at least let me take a few Maquis."
"You and Tuvok don't count?"
"A few more," said Chakotay.
"They deserve to know what's happening, too. And if we run into trouble, they're pretty handy with guns."
"If we run into trouble, I doubt guns are going to do us much good," said Janeway. "Two Maquis, on the standby team."
"I would suggest Bendera and Seska," said Tuvok.
"Bendera's dead," said Chakotay. "He was killed trying to rescue Neelix. Suder's the best shot I have; I'll send him along."
"Are you sure that's wise?" said Tuvok.
"Glad to see you've gotten over Kurt already," snapped Chakotay.
"What's the problem?" said Janeway.
"Suder's too comfortable with violence for a Vulcan's taste," said Chakotay. "But he'll be fine, and believe me, you want him on your side in a fight."
"Fine," said Janeway. In a lower voice, "Did I meet Bendera?"
"When you came to Val Jean, yes," said Chakotay.
"I thought so," said Janeway. “Were you two close?”
“He’s been with me since the beginning,” said Chakotay.
She nodded. "I'm sorry for your loss," she said.
"So am I," he said. "I think he liked you," he added. "He might have been the only one of us who did, then."
"Bridge to Captain Janeway." It was ensign Kim.
"The six battleships that ran away have vectored towards a location in the outer solar system. It looks like they're heading for a rendezvous point."
"Half an hour, maybe less."
"Any sign of the rest of the Ogla fleet?"
"Ma'am, astrometrics has been reviewing our sensor data. They noticed a small solar disturbance at the moment the Kazons disappeared."
"What a way to go," said Janeway.
"Are we sure we want to beam over there?" said Chakotay.
They reached the transporter room at the same time as Seska and a black-eyed man Janeway assumed was Suder. Ensign Wildman was waiting inside. Janeway tapped her commbadge. "Janeway to Engineering."
"How long until the cloak is back online?"
"Torres is telling me an hour, two on the outside."
"We may not be out of the woods yet. There are still Kazons in the system, and it looks like they're heading for a rally point to regroup and observe. Get the cloak, propulsion, and tactical systems back online, in that order. Understood?"
"Captain," said Wildman, "I just got word from the observation lab. Something's going on down on the planet. There are massive volcanic eruptions happening along all the mid-ocean ridges, and there are huge caldera eruptions brewing under half the towers."
"Tell them to keep monitoring it. There isn't much we can do right now."
"Captain, if the planet is part of the Caretaker's mechanism, then this could mean--"
"I know what this could mean," said Janeway. She stepped on a pad. Lieutenant Nozawa was still manning the station.
"That was good work today, Lieutenant," said Janeway, as the other five members of the away team took their positions.
"Thank you, ma'am."
They materialized in a meadow on the crest of a shallow hill, which descended gently to dense temperate forest on all sides. The world was awash in bright sunshine. Janeway looked for the sun and couldn't find it; the light appeared to be coming from nowhere. Far beyond the scattered puffy clouds overhead, almost lost in a blue haze, were green and blue fractal shapes; islands and seas, thousands of miles away. She had a phaser on one hip and a tricorder on the other; she whipped out the tricorder and started scanning.
"Where are we?" said Seska. "Is this some kind of holodeck?" She and Suder stood close to Chakotay, hands hovering near their weapons.
"No," said Janeway, checking the tricorder again. "This is real."
"Captain, the far wall is more than five thousand kilometers away," said Wildman.
"How could that be?" said Chakotay. "The station is only a few hundred meters across."
"It's bigger on the inside than it is on the outside, somehow," said Janeway. "Maybe it’s a four dimensional object?"
"And we're sure we're inside it," said Chakotay.
"Positive," said Wildman. "I've detected the crack in hull we beamed through. Plus a lot of other stuff. Possibly artificial." She pointed at the ground, where the tricorder had detected a hole in the otherwise impenetrable metallic substratum beneath the rock and soil, a kilometer beneath their feet. Janeway pointed her own tricorder that way and saw it too. The entire massive hulk of Predator, traveling at warp speed, had managed to open a crack in the hull less than the width of a human hair.
"What's all that crap in the soil?" said Janeway.
"Captain, if you don't mind," said Chakotay. He indicated he wanted her tricorder. She handed it over to him.
"What do you see?" said Janeway.
"This is remarkable," said Chakotay. "This hillside is an archaeological site. We're standing practically right in the town square of some ancient hilltop village. Maybe a hill fort. I'm detecting post holes, stone and ceramic artifacts, and what looks like a cemetery half a kilometer downslope from here. Bones and possibly grave goods."
"How can you tell that?" said Janeway.
"My alternate career track in Starfleet was anthropologist. We picked up a lot of basic archaeology along the way, which is how I learned how to read a site with a tricorder. Then Starfleet discovered I was too good at blowing up spaceships to waste on a blueshirt specialty."
"Starfleet probably wishes they let you become an anthropologist," said Janeway.
He grinned at that. "Probably," he said. "Anyway, this looks like a late Neolithic site on Earth. Abandoned at least a thousand years."
"All right. Get a closer scan of those bones and send the results to the Doctor. Let's confirm they're the same species as Kes." She put her hands on her hips and turned 360 degrees, scanning to the edge of the tricorder’s range. Life abounded, but no signs of civilization.
"Ensign, have you detected any settlements out there?"
"Not out to the limit of my range. The only anomaly is a large magnetic signature thirteen hundred kilometers from here. It's hard to get much on the tricorder at this range."
"It has to be huge for you to be picking it up at all," said Janeway.
"I think it's made of the same material as the towers on the planet," said Wildman.
Janeway squatted down and ran her fingers through the grass. She glanced up and saw Tuvok watching her.
"You’ve been quiet," she said.
"I remember this," he said.
"The mind meld?"
"Yes," said Tuvok. "Captain, there is nothing for us here. We must see the Caretaker."
"Where is he? That anomaly Wildman detected?"
"Yes," said Tuvok.
"Janeway to Ops."
"Ops," said Harry Kim.
"Mr. Kim, we're detecting a large magnetic anomaly inside the array, at the edge of our tricorder range. Can you see it?"
"Standby...yes, I think so. It looks like a structure of some kind."
"Patch me through to Lieutenant Nozawa."
"Lieutenant, if I asked you to beam a party of six to that unidentified structure, could you do it?"
"Good. Prepare to beam the away team over there."
"Captain," said Tuvok. "Kes should come."
"One complication at a time," said Janeway. She cut him off before he could reply. "No arguments."
"Yes Captain," he said.
"Janeway to Voyager. Energize."
The world dissolved into sparklies and then returned. Janeway was standing in a vast stone plaza, at the foot of a stone step pyramid at least a hundred meters high. Behind it, rising like a skyscraper, was a metallic obelisk, exactly like the ones on the surface of the planet.
Ringing the square were more monumental stone buildings, most of them in advanced states of disrepair. Whatever government or ceremonial function they'd served originally, most seemed to be occupied as dwellings now, with laundry hanging from windows and the smell of shit and cooking fires wafting on the air. Broad avenues fanned out in all directions from the square, and each of them vanished into tangled second-growth forest just a few hundred yards away. Hundreds of Ocampa stood in clumps around the plaza, all of them watching the newcomers but none of them approaching.
"Captain," said Wildman, "the architecture and design of this city is identical to the ruins we saw on the planet. This is the same culture."
"It looks almost abandoned," said Chakotay. "Those avenues extend for miles, all of them. There are ceremonial gates about five kilometers away in each direction."
"A hundred square kilometers," said Janeway. "This was a city built for tens of thousands. What happened?"
"I'm not sure," said Chakotay. "There's no sign of wars, disasters; no unburied bodies. It looks like a slow, orderly population decline."
"But that never happens except in post-industrial societies," said Wildman.
"I'm just reporting what I see," said Chakotay.
Seska, who had been hanging around the edge of the group, growing visibly impatient, finally snapped. "Are we going to actually find the Caretaker or are we going to jerk around down here all day?"
"Is your entire crew like this?" said Janeway.
"Not all the time," said Chakotay. "She's right, though; we didn't come here for archaeology."
"It would help if we knew where to go next," said Janeway.
Chakotay pointed at Tuvok, who was staring at the apex of the pyramid.
"We go up," said Chakotay.
They stopped for breather on a landing halfway up, and Chakotay took the opportunity to make more scans with the tricorder.
"Outside this city, there's no sign of habitation at all nearby," said Chakotay. "I'm picking up some abandoned satellite settlements nearby, but absolutely no sign of cultivation or recent construction as far as the tricorder can see. I'm detecting seven hundred Ocampans."
"That might be the entire population of them," said Janeway. "Doesn't seem like the Caretaker is doing such a good job taking care of them." She raised her own tricorder and took a step towards the edge.
Suder stared at Janeway's back. The stupid bitch was inches away from the edge of the step. One push...
He didn't know Seska was behind him until he felt the tip of her phaser in the small of his back. "We still need them," she said, sotto voce.
"It's her fault Kurt is dead," said Suder.
"I know," she said. "But if you so much as twitch in her direction, you'll be dead too."
Wildman glanced at the tableau. Seska was positioned so nobody could see her weapon, but it still must have looked odd. Suder felt her shift and the phaser silently vanish back into its holster.
The “temple” turned out to be an open-sided stone room under heavy stone columns, open to the wind on all four sides, with a plain stone table in the middle. The city was laid out before them, the avenues vanishing under the forest canopy; ceremonial gates rose above the trees in the distance, marking the city’s former boundaries. Janeway revised her estimate up; the city must have held a million people at its height. The encroaching woodland shaded smoothly from tangled, scrubby second-growth near the temple plaza to mature canopy forest at the gates. She watched two Ocampa men emerge from the woods and walk down the center of the largest avenue carrying the carcass of a large animal between them.
“Well, now what?” said Seska.
"Good question," said Janeway. "Tuvok, any thoughts?"
Tuvok examined the table, walking slowly around it. Janeway peeked at it and saw nothing but rough limestone, pitted by thousands of years of weather. Tuvok dragged his fingers around the table's edge, pausing occasionally like he was expecting something. Nothing ever happened. Finally, he looked up at Janeway.
"We need Kes," he said.
"Are you sure?" said Janeway.
"The Caretaker will not respond to me."
"Janeway to Voyager. I need Kes transported over here."
"Captain," said Nozawa, "she's already in the transporter room. She's been waiting here the last hour."
"Beam her to my location," said Janeway. Well, that's convenient, she thought. She looked at Tuvok. How long since he'd first asked for Kes? About an hour?
Yes, an hour seemed about right.
Kes materialized in the temple with two security guards, bringing the total number of Starfleet and Maquis personnel on top of the temple to eight,which was more than enough for Janeway. "Chakotay, Tuvok, Wildman, Seska, you're with me. The rest of you return to Voyager."
"I'd like Suder to stay," said Chakotay.
"I don't need an entourage and neither do you," she said. In truth, Suder made her nervous in a way that the other Maquis didn't, even Torres.
"All right, fine," said Chakotay.
Kes and Tuvok were conversing in whispers by the table (altar?), ignoring the whine of excess crew beaming away.
"Captain, she is ready," said Tuvok.
"What do we have to do?" said Janeway.
"Stand within the confines of the temple," he said. "Make certain all of your limbs are in the shadow of the temple roof."
"We're all good. What's next?"
Tuvok said something to Kes in a language that wasn't English and wasn't Vulcan and wasn't in the universal translator. Kes put her palms down on the altar and Janeway instantly, soundlessly transported Somewhere Else--a cool, noisy, place too dark for her sun-dazzled eyes to see. Gradually she came to see they were standing in the middle of a large room, with metal walls and a metal floor, lit by a handful of functioning lights, and inhabited by a single old Ocampa man.
"This can't be right," said Seska. "Tuvok, where are we?" Chakotay hushed her with a glance.
Janeway took a step towards the old man. "I am Captain Kathryn Janeway--"
"Of the Federation starship Voyager," said the old man. "I know who you are. I am the one you seek. I am the Caretaker."
Janeway flipped open her tricorder. The readings that came back were distorted, but she could tell that whatever the Caretaker really was, he wasn't Ocampa. Then the Caretaker shot her an annoyed glance and the tricorder went stone dead in her hands. Her nerves prickled with the contemptuous ease with which he'd done it.
"That's rather intrusive, isn't it?" said the Caretaker. "Kes, my child, come to me," he said.
Kes approached him slowly, holding her right hand up in front of her in a Vulcan salute; Tuvok was imitating the gesture. The Caretaker beckoned again and something changed; she dropped her hand and broke into a huge, bright grin. "Papa!" she said.
Janeway glanced to Tuvok again. He was watching the scene in confusion. "What's going on?" whispered Janeway.
"He broke the connection between us," said Tuvok.
"Too late to prevent permanent damage," said the Caretaker. Janeway was alarmed, but all his attention was on Tuvok. "You broke her," he said. "You had no business in her mind, Vulcan."
"I take full responsibility," said Janeway. "He was acting under my orders."
"He pressured you because he knew you were weak," said the Caretaker. "I don't subscribe to your hierarchal notions of authority and responsibility, Janeway, and throwing yourself in front of him won't make me forget who invaded our mind." He touched Kes's cheek gently. "Don't worry, Janeway. I'm not going to punish him. You're already paying the consequences."
"Who are you?" said Chakotay. "What do you want with us? Why did you bring us here?"
"I brought you here, Chakotay, because it was necessary to acquire Voyager."
"You mean we were bait?" said Seska. "For Voyager?"
"I am dying," said the Caretaker. "And my mission is unfinished. I have been looking for centuries for someone to complete it, and I thought Voyager could do it."
"Voyager?" said Janeway. "Why?"
There was a piercing tone loud enough to drive Janeway to her knees, and then a flash of light and noise and thoughts across her mind, jumbled and incomprehensible, garbage data, but clear images stood out here and there: Voyager's name painted across her bow, Val Jean in the Badlands, Voyager slipping backwards in time to escape the Kazons. It went on for barely a moment, then faded away.
"I don't...I don't understand," said Seska. "What the hell was that?"
"When I mind-melded with Kes, I opened a telepathic connection between the Caretaker, her, and me," said Tuvok. “What we just saw was a sample of what was sent.”
“It felt...garbled,” said Wildman.
“It was,” said the Caretaker. “Four days ago, I received that signal from Voyager.”
"That's what interested you in Voyager in the first place," said Chakoty.
"If you had left Kes alone, I never would have brought you here," said the Caretaker. “But the signal was intriguing. I was able to piece together enough from the fragments to find you in the Alpha Quadrant and bring you here.”
“What’s so intriguing about us?” said Seska.
“Nothing,” said the Caretaker. He sounded somewhere between disappointed and totally disgusted.
“Then, why the fuck--” started Seska.
"I thought you were more advanced than you are," said the Caretaker. "It was a long shot--it seemed incongruous that an advanced species would have so much trouble with barbarians like the Kazons--and when Val Jean entered what you know as the 'rat's nest', I almost let you go, Chakotay. But I was running out of time and options, and I elected to gamble."
“What made you think we were more advanced?” said Janeway.
“Isn’t it obvious?” said Chakotay. “You used time travel to escape from the Kazons. Advanced, four-dimensional thinking, and the technology to practically apply it. Or at least that’s what it looked like, from the signal Kes sent.”
"Yes," said the Caretaker. He looked disgusted. "A waste. The truth was lost in the noise; your clever escape from the Kazons was an accident. You thought I sent Kes to help save your ship, but I actually sent her to make contact. If I knew you needed her help, I never would have sent her."
"Well, we're here now," said Janeway. "How can we help you?"
"You can't," said the Caretaker.
"Then let's talk about sending us back," said Janeway.
The Caretaker laughed. "I’ve spent almost everything I had left protecting you from the Kazons. I have one last shot before I die, and I am not about to use it on you. I've already wasted enough of my time with you people."
"We didn't ask you to spend anything!" snapped Janeway.
"So what?" said the Caretaker. "Do you think the Ocampa asked for me to ruin their world? Do you think they asked me to twist their genes and destroy their lifespans and reproductive potential? No! But I did all those things to them, all that and a thousand other crimes, to save the galaxy from the consequences of a mistake my people made. No, Janeway, I have one shot left, and I'm using it on them. I'm going to send this hypersphere of theirs somewhere safe, where the last of them can live out their abbreviated lives in peace. You and your people, I suggest you find a friendly world and settle down."
There was silence in the room. "You can't do this to us!" said Seska. "We have lives back home! People who depend on us!"
"They will have to get by," said the Caretaker.
"What's the point of all this?" said Chakotay. "Why did you build this? Why did you do all those things you said you did to the Ocampa?"
"I suppose I owe you that much," said the Caretaker. “You should at least know what the Ocampa were sacrificed to save you from.” And then they were in space; Janeway just managed to stifle a scream before she realized it was just an illusion. They were surrounded by stars, but their feet were still on the metal floor. A cloud-swirled blue world loomed over them. Wildman, who had studied radar scans of Ocampa's surface until her eyes bled, recognized it instantly.
"Ocampa," she said.
A moving object crossed between them and the planet. It was the Caretaker array, but it was more than that; the outer pressure sphere and its corona of knives was on the top third of a massive spaceship. "Look at that," said Chakotay. "It has to be bigger than a Galaxy."
More of them passed the away team. Kes watched with no expression on her face.
The starship nearest them exploded. Janeway jumped.
The stars faded; the planet dimmed. A vast dark shadow passed through them. Its tendrils brushed another Caretaker-type ship, which blazed white-hot wherever they touched, until the hull split open and the ship broke up. Another Caretaker's blades glowed, and the shadow-thing dissipated, but more were coming.
"The World Eaters," said the Caretaker. Janeway shuddered at the name. Even as recordings, there was something horrible and nightmarish about those shadow clouds, something evil. More and more kept arriving, swarming the Caretakers, destroying them. They closed in on Ocampa.
"Our name was the Nacene. We were explorers, like you," said the Caretaker. "From a world near the center of the galaxy. We were gifted with curious minds and telepathic abilities. Eventually we rebuilt our bodies into starships, like the ones you saw, that freed us from the constraints of life as an ordinary animal, and magnified our powers with technology. When exploring space became too pedestrian for us, our new forms allowed us to explore time and other dimensions."
The scene changed. A single Nacene ship floated in deep space, its blades flashing. A tear opened in space before the ship, glowing yellow and white. The ship passed through.
The scene changed again and now a ship (the same one?) was cruising through clouds of green and yellow fluid, dense enough for the ship to leave a visible wake.
"This can't be in normal space-time," said Janeway. "This fluid, whatever it is, would collapse under its own gravity in our space."
"I think that space-time distortion we saw was an interdimensional rift," said Wildman. "A doorway into a different universe."
A moving shadow in the clouds caught Janeway's eye. It looked, for a moment, like a vast bird.
"This is the realm of the Worldeaters, isn't it?" said Janeway. The Caretaker didn't answer, and didn't have to. Shadowy Worldeaters burst out of the fluid and fell on the lone starship and tore it apart in short order.
"We opened a gateway into their dimension and they attacked almost instantly. Like they were waiting for us." A battle at the rift between Naceneand Worldeaters, with the rift slowly shrinking even as hundreds of the phantom horrors boiled out and Nacene starships died by the score.
More scenes of slaughter, of blue skies gone red, of forests burned to ash, of city streets run red and blue and pink and green with alien blood, of fleets of alien starships fighting and dying hopelessly, of the burned and twisted wreckage of a dead Caretaker crashed into a plain of glass and scattered bones.
"We managed to close the gate, but only after hundreds of them had already broken through," said the Caretaker. "It was more than enough. For all practical purposes, they destroyed our civilization in weeks. Even when we tried to escape into the past or the future, they followed us. We were so...pathetic against them that even while the last of us still fought, they had begun to turn their attention to other species, other worlds. They were quite open about their plans: they were going to exterminate all life in the galaxy."
“Because you intruded on their realm?” said Chakotay.
“For fun,” said the Caretaker.
"What does Ocampa have to do with any of this?" said Janeway.
"When the Worldeater rift opened, we received a signal from a remote part of the galaxy, somewhere where there were no known advanced civilizations," said the Caretaker. "After our...organized resistance collapsed, a few of us tried to find the source. I was one of them. Even if the signal meant nothing, a remote and backwards corner of the galaxy seemed as good a place as any to hide."
"And you found Ocampa," said Janeway. "And then what? You built those towers?"
"They were already there," said the Caretaker. "Had been, for tens of millennia. And so had I."
The away team looked at each other in confusion. “What do you mean?” said Janeway.
They were in orbit of blue Ocampa again. The Caretaker—their Caretaker, missing its engines and scarred with ancient battle damage. A fleet of other Nacene approaches.
“The planet was a weapon,” said Janeway. “A weapon to defeat the Worldeaters.”
“But how could it have already been there?” said Chakotay. “How could he have already been there? He said the Worldeaters followed them when they tried to travel through time.”
“He went back in time to build the weapon after the Worldeaters were destroyed,” said Janeway.
“But how—” said Seska.
“It’s another causal loop,” said Janeway. “The weapon destroyed the Worldeaters, which let the Caretaker go back in time and build the weapon. A causal loop brought us here, and a causal loop created the Caretaker’s machine in the first place.” She laughed. What else could she do?
“I’m afraid the next part isn’t very funny,” said the Caretaker.
Night, on Ocampa. A city of stone avenues radiating from a vast temple square. Thousands of Ocampa jammed in the square, chanting in an alien language. A mile-high obelisk begins to glow. Flashes of light in orbit from dying Nacene. A crescent moon.
Orbit. The Caretaker, fresh battle wounds glowing red, blades glowing white. The planet is blazing with light. A Worldeater closes in.
The city again. Night turns to day. The air itself is blazing white. There is a great, blinding flash.
The Ocampa crowding the square burst into flames.
“Jesus Christ!” said Chakotay.
From orbit, the flash outshines the sun. The Worldeaters shrivel to dust in the glare and blow away on an invisible wind.
And on the surface, everything burns; every animal, every plant, every Ocampa. Jets of steam rise from shrinking seas; the rocks glow. The land heaves; boiling tsunamis crash ashore; supersonic tornados tear the land apart. Volcanic ash fills the air and lava fountains from every fault and vent in the ground.
Orbit, above a dying world. The wreckage of Nacine burn up in Ocampa’s atmosphere. Two survivors rendezvous—the Caretaker the Young and the Caretaker the Old, one with its engines and one without. Something passes between them, and then the Young lights its blades and disappears into the past.
“Even with the mechanism, our own powers weren’t enough to stop the Worldeaters,” said the Caretaker. “Even a single survivor could have caused untold devestation, or worse, reopened the gate to their realm. But with the minds of millions of Ocampa powering the mechanism, we could burn the galaxy clean of them, all at once.”
“Looks like you burned the galaxy clean of the Ocampa, too,” said Chakotay. His face was ashen. “That was genocide.”
“It was,” said the Caretaker. “There was no other way.”
Night, Ocampa’s surface, sometime in the deep past. Ocampas dressed in animal skins huddle around a fire. They look up all at once, as a light appears in the sky.
Orbit. The Caretaker arrives from the future in a blaze of light. Its blades flash in patterns. Light flashes on the surface in response.
“When I arrived in the past, the Ocampa had barely discovered fire, but their potential was already obvious. I could hear them from orbit, clean and perfect. Left on their own, they would have been one of the galaxy’s great civilizations. I stole that from them.”
A time-lapse of space and the surface. The Caretaker crudely deconstructs itself to provide material for the towers on the planet. Ocampas drag stones on log rollers to build their pyramids. Everywhere on the planet, one culture, one religion, one purpose. Tools of stone and bronze. There is art but no writing, anywhere, that they can see.
“Why didn’t you give them more advanced technology?” said Chakotay.
“Because they might have used it to rebel against him,” said Seska. “They might have figured out what you were doing and tried to stop it. Right?”
“Correct,” said the Caretaker.
Seska turned away from the Caretaker, seething.
Another scene, indoors, in a vast room full of alien technology. Fetuses float in jars along miles of shelves. Juvenile and adult Ocampa, breathing and aware, restrained in surgical beds, needles in their brains. Zoom in, way in, into a single cell, into the nucleus, to a strand of DNA stretching to the vanishing point in both directions, like a great highway. Base pairs break away, replaced by new structures.
“The genetic manipulation the Doctor found,” said Janeway. “You didn’t just hijack their culture and their world, you hijacked their bodies, too.”
“Of course I did. I was building a weapon to destroy the Worldeaters; why would you think their bodies were sacrosanct to me?”
“Their lifespans are short,” said Wildman. “Was that a byproduct of enhancing their mental abilities?”
“No, that was deliberate,” said the Caretaker. “The culture I created for them was barren, bereft of literature, philosophy, history. Nothing that could distract them from their mission, or from their obedience to me. Unfortunately, when I enhanced their lifespans, along with their memories and intelligence, this became a problem.”
“They got bored,” said Chakotay. “First they got bored, then they started getting disobedient. They couldn’t face decades or centuries in the kindergarten culture you wanted for them.”
“Yes. And they were useless to me if they were stupid, so I had to make sure they didn’t live long enough to rebel. Nine years was the optimal lifespan.”
Janeway stared at the Caretaker, too numb with shock to feel angry. My Irish Setter will live longer than that.
“You bastard,” said Seska. “You amoral, despicable bastard.”
“Seska,” said Chakotay.
“She’s right,” said the Caretaker. “What I did was unconscionable. Necessary, but unconscionable.”
“So what’s your mission?” said Janeway. “The war with the Worldeaters was thousands of years ago. Why are you still abducting ships from across the galaxy?”
“To undo it, Janeway. To give the Ocampa a world and a future again. I wasn’t supposed to survive the battle with the Worldeaters; I’ve been keeping myself alive by scouring the galaxy for anyone or anything to help keep myself going, until I could find a way to restore them and their world. But the damage was too great. I was able to save a handful of them from the cataclysm on their world, and build this space for them to live. They even thrived for a while. But the genetic and cultural damage was too much, and my attempts to repair it made it worse. They were utterly dependent on me, and their short lifespans thwarted any possibility of them developing a more advanced culture and technology. When I attempted to restore their lifespans to normal, I accidentally inflicted a new genetic malady on them, one that makes it impossible for the females to have more than one offspring in their lifetimes. After that, their extinction became inevitable.”
“It doesn’t have to be,” said Janeway. “We have room for them, all of them, on Voyager. Send us back, and I promise you the Federation will throw every resource it has to saving them.” She was making it up on the fly, but she was confident the Federation could do it.
“Your Federation is not what you think it is, Janeway.” He was looking directly at Tuvok as he spoke. “Your ideals are admirable, but the temptation to use the Ocampa for your own ends will be overwhelming. I can’t allow that.”
“So it’s better they go extinct?” said Chakotay.
“It’s better they live in peace, for the time they have left,” said the Caretaker.
The lights around them flickered; the Caretaker seemed suddenly to stagger. “My time runs short,” said the Caretaker. “That spiteful ape Jabin has had his revenge. I couldn’t save you and myself at the same time.”
“Wait a minute,” said Janeway. “If you’re not going to help us, and we can’t help you, then why did you tell us all this? Why did you even let us down here?”
“Because I thought if you knew the story, you would let the Ocampa go.”
More lights flickering, and the Caretaker’s psychic tone in the background. “In order to power my mechanism one last time, I have to sacrifice myself. You’ll have a window of one or two minutes where Tuvok can operate it himself and send Voyager back to the Alpha Quadrant. I’m asking you not to. Don’t leave the Ocampa at the mercy of the Kazons--or worse. I’m sorry for what’s happened to you, but what’s done is done.”
The lights blinked out, then back on. The Caretaker was gone. For a moment, they glimpsed something else where he had been, a soap-bubble shimmering and pulsing with color, and then it was gone too. The walls of the room had disappeared, revealing alien machinery. Tuvok strode over immediately to examine it.
“...to Janeway! Voyager to away team! Please respond! Ensign Kim to Captain Janeway, please respond!”
Janeway slapped at her commbadge. “Voyager this is Janeway. What’s happening?”
“Captain, there’s an energy-build up on the planet, bigger than any we’ve seen. It looks like the Caretaker station itself is about to transport somewhere.”
“Ninety seconds, maybe less.”
“Tuvok, can you stop it?” said Janeway.
“I cannot,” said Tuvok. “The Caretaker arranged it so any attempt to stop the transport process would discharge the energy as a massive X-ray pulse. It will sterilize the entire solar system. I can, however, change the object and destination.”
“And the Ocampa?” said Janeway.
“They would be left behind here,” said Tuvok.
“Tuvok, change the object to Voyager and the destination to the Badlands,” said Chakotay.
“Wait!” said Janeway. “We can’t. There’s seven hundred Ocampa out there; we can’t leave them at the mercy of the Kazons.”
“Janeway, we’re 70,000 light years from home,” said Chakotay. “The Ocampa will be extinct long before we get home if we stay here.”
“So because they have short lives they’re less valuable than ours?” said Wildman.
“Yes, exactly,” said Seska.
“You know what the Kazons will do if they get in here,” said Wildman.
“If they get in here,” said Seska. “They don’t have transporters. What are they going to do, keep crashing battleships into the station until they knock a big enough hole in it?”
“There are other ways in, now that the Caretaker can no longer actively defend the station,” said Tuvok. “The Kazons are persistent and resourceful; they will be inside in a matter of months. Not only will they have access to the Ocampa, but they will have access to the Caretaker’s technology, too.”
“This is a Prime Directive situation,” said Janeway. “If we interfere, there’s at least two cultures we’d be changing.”
“Living like cave men and worshipping a dead alien sadist isn’t a culture!” said Seska.
“Captain, the buildup is accelerating, you have less than sixty seconds to get out of there,” said Kim.
“Let them go,” said Kes.
Every head turned towards her. They’d nearly forgotten she was there. She was in tears, standing where the Caretaker had been. “Let them go in peace. Please.”
“Kes, I’m sorry, but we have to get home,” said Chakotay.
“You don’t need the machine to get home. You have a ship.”
“It will take a hundred years!” said Seska.
“There are other paths,” said Kes. “I can help you. If you let my people go, I’ll stay with you and help you.”
“How can you help us?” said Janeway.
“She has the Caretaker’s knowledge in her brain,” said Tuvok.
Janeway closed her eyes. Less than a minute to make a decision that would impact hundreds of lives, and maybe end hundreds of them prematurely. Voyager, half-wrecked, stranded out here, trying to limp 70,000 light years on one warp engine and no outside supplies...or the Ocampa, alone and defenseless in hostile space, robbed of their Caretaker by Voyager’s actions, and then left behind to face the consequences.
She opened her eyes. They were all watching her, but it was Kes’s face she focused in on. That was the face she was going to see in her dreams, for the rest of her life, if she abandoned the Ocampa.
“Are you sure you want to come with us, Kes?” said Janeway.
“I am,” said Kes.
Now, before you lose your nerve. She tapped her commbadge.
“Janeway to Voyager. Six to beam up.”
Janeway left the commotion in the transporter room behind, Seska hollering after her, Chakotay and Tuvok restraining her. “Ensign Wildman, find Kes a private cabin.” The amplifier-feedback noise was everywhere.
“Yes ma’am,” said Wildman, who looked and sounded numb.
Janeway hurried to the bridge, where the Caretaker station, enveloped in light, filled the viewscreen. “Mr. Paris, get us clear of that station.”
“Yes ma’am,” said Paris. “What’s happening?”
“It’s going,” said Janeway.
“Can’t we stop it?” said Kim.
“We could but we aren’t,” said Janeway. “Mr. Paris, now.”
Voyager rumbled away from the station. The light grew brighter, and space-time distorted. The bridge doors slid open and Chakotay stepped in. Two security ratings moved towards him.
“Let him stay,” said Janeway.
The feedback reached deafening volume. The station was lost behind its halo of light. Janeway squared her shoulders and forced herself to watch as a blister of space-time enveloped the station, and then it all disappeared. The feedback noise cut off for the last time.
Janeway stood in the center of a silent bridge, feeling all the eyes on her. “Bridge to Engineering. How long until the warp drive is back online?”
“Sixty minutes,” said Carey. “Ma’am, what’s going on up--”
She cut off the transmission. “I’ll address the crew in one hour,” she said to the bridge.
“I’d better see to my people,” said Chakotay.
“Send Tuvok to the science officer’s office to see me,” said Janeway.
Any city gets what it admires, will pay for, and, ultimately, deserves…We want and deserve tin-can architecture in a tinhorn culture. And we will probably be judged not by the monuments we build but by those we have destroyed.--Ada Louise Huxtable, "Farewell to Penn Station", New York Times editorial, 30 October 1963