First Contact

by Linda Bindner
for Kacek
and QUEST

We're in visual range, Captain.

Ensign Kim's voice sang quietly across the Bridge, always hopeful as each new occasion arose that could help bring Voyager closer to home.

On screen, Harry. Janeway gave the command with only a third of her attention while she concentrated on the list of supplies that scrolled across her computer monitor. It looked as if they had reached this planet just in time; according to Neelix, they were low on everything. The captain could only hope that this new 'M' class planet turned out to be a miracle, supplying them with everything they needed. Or she hoped that Neelix was exaggerating. She turned her full attention forward.

The view screen flickered briefly, and when the static cleared, they could see a planet circling in a peaceful orbit, looking almost like a smaller, though no less delightfully blue, version of home.

Looks like Earth, Tom Paris said, his voice flatter and less expectant than Harry's. Unlike Harry, Tom preferred to keep things in perspective. This was just another planet to him, an opportunity to relieve their supply problems and to enjoy some shore leave, nothing more. Still, a silence followed Tom's observation as everybody on the Bridge gazed at the planet displayed on the viewscreen, each alone with their own thoughts.

Well, Janeway said at last, not willing to agree or disagree with Tom's assessment. They had all seen many planets on their journey, and she'd found that the more one reminded them of home, the less it resembled anything remotely familiar. Still, she smiled wistfully at the image on the screen; she chose to take the similarity as a good omen. Tuvok, she casually called next.

Mr. Tuvok started scanning the planet without further orders. I'm reading an oxygen rich atmosphere and dense vegetation. No life forms. Long range scans show no other ships in the vicinity. He glanced up to indicate that his report was finished.

Good, Janeway commented with a nod of her head. If there was one thing she didn't like, it was fighting with another ship over planetary supplies. Standard orbit, Mr. Paris, she ordered, then turned to face Chakotay. Commander, form an away team.

Chakotay rose to his feet before she was finished articulating the order. They had faced this scenario so many times in the past that each member of the crew knew exactly what to do. Janeway gave the orders only because it followed standard protocol, not because anybody needed a reminder of duties. Aye, Captain, he said in smooth response. I've already spoken to Neelix; his list of supplies is as ready to go as he is.

A small, amused smile curved Janeway's lips. Naturally, she said, her smile growing.

He grinned back, but didn't comment further on Neelix's renowned enthusiasm. Mr. Kim, you're with me. Tuvok, have a supply detachment meet us in transporter room two.

They are on the way, Tuvok replied with practiced ease.

Chakotay tapped his combadge as he made his way to the turbolift, Harry close behind. Chakotay to Neelix - meet me in transporter room two.

Neelix's voice came over the comm system, cheery in spite of its disembodied state. *Aye, Commander! I'm on my way!*

Janeway grinned again and looked at the planet circling on the viewscreen.

Then, as she looked, a sense of unease whispered through her mind, like a faint breeze, or a memory, casual but undoubtedly present. It was strong enough to slowly wipe the grin from her face, compelling enough to make her stand without further thought, insistent enough for her to disregard scientific procedure and follow her instincts.

Chakotay, she called, putting a sudden stop to the typically rushed preparation for an away mission. She turned to face him, catching him just before the turbolift doors could close.

Chakotay stepped back through the opening, delaying the lift. It was unusual for the captain to have anything to add before a supply run. They'd done so many that they could all do them in their sleep. Some of them had. Captain? he asked.

Janeway stood poised on one foot, awkwardly balanced. She didn't know why she had interrupted his preparations, only that for a second she'd felt a powerful urge to warn him... or to protect him.... But from what? Now she felt foolish as everybody stared at her, waiting for her to say something.

Be careful, she finally said, though the entreaty seemed inadequate compared to the unexplained emotion that had prompted it. It was unnecessary anyway; Chakotay was always careful.

He smiled softly, unperturbed by her odd behavior. We will.

Captain Janeway nodded, and her first officer disappeared into the turbolift. The Bridge activity resumed as the crew returned their attention to monitoring the away mission, leaving Janeway still standing, still awkward, and still unable to explain a sense of... something. Something not quite right.

It didn't make any sense. But then, emotions rarely did.

She slowly resumed her seat. Reports from the away team began to filter in, and she soon forgot about the incident as she issued orders to Tuvok and the rest of the crew. Fortune seemed to be with them that day as Neelix reported that fresh supplies grew in abundance on the planet's Southern hemisphere. Janeway set the aeroponics team to creating ways to dry and store large amounts of some kind of fruit that Neelix claimed tasted like food for the gods. She wasn't convinced; she knew about Neelix's tasting skills. A moment later, Chakotay confirmed her suspicions in a private communication.

*They taste like rotten eggs that have been buried for at least month in animal droppings.*

That bad? she asked, her nose wrinkling at the image.

*Worse,* he reported, though with a smile in his voice. *Talaxian gods must not have very discerning taste buds.*

She grinned. I guess I don't care what it tastes like, as long as it's edible and there's a lot of it.

*There's certainly plenty available. And it's high in vitamins,* he pointed out.

Excellent. Maybe Neelix can saute some for dinner.

*I can't wait,* Chakotay said in a voice that indicated he'd rather use the last of his replicator rations than eat Neelix's discovery, but that he'd be a good first officer and eat them anyway. *Have you considered the problem of storing so much produce?*

We're working on it now. Aeroponics is very excited; this is quite a find. Chakotay's snort sounded gruff over the comm line, but he didn't say what he was thinking. She smiled at his unspoken skepticism. Keep me informed, Commander.

*Aye, Captain. Chakotay out.*

The comm line went dead. Janeway rose and announced, I'll be in my ready room, reading reports from aeroponics. Tuvok, you have the Bridge.

The security officer nodded, but only took his eyes from his readings long enough to ascertain that the Bridge personnel continued to perform their duties before returning to monitor his continuous scans.

The captain crossed to her desk, barely aware of the swish of the door as it closed behind her, shutting out the noise of the Bridge. She quickly downloaded the reports from the computer system into a data padd, then slouched back in her chair, reading intently. The shroud of silence settled around her, a welcome relief after the hectic activity of getting the supply mission under way.

But only moments passed before she started to fidget in her chair. She swiveled sideways so she could lean one elbow on her desk, and continued reading. Next she swiveled the other way, but that was no better. It was as if somehow her chair had suddenly developed an uncomfortable bulge aimed directly at the center of her back.

She wondered if this was her chair's first signs of wear. This chair had been heavily used, even abused, for several years. She had never been kind to it, falling into it as often as settling sedately into its cushion, pushing it back to bang the bulkhead behind her desk, leaning it back farther than its manufacturer had intended for it to go. It was no wonder that it was growing uncomfortable for her to sit in.

Janeway smiled ruefully. This chair would have to last quite a lot longer - a replacement was somewhere in the unforeseen future, if at all. She resolved to be kinder to it, but decided that some coffee would help dissolve the tension caused by these sudden, new ailments. She had always been under the impression that coffee could help just about anything.

A moment later, a mug of coffee steamed comfortingly on her desk, and the aroma filled the room. Janeway settled smoothly into her chair, and scrolled through more information on her data padd. It seemed as if the aeroponics team, now headed by a recently-promoted Lieutenant Wildman, was getting the storage situation properly in hand, though she wasn't sure if utilizing phase one containment fields would be enough to ward off the stray bacteria that might --

Something suddenly pushed on the back of her chair. Hard.

Janeway jumped up as if she'd been shocked and whirled around. The chair rolled to the left in response to her haste, and collided with the edge of her desk and the bulkhead. It shook slightly from the impact, but that was all. The blankness of the bulkhead greeted her scrutiny. Nothing was there.

She hissed out a breath that she wasn't aware she was holding. She didn't understand. It had felt like --

*Tuvok to Janeway.*

The sound of his voice made her jump again. She instantly chided herself for being ridiculous, but that didn't erase her edginess. With a pounding heart that she fought to control, she collected her scattered wits and responded. Janeway here. Her voice cracked, and she forcefully cleared her throat.

*Captain, I'm picking up some unusual energy readings on short range scans.*

Her brow furrowed. Source?

*Unknown. They appear to have originated on the planet, but I am unable to pinpoint a location.*

She didn't like the sound of this. A beacon of some kind?

*Possibly, though I have yet to ascertain any viable explanation for the presence of a beacon; there are no indications of a civilization of any kind on the planet's surface.*

Unknown energy signatures usually indicated trouble. She wanted to look into this herself. I'm on my way. She grabbed her mug of coffee before heading to the Bridge.

An entire hour passed before she was able to return to her ready room and the reports from aeroponics. Her mind still hummed with the effort it had taken to establish an explanation for the energy spikes. After disproving several theories, she and Tuvok had finally called on the advice of Lieutenant Torres. With her help, they had discovered that the starboard nacelle was emitting low pulses of sauron radiation. Harmless in deep space, the particles had reacted with the planet's upper atmosphere, causing energy surges throughout the ship. They had shut down the starboard thruster emissions, but systems ship wide had been affected. Communication with the away team was still patchy, but the team itself was unharmed. Janeway had ordered them to return to Voyager within the quarter hour, postponing the supply mission until Engineering could be certain that the leak was contained. She didn't want crew members stranded on the planet in the event that the transporters went down.

Her ready room was once again a haven of solitude after so much activity. She breathed in the quiet and let it settle into her bones. It would be nice if things went right just once, she groused quietly to the empty room. Though she knew that energy surges were minor inconveniences compared to some of the difficulties they had faced, it still made her feel better to complain, even if nobody heard. It helped her to move passed the situation and focus on whatever needed her attention next. She retrieved her padd from her desk and returned to reading reports on storing Neelix's latest discovery.

She noticed the chilled air after several moments of uninterrupted reading. It was cold enough in her ready room for her fingernails to turn purple. Goose bumps raised along her arms under her uniform. Her brow furrowed in puzzlement. She hadn't been cold on the Bridge. Assuming that this was yet another malfunction due to the radiation leak, she requested, Computer, raise temperature level by point five degrees. She settled back in her chair, data padd in hand.

Ten minutes later she had goose bumps on her legs to match the ones on her arms. She tossed the data padd on her desk in irritation. Computer, I ordered an increase in temperature. Comply.

Temperature is at point five degrees above normal, the computer responded in its usually calm tone. Please restate the request.

How could that be? She was freezing. Janeway sighed. These unpredictable systems malfunctions were really beginning to annoy her. Raise temperature another degree.

Acknowledged. Room temperature is currently at twenty-four degrees Celsius.

Janeway nodded. That was better. As she became absorbed in the reports, she imagined that she could feel the increase in heat already. Maybe now the color of her fingernails would return to....

Suddenly a different cold settled over the room, less tangible than temperature, yet heavy with foreboding.

She wasn't alone.

The skin along her neck prickled, making her hair stand on end. The sensation crawled across her scalp and settled on her forehead. Her breath came in quick, useless gulps, and she stared wildly across the room.

Nothing. Nobody was there.

But she wasn't alone. She was certain of it. She could feel its presence, like a film that clogged the air, making it difficult to breath. Janeway forced herself to take a slow breath, and cautiously made a visual circuit of her ready room.

She couldn't detect anything unusual, no wavering images, no unfocused corners, no uneven lighting. Everything looked the same, right down to the new scuff mark on the bulkhead behind her desk where she'd pushed her chair into it earlier that day.

But her heart continued to beat erratically in her chest; something was there. She could feel it, hovering, just out of sight or beyond consciousness. It made her skin crawl.

Computer, she said slowly, her voice thick. How many life forms do you detect in this room?

One life form detected.

Impossible. She knew it was there. Either the computer was malfunctioning, or she was going crazy. The cold air caressed her exposed skin, and she fought down a shiver of revulsion. She looked to the ceiling and followed the architectural lines to the observation windows, where a blue slice of the planet was just visible in the left hand corner. She stared at that slice of blue, letting it fill her mind, letting it distract her while continuing to search the room. With her peripheral vision, she probed the area near the replicator, the couch, the storage compartments, the door, the chairs in front of her desk.

Her stomach clenched in spite of her attempts to stay calm. Logically, she knew that this was like any other first contact situation; there was no reason to think that whatever was in her ready room had unfriendly intents or meant her or Voyager harm of any kind. But she couldn't ignore her instincts, a voice building inside her mind, a growing alarm, warning....

The back of her chair jogged ever so slightly.

It was behind her.

She could sense it now, sliding alongside her chair, first on one side, then the other, gliding smoothly, exuding an oily anticipation. Something teased across the back of her neck, compelling, like the touch of a hand against her skin, but airy and cold and dead. She stiffened.

As if it was waiting for her to find it, to uncover its presence and purpose, a sensation of pure evil rose up from behind her chair and accosted her. It washed over her. She breathed it in with her next breath. It flooded her lungs and throbbed into her brain like an infestation.

Malicious, it said. Evil. It wanted her, it needed her. She was the perfect target, the perfect vessel. So scientific, and so weak. Perfectly suited for its purpose. Delicious, evil desire rose up from behind to engulf her; it would have her.

Kathryn Janeway was instantly terrified. She froze, fear cementing her to her chair. She couldn't breath. She couldn't think. All precepts of logic flew from her mind. This was no first contact situation. This was possession.

She felt the bulge of the chair push into her back again, stroking along her spine, up and down in a rhythm of ownership that she was helpless to avoid. Its anticipation was palpable, a part of the cold, fetid air that soaked through the room and continued to caress her face, her hands, the back of her neck. It coiled around her, an extension of whatever was behind her, holding her, wanting her.

The high back of the chair wiggled again, gently, as if a hand was reaching over its plush curve, reaching for her, stroking her hair, her scalp --

The door to her ready room moved aside as somebody entered the room, and instantly the spell broke. Without thinking, Kathryn vaulted to her feet, gasping. The chair smashed into her desk as if pushed from behind, cracking painfully against her thigh. Noise filled her ears, like a wind tearing viciously through a narrow canyon, confusing her and making her clumsy and sluggish. Off balance, she whirled around in slow motion, unable to make herself move any faster.

Something loomed in the corner right behind her desk. Janeway had a flashing impression of a face, eyes full of naked, vicious desire. Words reverberated through her mind: fiend, devil, possessor. No longer hiding behind a seductive front, it looked at her, eyes boring through to her guts. A scream of frustrated hunger, more horrifying than anything she'd ever heard, ripped through her mind just before it lifted her from her feet and threw her backwards. Janeway flew over the edge of her desk and slammed onto her back on the floor. She felt its force on her chest, crushing her down, grinding her into the ship's metal deck plating until it released her a microsecond later, and fled.

Silence descended on the room in a roar as loud as the noise before. The emptiness was an ache, as if the thing had taken something important with it when it left, leaving behind only the silence and the sickening stench of raw fear.

Janeway lay on the floor, panting, stunned. She couldn't lift her head, she couldn't roll over or stand up. She could only breath, sucking in great gulps of air to ward off the panic that was taking control of her body anyway. Her muscles shook with the strain of constant tension. Her gasps of breath turned into tiny, squeaking moans that she was useless to silence. In a small part of her mind, she was just able to realize that she was lucky to be alive.

Only seconds had passed since she'd jumped from her chair, barely enough time for anybody to cross the room. Yet she felt hands on her arms, a voice in her ear, and the vision of a face hovering above her. This was joined by more hands, another face, incoherent questions. She panicked.

Go away! she choked, and pushed against the hands, slapping them aside. Get away from...! She couldn't finish. The breath clogged in her throat. The hands were so close that she couldn't sit up without touching them, so she scooted backwards along the floor, driven by a powerful need to get away before it touched her again. She couldn't let that thing touch her!

Captain!

The yell was harsh, abrasive. It made her blink, and suddenly everything came into focus.

Tuvok and Chakotay leaned over her, so close that claustrophobia threatened. But there was no sign of the thing. There was only warm, caring hands and worried expressions. She went limp with relief. Tears clouded her eyes. She lifted a hand to cover them, and sobs heaved up from her chest. She was too exhausted to worry about crying in front of her crew.

The doctor was there, and a tricorder hummed in her ear and filled her mind with a buzzing sound that made her heart thump. The buzzing reminded her of the scream she'd heard just before....

Uncomfortable with the direction of her thoughts, she pushed herself into a sitting position as a diversion, and her muscles protested at every new movement. Hands supported her, but the ache persisted, as if she'd fallen over a cliff, or been hit by a runaway starship. As if she'd been close to being completely taken over. Possessed.

Did you see it? she asked next, her voice a whisper, the loudest she could manage even after regaining some control.

I saw nothing. Tuvok's reply was staunch and emotionless. It acted as a soothing comfort to her frayed nerves. You were lying on the floor when I entered the room, and except for Commander Chakotay, you were alone.

The doctor spoke without taking his eyes from his tricorder. I'm reading high levels of an aberrant energy discharge. As if you've been hit by some kind of weapon or laser blast.

I was. Janeway swallowed painfully. If that thing's touch had been a blast from a weapon, she would have been vaporized.

The doctor looked uncomprehendingly at Janeway. But I can detect no wounds of any kind, the doctor protested. There are no lacerations, no entry point. I don't understand....

I saw it.

Chakotay's words put a halt to the deliberations. Janeway turned to look at him. His gaze met hers. What did you see? She was almost afraid to ask.

Eyes, he answered in a low voice, searching his memory. Eyes, he repeated, full of... of wanting and anger and... and... evil.

Eyes full of wanting? The doctor balked, his face screwed into a look of disbelief. How can eyes be wanting anything? And wanting what?

Me, Janeway said in a tone so lifeless and certain that none of them could argue with her.

Demon, Chakotay breathed, struck by what he was suggesting. His tone was ominous, and deadly serious.

Tuvok relaxed and raised an eyebrow at the absurdity of such a statement. That is highly unlikely, Commander. Demon's do not exist.

How do you know? Chakotay challenged.

They do not exist, Tuvok said sternly. Nor do evil spirits, ghosts, or other such creatures. They are myths, used to frighten children.

I'm no child! Janeway insisted. I know what I saw. It was right here, behind my chair, and it wanted... me. She shivered and scooted back again, trying to get away from the memory.

Chakotay quietly asked, Why did it want you?

The captain shook her head. I don't know. It just waited for me. It pushed on my chair until I knew where it was, and then it... attacked. She hadn't thought of it in those terms, but that's exactly what had happened. She had been attacked, brutally, and at the most personal, intimate level. She suddenly had to push down the urge to wretch. It... it said I was perfect for its needs, an easy target because.... This she remembered very well. Because I was scientific and weak.

She looked up at Chakotay, just beginning to understand. His hands still rested comfortingly on her back and arm, but that didn't make her feel any better.

You don't believe in spirits, he said.

No. She shook her head.

He gazed at her steadily. But I do.

A half formed thought sat in her mind, something she almost remembered, something about Chakotay and spirituality and having power over what you could name. It was too vague for her to articulate. But it was there, waiting for her to unravel when she wasn't too dazed to think. She knew it had something to do with why the creature... that thing... left before it had the chance to finish....

Captain, you have two fractured ribs, the doctor said in a serene voice meant to soothe and calm. Her thoughts fragmented as she forced herself to focus on what he was telling her. You need to be in Sickbay, where I can treat your injuries.

Sickbay. She would be safe in Sickbay. Wouldn't she?

Janeway froze at the thought. Would she feel safe anywhere? She looked across her ready room, where everything was still arranged in order, where the lights on the replicator panel blinked, where her favorite coffee cup sat on the table before the couch, where a sliver of the planet still peaked through one corner of the observation windows. It was amazing to think that anything so awful could happen in such familiar surroundings. The room was the same, but... It wasn't. She felt vulnerable here, as if this room represented that scientific side of herself that had made her so easy to overpower. Something unpleasant, a foul smell that laced the air, made her want to get out of that room as fast as she could.

She nodded agreement. Sickbay, while maybe not much better, was certainly no worse than her ready room.

Tuvok reported, The transporters are down; we cannot administer a site-to-site transport.

The doctor sighed, clearly disgusted.

Chakotay asked, Can you walk?

She took a shallow breath and felt a stab of pain shoot through her chest. But she nodded. I think so.

They helped her up. More pain shot through her, sharp and penetrating, stealing the breath from her lungs in one quick gasp. Her leg twinged where it had collided with her chair. She moaned, and bit her lip to stop the sound.

Stubborn, Chakotay observed as he and Tuvok supported her, one on each side. Too stubborn for an evil spirit?

Maybe, she said, using all her breath to answer his teasing, though she was unable to tease about it herself. She knew better; she was stubborn, but somehow she knew that it didn't matter how stubborn she was. She would have lost. And that was the scariest thing of all.

They disappeared through the ready room door, moving slowly to save Janeway from as much of the pain as they could. The doctor led the way, calling out that there was no need for concern about the captain, she was fine. Chakotay's arm wrapped around her to help her navigate the narrow doorway, and Tuvok's sure hand steadied her as she moved to face the curious glances from the crew.

None of them noticed another movement across the ready room. The captain's desk chair lazily swung aside until its seat openly faced the room, as if it lay waiting invitingly for Janeway's return.

THE END

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