Sol System, U.S.S. Prometheus (NX-74913) - less than a light year from Earth

«How much longer are they going to run us in circles, do you think?»
Sam Lavelle, who in his first assignment had served aboard the Enterprise-D, had been transferred aboard the Prometheus at the explicit request of Captain Taanis, going on to serve as Operations officer and member of the command staff, achieving the rank of Lieutenant Commander. A young prodigy, despite his eagerness to climb the Starfleet hierarchy as fast as possible and succeed in beating Kirk, he had not yet succeeded, probably because, unlike the legendary Captain, he tended to play it much more straight and by the rules.

It was Ferrari, at that moment sitting in the chair normally occupied by their commanding officer, who replied to him, as she analysed some data transmitted to her from the various stations on the bridge and the rest of the starship: «Until we're sure the Borg haven't left us any bad jokes, Sam. We don't want another Wolf 359 if we can help it.»
«Fair enough,» Rouest commented, from the helm, as he made sure the vessel maintained the course ordered, before leaving the bridge, by the Captain. Of the three, none had come even remotely close to Wolf 359 during the clashes between the Federation and the Borg, dating back to 2367, when Jean-Luc Picard, transformed into Locutus, had been forced to see death and destruction caused through it. The repercussions of that clash, however, had been such that even on Earth, however several light years away from the scene of the massacre, news of what had happened had arrived in a flash, showing death and destruction on such a scale that only on one other occasion, with the Dominion War, would it be worse.

«Have the other ships on patrol detected anything of interest?» Ferrari, this time, directed the question to Ro Laren, the Lieutenant who, at that moment, occupied the tactical station normally manned by Ferrari herself. In addition to the Prometheus, which had been ordered by Admiral Paris to patrol the area immediately surrounding the exit of the borg transwarp conduit from where Voyager had made its majestic entrance a few hours earlier, other vessels had been deployed to monitor the area, to cover more ground in a short space of time and to have, at the same time, a small force ready to respond immediately to danger, while awaiting reinforcements.
«Nothing to report, Commander,» Ro replied promptly, after taking a quick glance at her own console and checking, for good measure, the connection with the other tactical officers, through whom the small fleet was coordinating. The ships which, with the Prometheus, had been faced with the immediate arrival of the dreaded Borg invasion fleet, had been sent as Voyager's escort all the way to Earth. Instead, the vessels that had been recalled from some of the more distant sectors and had only arrived on the scene at a later date had been dedicated to scouting the area, referring to Prometheus itself.

«Mhm,» muttered Ferrari, without much conviction. Suspicious by nature, especially after some key events in her career (which had greatly accentuated this personality trait of hers), she didn't think it was wasted time to show caution, especially towards an opponent as fearsome and unforgiving as the Borg could be.
«Our sensors still do not detect the Klingon flagship,» Ro continued, anticipating the other woman's next question. The vessel in question appeared to have vanished into thin air a few hours earlier, leaving no detectable trace to the sensors, which of course posed a serious diplomatic problem: the Klingon Empire, having recently rejoined the Khitomer Accords after unilaterally exiting them at the start of the War against the Dominion, was always willing to open a feud when the opportunity presented itself.
«I want continuous scans of the area, gentlemen,» Ferrari ordered, without mincing words, «that ship must be somewhere, it can't have vanished into thin air. Our sensors must have detected something, it's not possible for a ship to disappear without a trace.»

A chorus of «Yes, sir,» followed the order. Ferrari then opened a channel to the engine room: «Chief, is it possible to further improve the sensitivity of our sensors?» The reply from Lieutenant Commander T'Sarla, Prometheus' Chief Engineer, was not long in coming: «The sensors are already at their limit, Commander.» Ferrari arched an eyebrow: «Find a way, Chief. It is vital not to leave anything to chance. Bridge, out.»

Sol System, U.S.S. Voyager (NCC-74656) - Earth orbit

«I didn't think we'd ever get to see you again, Kathryn,» Admiral Owen Paris admitted bluntly, seated beside Captain Kathryn Janeway, commanding officer of the U.S.S. Voyager, in the tactical lounge aboard the Intrepid-class vessel. The admiral had been in command of the Icarus when she graduated from the Academy, beginning her career precisely as a junior science officer serving under Paris first on the Icarus and later on the Al-Batani (an Excelsior-class), and then turning her career path towards the command curriculum.

«I'll admit I've had my moments of discouragement too, Admiral,» Janeway commented, sipping replicated hot coffee from a metallic mug emblazoned with the United Federation of Planets logo. Leaning back comfortably on the small sofa where they were both seated, she watched her superior carefully, finding him much changed since the last time they had seen each other. But she had no doubt that, in his eyes, she too was no longer the same person she once was, when Voyager had been assigned to her with the task of pursuing a Maquis ship, the Val Jean, into the Badlands, an area of space located not far from Deep Space 9 and known for the intense plasma storms and gravitational anomalies that made navigation difficult.

«When Lieutenant Barclay," Paris continued, «told me he had found a way to get in touch with you, and that it could be done on a permanent basis, albeit once every 30 days, I didn't want to believe it.» He shook his head, then drank in his turn from the cup of tea Janeway had offered him: «Barclay has always been seen as an oddball, nervous, with little confidence in his own abilities and trouble relating to the people around him. Although reports from Captain Gleason and Commander La Forge, Chief Engineer of the Enterprise, spoke well of him, Commander Harkins did not seem to accord him the same regard. Yet Barclay proved us all wrong once again. Gleason and La Forge were right, across the board.»
Janeway smiled: «We owe your Lieutenant Barclay a great deal, Admiral. His work has greatly enhanced and strengthened the enthusiasm of the crew, and, furthermore, the ability, in the last months of our voyage, to be able to contact our loved ones on a daily basis, even if only for a few minutes... you really don't know how much it has helped.»
The man smiled back, shaking the other officer's hand affectionately: «It has made the day better for many of us, Kathryn. I'm really very glad that, in the end, you were able to return to us in spite of the unforeseen events you encountered.»

With a final squeeze, he let go of the woman's hand and moved to set his cup down on the tea table placed just in front of the settee, then stood up, his tone once again formal: «It will be a while before Starfleet Command gives the go-ahead for you to finally land on Earth once and for all, Captain.» Janeway, in turn standing up after placing her own cup beside Paris's, nodded: it was understandable that Starfleet Command would at least want to complete routine examinations on the crew and carry out a psychological evaluation before authorising the landing. She found herself, however, compelled to observe: «Admiral, as much as I understand the need for all these precautions, I can assure you that our medical officer was quite thorough and meticulous in his reports. If we had anything infectious, no one would have been allowed aboard Voyager, least of all a Starfleet Admiral.»
«I know,» Paris replied, raising his hands in a sign of peace, «but your doctor, after all, is only a hologram... he has been operating, uninterrupted, for seven years. Besides being, by now, an obsolete model, it may be that his programme has begun to corrupt... they just want to be cautious.»
«Caution, Admiral, is something I can accept,» Janeway replied resentfully, still trying to hold back the harsher words, «but the Doctor is for all intents and purposes a member of my crew; a key member. Without whom we certainly would not have survived all these years, away from the Federation: his thoroughness and competence are beyond question.»
«Don't take this the wrong way, Captain, I am here after all. Isn't that a gesture of trust?» Janeway arched an eyebrow, but said nothing more; rather, she accompanied Owen Paris to the bridge, from where the Admiral was escorted to the nearest transporter room by Lieutenant Ayala and two other officers belonging to the security complement.


Voyager's Sickbay, despite the fact that the longed-for return to the Alpha Quadrant had finally been achieved, was surprisingly crowded: despite the fact that several days had already passed since the birth, in fact, the Doctor had preferred to keep little Miral Paris and her mother, Chief Engineer Torres, under observation to ensure that there were no problems of any kind - he would discharge them just that afternoon, once the checks had been completed.
Lieutenant Paris, who had served as a nurse in recent years - replacing Kes, de facto, after the latter's departure - was monitoring, with a medical tricorder, the neuropeptide levels of Tuvok, Voyager's Chief of Security, who was currently sedated on a cot. The Vulcan had undergone emergency treatment in which he had received from his eldest son, now back aboard the Earth-orbiting spacedock, an intense mind-meld, a Vulcan practice known as Fal-tor-voh, necessary to cure him of a degenerative disorder that had struck him in the Delta Quadrant. The procedure seemed to be successful and, according to tests, the Vulcan appeared to be in no danger of subsequent relapses.
Seven of Nine and Icheb, the two former Borg residents aboard Voyager, were awaiting their routine check-up, which the Doctor performed regularly once a month, with the intention of constantly monitoring the Borg implants still present in their respective bodies.

Chakotay, Voyager's executive officer, walked into Sickbay moments after B'Elanna and Miral had been discharged, with the Doctor having just gone through the routine checks on Seven of Nine, humming one of his favourite arias from Giuseppe Verdi's La donna è mobile.
«Doctor,» the man began, turning to the hologram, «the Starfleet Medical Department has again requested the crew's medical files. When will it be possible to send them to you?»
«As soon as I have completed the checks on Seven and Icheb, Commander,» was the doctor's prompt reply, as he continued, in no apparent hurry, his work. «We are also awaiting the results of the analysis Lieutenant Paris is performing on Commander Tuvok. From what we can see so far, however, his son's intervention could not have been more timely than this: if we had arrived on Earth according to Admiral Janeway's timeline, his condition would have degenerated to such an extent that we would hardly have been able to intervene.»
«What is your estimate, Doctor? For the complete reports,» Chakotay added, reading the question in his colleague's eyes. «By 1200 hours Medical Headquarters will have everything they need, Commander,» the Doctor answered him, returning his focus to his own work, adding almost as if it were an afterthought: «I will keep you posted.»

Chakotay barely smiled before leaving Sickbay: Voyager's Emergency Medical Hologram, a Mark I, had improved greatly in his rapport with the rest of the crew. Programmed to spring into action at times of crisis, when the medical staff needed an extra hand, with the stormy arrival of the Federation vessel in the Delta Quadrant, he had found himself forced to remain active throughout the return journey. This peculiar fact had led what was a 'simple' programme to outgrow its basic programming, basically becoming a totally new and unexpected life form; despite the initial difficulties - it had taken the crew some time to fully accept the Doctor as one of their own, but he had eventually become a valued member.
But now that they had finally achieved their longed-for goal, they were faced with no small problem - one they had previously faced, at least in part: the nature and definition of 'sentient life form' that could or could not be attributed to them, based on ill-defined ethical stylings. It was not the first time that such a situation had arisen, considering that Data, the second officer on board the Enterprise, had been the protagonist, several years before, of a very similar diatribe - Commander Bruce Maddox, in fact, had done everything in his power to prove that the android was more of an object than a sentient life-form, and therefore the property of the Federation, but had failed.
There was a risk of a similar discussion with Voyager's Doctor, which is why, as soon as possible, Chakotay vowed to talk to Janeway about it. Considering that the appointment with Admiral Paris was scheduled to end shortly, the executive officer headed, at a safe pace, for the bridge and the Captain's office.

Sol System, U.S.S. Prometheus (NCC-74913) - less than a light year from Earth

«Report!» Captain Taanis ordered, entering the bridge with a firm step and looking towards Sam Lavelle's operations station; Ferrari, who had been occupying the Captain's chair up to that point, gave way to her own commanding officer, heading for her own tactical station, taking it over in turn from Lieutenant Ro who moved to a secondary tactical station; a step behind Taanis, followed Commander Raynolds.

«The Leonidas has detected strange anomalies on her sensors, Captain,» Lavelle answered, rechecking his instruments, «less than half a parsec from our current position.» At the helm, Lieutenant Rouest added: «ETA to the coordinates in ten minutes.»
At that point, it was Ferrari who took the floor: «The anomalies detected are consistent with Borg and Klingon traces, Captain. It would explain why,» she continued, looking up from his console and towards her superiors, «we could no longer detect Captain Klang's ship on our sensors.»
Taanis looked at her Tactical officer with a peculiar intensity in her eyes: «What are you getting at, Commander?»
Ferrari arched an eyebrow: «Just a guess, sir. I think it is plausible to believe that the Klingons found themselves dealing with some still partially active Borg wreckage and were overwhelmed by it.»
«According to your analysis, the implication would be that the Borg masked, until contact with the Leonidas, the emissions of their own vessel and that of Klang?»
«The Leonidas was not close enough to the source to be certain of the type of emissions, Captain. At the moment, it is not logical to propose any kind of analysis... there are only hypotheses to be tested.»
«Where is the Leonidas now?»
«According to the latest report, it should be arriving on site, followed closely by the Challenger, in eight minutes and thirty seconds,» replied, from his station, Commander Lavelle, who had taken on the task of monitoring and coordinating, on Ferrari's orders, the movements of the three vessels.

Taanis nodded, pleased with the synergy of her crew, as she sat in the chair in the centre of the bridge, between that of the First Officer, to the right and occupied by Reynolds, and that of the Counsellor, to the left and, at the moment, left vacant.
«ETA in five minutes,» Rouest updated, from the helm, without needing to be asked. »The Leonidas and Challenger both report coming out of warp,» Lavelle noted, «and have begun scanning the area with medium and long-range sensors, currently with inconclusive results.»
«Commander,» ordered Reynolds, «recommend extreme precaution. If the Borg traces are indeed confirmed, we don't want to find ourselves in a high-risk situation: we know how difficult it is to shoot down even one of their ships. We can't retry the blow delivered by Voyager; they will surely have adapted.»
«Transmitting, sir,» Lavelle nodded, «both the Leonidas and the Challenger confirm their orders. We are informed by the Leonidas that they left a buoy employed as a transceiver, as an added precaution.»
«Captain,» Ferrari interjected, «I recommend that we come out of warp with shields up and weapons ready, in case we find ourselves facing any emergency. We would not want,» she added, «to be caught off guard.»
«Proceed as you see fit, Commander,» Taanis answered her, nodding, «in this situation, I totally rely on your expertise.» Ferrari merely obeyed the order, without adding anything else.

Vulcan System, U.S.S. Enterprise (NCC-1701-E) - en route to Earth

«Admiral Paris has requested your presence on Earth, Counselor,» Captain Jean-Luc Picard began to say to his Chief Counselor, Commander Deanna Troi, as he placed a PADD on the desk in his office. Then he corrected himself: «Actually, rather than 'requested', I would say he 'ordered' her presence on Earth.»
The Counsellor looked exactly as puzzled as her Captain when he had been contacted by the aforementioned Admiral Paris: «Why the request, Captain?»
«Starfleet Command believes that, with the experience you have accumulated over your years aboard the Enterprise, you, Counselor, are the best person to coordinate the team of therapists that will be set up to carry out the psychological and psychiatric evaluations of Voyager's crew.»
«I'm honored that Command has me in such high regard, but I don't think I'm the only person with this much experiential baggage on their shoulders within the entire Starfleet,» Deanna observed, kindly. Picard nodded, agreeing, but added: «Although I share the conviction expressed, Deanna, I still feel that they could not have chosen a better professional. I'm sure we'll manage to survive for a few weeks without her on board, though I can't help but miss her, as we must.»

The two of them exchanged a smile, betraying the years they had spent on the front line side by side, on one mission after another, before continuing their conversation, with Troi asking if they already knew who would make up the team of specialists assembled for the assignment. Picard shook his head, being totally unaware of the matter: «The only thing I know, from what I have been told, is that his second will be a Lieutenant Ezri Tigan, seconded from the U.S.S. Prometheus.» At the surprised look of the woman in front of him, he asked, «Do you happen to know her?»
Troi nodded, a slight smile on her lips: «During the final final stages of the Dominion War, Ezri Tigan served first aboard the Destiny, a Sovereign-class vessel, and later aboard Deep Space 9, shortly after the incident that saw the Cardassian Dukat destroy a Tear of the Prophets.» Picard motioned for her to continue, having been well aware of the incident from Starfleet reports: «Having become, if only briefly, Eva Ferrari's therapist, we had gotten in touch to figure out how to arrange the sessions. But I had no idea that she had decided to be transferred to the Prometheus after the fighting was over.»
«Well, from what I read in her file, she seems to be a pretty capable and prepared officer, otherwise she wouldn't have gotten the job of department head aboard her current boarding. I trust there are no cooperation problems, so...?»
«Absolutely not, sir. I would be pleased, indeed, to be able to deal with you personally,» Deanna replied promptly, genuinely pleased at such a possibility. «If there is nothing else,» she added, «I would go and enquire about Voyager's crew and colleagues who will be helping me throughout the next month, sir?»
«Go ahead, Counselor,» Picard motioned to her, «but remember, I want you back aboard the Enterprise once the bulk of the work is done.»
«You have my word, sir,» Troi replied, before getting up and leaving the ready room, heading for her own study.