Phase Shift
By TíPam
 

Standard disclaimer: All of Voyager and its crew, Star Trek and all itís incarnations - probably space itself - belongs to Paramount. No copyright infringement is intended. No money will be made from this story. It is just for fun.
 

Part Seven

"Captain, I canít help wondering why Voyager canít pick up Tomís lifesigns here anywhere. They can get ours. Thereís nothing blocking the sensors around here."

"Ensign Kim is correct, Captain. One can only assume that Mr. Paris is not here."

Janeway sighed. They had spent the last three hours searching in all the known hiding places that Quilla and Branwe had given them and each time they had shifted back, Voyager had reported that theirs were the only known lifesigns registering.

Running a hand through her hair tiredly she told Harry and Seven. "I think you may be right. I was hoping to find a cave or something that could hide his readings, but weíve come up with nothing. Weíll shift back and get Voyager to transport us to the others. As soon as we rendezvous weíll discuss plan B."

It didnít take long until they found themselves appearing in front of Chakotay, Tuvok and BíElanna.

"Captain!" Tuvok exclaimed, stepping back in surprise. The Captain had appeared right in front of him.

"Sorry Tuvok, I didnít mean to startle you. I should have got Voyager to beam us a little further away."

"That is quite all right Captain. I was not startled."

"Yeah right, Tuvok. You nearly jumped out of your skin."

"That is an exaggeration Mr. Kim. I was slightly surprised, that is all."

Harry snorted and BíElanna shoved him. "Well, you nearly gave me a heart attack."

"That also would be an exaggeration," Seven announced, grabbing hold of Harry, to keep him from falling over. "You exhibit no signs of your heart failing to beat in itís customary manner."

BíElanna growled dangerously. "I said nearly. Do you have to take everything so literally?"

Seven merely quirked her eyebrow at her. "Do you?" she challenged.

"Whatís that supposed to mean?"

"Um, nowís probably not the best time for this conversation," Harry butted in.

"Keep out of this Harry."

"Enough!" The Captain snapped. Honestly, theyíre worse than children! "Since we havenít found any sign of Tom so far I suggest we concentrate on the area marked on the map. Weíll have to keep a sharp lookout for the enforcers. Theyíll probably be looking around that area too."

Chakotay gave Seven, BíElanna and Harry, - much to his indignation -, a warning look. "Of course Captain."
 

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Tom paced around his cage in agitation. The men had thrown him into it as soon as they had reached the village. The cage was set up in the middle of a huge open space, surrounded by rocks and shrubs forming an uneven circle. Steps for sitting on had been built all the way around to form some sort of natural meeting area.

Every now and then, someone would come and peer in at him. His stomach had started to hurt again and he felt weak and dizzy, but he wasnít giving in to it. "You can all go to hell," he yelled. "Every last damn one of you." He rattled the bars on the cage to no avail.

A woman came up to him and held out some sort of food. She smiled, gesturing for him to take it. "Thanks," he said. "Could I have some water too?" He tried to mime that he was thirsty, and the woman grunted and moved away.

Sighing, Tom sat down to eat the bread-like offering. It tasted sweet and he ate it gratefully. His bag with all his provisions in it had been left behind on the pathway, when the men had grabbed him. It was hot in the cage and Tom had had to take off the all in one suit that Mallee had given him.

The woman returned just then and held out a cup to him. Tom smiled. "Thanks. A lot." He took deep swallows until it was all gone. At least these people didnít seem to think he was an animal, despite the cage.

"Ilana, come away from there."

The woman stood up and glanced over her shoulder. "It seems a little cruel to put the poor little thing in that cage, Culgon."

"Well, what am I supposed to do with it? Keep it on my shoulder or hip and let it kick me to death?"

"It couldnít have been that bad. The little thingís not much bigger than a baby."

"Thatís what you think. Anyway, itís not for long. The Elders will be back soon and then we can let them decide what to do with it."

"What do you think will happen? If the teachers and learners get their hands on it, it wonít last long."

"Not my problem. Let the Elders decide. Iím going to get into trouble anyway. We were sent out to hunt for something for dinner. That doesnít qualify. I donít eat mutant children."

"Is that what you think it is?"

"Of course, itís obvious. The forest people have a lot to answer for. The poor thing wouldnít be any more than three rotations old. Itís obviously wandered in, over the fence. How it got through is anyoneís guess."

"I thought the forest people didnít experiment with mutations. They said it was unethical. Anything not classed as normal is put immediately to death. Now, thereís real ethics for you."

"Who knows with them? We havenít had any contact with the forest people for tens of rotations. Theyíve obviously changed their ideas."

"Well, I still think the poor little thing should be let out of that cage. If it is a child, itís unspeakably cruel to put it in there."

"Well, itís not screaming or anything, so let it stay there. If itís some sort of animal then thatís where it should be. This is the best chance weíve had to find out what the forest people have been up to in all these rotations."

"Up to no good, if this is any indication. I donít think it is an animal, itís more likely some sort of mutant, because it drinks from a cup."

"Whatever it is, its got a pretty temper. It certainly wasnít happy about going in the cage, or about me picking it up in the first place."

"Poor baby," the woman crooned putting her hands through the bars of the cage. "If it starts crying or screaming or anything, Iím taking it out. I donít care what you say."

"What will you do with it? Itíll probably try to run away, and Iím not chasing it and catching it again."

"I donít care. Poor little baby," she said softly, trying to get Tom to come towards her. "Come here baby. Come on. I wonít hurt you."

"Ilana, leave it alone. Save your pity. It shouldnít have come in here in the first place. Even our mutants know better than to go over the fence."

"Youíre a hard man Culgon."

He just shrugged. "Let the Elders deal with it. Just stay away, or you will upset it."
 

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Itís so unfair! I didnít do anything! No wonder Tom and him donít get on all that good. Heís so judgmental - and - unfair! Harry mused quietly to himself. What did he give me the evil eye for? It wasnít me. It was BíElanna and Seven. Harry scuffed the dirt as he walked along, not even bothering to look where he was going.

Why Iíve got a good mind to tell him how unreasonable he is. To blame me for Seven and BíElanna continuing to bicker all the time is so, so - unfair! Harry sulked as he trudged along, occasionally glancing over at the commander, and giving him his own evil eye. The commander however, seemed blissfully unaware of the ensignís heated look.

The big stoic Indian, be damned! Iíll show him. Somehow! Arrogant, condemning-----*-BANG*

"Ow," Harry rubbed his forehead, and looked up into the furious gaze of the chief engineer. Uh-Oh!

"Harry, you idiot," she hissed between gritted teeth, rubbing her shoulder blade. "Look where youíre going."

"Sorry," Harry whispered. Why had they stopped anyway? He noticed Tuvok up in front holding up his arm. He motioned for them to take cover. They quickly ducked behind the bushes at the side of the path.

Harry shifted restlessly. He couldnít hear anything. Tuvok had much better hearing than any of them though, so it was a safe bet to assume that somebody was coming. Theyíd been searching for over an hour in the area marked on the map and hadnít come across any enforcers so far. He knew their luck couldnít hold.

Tuvok had been convinced that someone had come this way recently and so they were following the trail. Chakotay had agreed with him, but felt the trail was quite a few hours old. Still, it was the first clue that theyíd had.

Soon, the sound of footsteps could be heard. They were heading their way. Three men and a girl came into view. It was obvious from the look on Chakotaysí face that this was Mallee. Harry felt his heart begin to quicken. Mallee was wearing a huge coat and had a sling tied to the front of her. It was empty. None of the men were carrying Tom either. Damn it! Where is he?

Mallee must have been able to hide him somewhere. But where? Harry noticed the girlís eyes were red and swollen from weeping as she passed, and the men looked grim.

Janeway leaned over and whispered something in Chakotayís ear. He nodded and motioned to Harry and BíElanna to come with him. They quickly followed the commander as quietly as they could as he started to shadow the men and Mallee. Harry supposed that the Captain and the others were going to continue following the trail in the hope that it would lead to Tom.

About an hour later the men stopped to rest. Handing Mallee some water, one of the men said. "Here; youíd better drink this young one. Itís still a long way to the village. Are you hungry? Itís just about lunch time."

Mallee shook her head. "Donít be nice to me. I donít deserve it. I killed him." Her voice shook. "I thought I was helping him and I killed him."

The man shook his head. "You are young and foolish. If you learn from youíre mistakes, then that is all that we can hope. Youíre not the one whoís going to get in trouble. We are. We let you kill him. We werenít quick enough. We should have stopped you."

BíElanna let out a gasp as she realized what they were saying. Chakotay had to put a hand over her mouth to remind her to keep quiet. Tears filled her eyes as she looked at Harry, only to see the tears already rolling down his face.

"I didnít believe it, you see," Mallee was saying. "I thought it was another story made up over the rotations, like the one about the stars and us being the only people. I would never have put him over the fence if Iíd believed it. He disintegrated right before my eyes. Iíll never forgive myself. Never." Mallee put her hands over her face and began to sob uncontrollably.

The man knelt down beside her. "Perhaps this was for the best. If the teachers had gotten him, he would have died an unspeakable death. At least this was painless."

"How can you say that? Why did you chase us if you didnít want the teachers to have him?"

"Itís my job. It doesnít mean I agree with what the teachers wanted to do."

Chakotay decided it was time to leave. Bringing both Harry and BíElanna along with him, hadnít been a very smart move after all. They both looked about ready to lose control. He quickly adjusted BíElannaís armband and phase shifted her back as she began a low keening. Moving over to Harry, he did the same thing and then shifted back as well.

As he appeared he heard the loud roaring of the Klingon death wail and turned to BíElanna. Her grief was so intense he had to look away. Harry was squatting on the ground, rocking back and forth, and crying quietly.

Chakotay tapped his commbadge. "Chakotay to Voyager. Do you read me?"

"Loud and clear Commander," Rawlins voice came over the comm. "Is everything all right?"

Chakotay knew that the sound of BíElannaís grieving could be heard but didnít feel up to explaining. "Has the Captain reported in yet?" he asked instead.

"Yes Commander. She said she would report back every half hour until we had heard from you. She should be reporting in in about five minutes."

"Thanks Lieutenant. Iíll wait for her. Chakotay out."
 

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Janeway sat down on a large rock at the edge of the clearing. She couldnít believe what Chakotay was telling her. Shaking her head, and attempting to focus on what he was saying, she felt physically ill. All the time and effort, all the worry and hopes that had gone into this search, and it was all for nothing. They had tried so hard to find him, and now he was dead. Killed only a few hours ago.

They had been so close to getting him back. Gods only knew what had been going through his mind the last few days. He had probably been wondering where they all were. Why they hadnít rescued him. She wouldnít have blamed him for feeling as if he had been abandoned. To have been through everything he had, and then to have been disintegrated.

Janeway shuddered at the thought. She struggled to stop the tears from escaping. It wouldnít do to fall to pieces in front of the rest of the senior crew. She would wait till she was alone, to do her grieving. She took a deep breath and looked over towards Harry and BíElanna. They were both huddled on the ground trying to console one another.

Swallowing painfully, she said, "I think weíd better get them back to the ship. Beam them directly to sickbay. I want the Doctor to check them both out."

Chakotay nodded. "Captain, Iím so sorry," he said softly, reaching out and helping her to her feet. His eyes were full of sorrow.

"This can not be true."

"Seven?"

"I believe the girl was lying."

"To who? The enforcers? You werenít there. She wasnít trying to throw them off the scent Seven. They were discussing what had happened."

"What she led them to believe had happened."

"Seven, youíre wrong. The enforcer spoke as if he had witnessed Tomís-----" Chakotay swallowed, "disintegration himself. The girl wasnít telling them what had happened. He knew for himself."

"I do not believe it."

"Mallee was deeply distressed. It wasnít an act. She wasnít lying, Seven."

"Commander, perhaps you are jumping to conclusions."

Chakotay rounded on her furiously, pointing to BíElanna and Harry. "Do you think that they would be in the state theyíre in, if we werenít sure? I am absolutely positive that Mallee put Tom over some fence and he was disintegrated somehow. They all saw it. What the hell are you trying to do?"

"I----"

"What?"

"I do not wish it to be true." Sevenís voice was hard to hear.

"None of us want it to be," Chakotay said harshly. "Do you think -----?"

"Thatís enough!" Janeway interrupted. "Nowís not the time for this. Weíre all upset enough as it is."

"Iím sorry Captain, I guess Iím more shook up about this than I realized. I didnít mean to bite your head off Seven." Seven didnít answer; she merely looked at the ground. "Are you all right?"

"No Commander, Iím not. I feel the same as I did when One died. I donít like feeling like this. It hurts - inside." She touched her chest.

The Captain put her arm around her. "Itís all right. Weíre all hurting. Grieving is just one of the many feelings we have to learn to deal with. Itís part of life."

Tuvok cleared his throat. "I believe that we should ascertain exactly where this fence is."

"With the tricorders not working, you wonít be able to find out too much."

"Perhaps Commander, but it would ease my mind."

"Of what?"

"It is hard to explain. I just feel that there is more to this than meets the eye. I would like to witness first hand this disintegration phenomenon."

"Why? Have you got an idea?"

"I am not sure Commander." Tuvok glanced over towards BíElanna and Harry, keeping his voice low. "I do not wish to get any ones hopes up. Until I see how it works, I canít be certain."

Janeway looked up at him. She felt hope beginning to surge within her. An idea was teasing at the back of her mind also. Oh Tuvok, please be right! Please!

"I promised Branwe that I would let him know how the search went. Perhaps he can tell us about the fence? Chakotay, I want you to go back up to the ship with BíElanna and Harry. Seven, you go and meet up with Vorik and help him with the monitoring equipment. He shouldnít be too far from here. Tuvok and I will be back as soon as possible."

"Aye Captain." Chakotay gave her arm a small squeeze before hurrying over to Harry and BíElanna.
 

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The Captain and Tuvok appeared in Branweís hallway and crept cautiously towards the kitchen. "Can you hear anything?"

"Yes Captain. Somebody is in there. There are two voices talking. I do not believe that the second voice is that of the child Quilla. It is a femalesí voice, but she sounds older."

"What are they saying?"

"I am unable to hear properly as they are speaking very quietly."

"Damn! Do we dare push on the door?"

"The other person may see us."

"Damn!"

"Hello!" The voice behind them made them both jump.

"Tuvok, remind me to keep looking backwards when weíre in here. Thatís the second time. Hello Quilla."

"How did you get in? We locked the door."

"Shh! We donít want the other person in the kitchen with your Father, to know weíre here."

"Okay," Quilla whispered. "Thatís Roanna. Sheís Malleeís friend from the learning center. Sheís one of the ones that told the teachers about the Little One, but she feels really bad now that Mallee had to run away. I called her a bad name and Father said I had to go to my room."

"Shouldnít you be in your room now?" Tuvok queried.

"No. Father said for me to go to my room and I did. He didnít say I had to stay there."

Tuvok raised his eyebrow at the childísí logic.

"Quilla," the Captain said urgently. "We need to speak to your Father. Do you think you could get him to come out here, without letting that girl know weíre here."

"Course," the little girl said confidently. "Youíd better hide out the way, while I open the door." Janeway and Tuvok quickly scurried out of the way. "Father, you have to come out here - now!"

Janeway groaned. "Quilla, what are you doing out of your room?" Branwe demanded.

"You didnít say I had to stay there."

"Quilla!"

"Please Father, you have to come here."

"You have to go to your room, young lady."

"But Father, this is important."

"Quilla! Iím speaking to Roanna. Youíre being very rude."

"Itís all right Dr. Branwe. Is something wrong Quilla? Maybe I can help."

"No, not you! I hate you!"

"Quilla!"

"Iím so sorry, Quilla. Youíre angry with me for telling the teacherís about the Little One. I donít blame you. If Iíd known what they were going to do, I never would have. Please believe me. We all feel really bad about it. Iím here to help."

"Well then, - go away."

Branwe sighed. "Iím sorry Roanna. Sheís very upset and worried about Mallee. Excuse me for a minute." Finally, he came out into the hallway. "Oh my!"

"Dr. Branwe, is everything all right?"

"Oh - uh - yes, thank you Roanna. Iíll just settle Quilla back in her room. Iíll be right back." He quickly ushered them all down the hallway to Quillaís bedroom and then shut the door.

"Weíre sorry to startle you again, but we needed to speak to you."

"Of course Captain. I am very pleased to see you. Did you find the Little One? Sorry - Tom."

"No. Something happened. Do you know anything about a fence, - that disintegrates?"

Branweís face paled. "Oh No! The boundary. What happened?"

"We are not certain. We do not wish to cause you any more distress than you are already suffering."

"Commander Tuvok, did Mallee cross the boundary and disintegrate?"

"Oh no Branwe. Mallee is fine," the Captain quickly assured him. "Sheís in the forest with three enforcers. They are on their way home."

"Thank the stars!"

"She should be home soon. Branwe, she is very upset. She said she killed Tom. Put him over a fence and he disintegrated."

Branwe put his head in his hands. "I am so sorry. The poor Little One. Poor Mallee." He picked his daughter up and held her to him as she began to cry.

"The Little Oneís dead?"

"Yes, sweetheart." He held her tighter as her sobs increased.

"We need to discuss with you how this fence operates. Is it a weapon of some sort?" Tuvok asked.

"A weapon?" Branwe was confused. "No, of course not. It is the boundary. It was built tens of rotations ago to stop us from going any further."

"I do not understand."

"Any further, where?" the Captain asked.

"Away from the forest. The fence was built as a boundary to our land. The mountain people live on one side and we live on the other."

"The mountain people?"

"Yes Captain. There are two peoples. The mountain people and we, the forest people. At least, that is what we always believed until now. We are very different. The mountain people are wild and savage. They hunt animals for food and believe in advancement and technology, no matter what the cost. Hundreds of rotations ago, after some terrible arguments between our two peoples, it was decided by our Elders that we would live completely separate from each other. Have as little contact as possible. It was either that, or fighting would have erupted."

"I see. So you built a wall to stop people from mixing with each other. And rigged it up so that they would disintegrate if they tried to climb over." The Captainís voice had got harsher and harsher as she spoke.

"Oh no Captain. We were allowed to mix with each other. No one wanted to, however. The mountain peoples stayed in their mountains and very rarely came back to the village. There are all sorts of wild animals in the mountains and it was too dangerous to travel back. Only huge parties could come back safely. They didnít believe it was worth the trouble, and neither did we. We were too different. We had nothing in common. The fence was only built about sixty or seventy rotations ago when we realized that people were disappearing between our two settlements."

"Disappearing?"

Branwe nodded. "People walking in front of others would suddenly disappear. Sometimes they would appear again, saying that the people that were with them had disappeared, not them. Mostly however, they were never seen again. People threw rocks and other objects at the same place as the people had disappeared in and they all disappeared too. Our teachers explained that there was something in the air at that particular place that caused you to disintegrate and so it was decided to build the fence to stop any more accidents."

"Didnít the mountain people object to this? Didnít they have their own theories? Surely they must have found the same thing?"

"As I explained Captain, the mountain people rarely came down out of the mountains. They hadnít been anywhere near the strange place for many rotations. A huge party of forest people went up to see them, but they just laughed at them. They objected to the fence, because they are very argumentative and then decided to build one of their own as well - to keep us out. They said they were tired of the forest people continuing to roam around in their mountains often sick or injured. The argument just got worse and that was the last time we have spoken to each other."

"Dr Branwe, are you all right? Is Quilla?" A voice came from outside the bedroom door.

"Thank you Roanna. Everything is fine. Iíll be there shortly." Branwe called out.

Tuvok turned to the Captain and said quietly, "it is as I suspected."

"You think thereís some sort of phase variance in the middle of the planet?"

"Yes Captain. I believe you are thinking the same thing."

"Well, it would make sense. It would explain why Tomís lifesigns disappeared so suddenly. Heís moved into another phase."

"Unfortunately, his lifesigns would also disappear if he were disintegrated."

"I canít accept that heís dead, Tuvok. I canít believe that there would be something in the air to make people disintegrate."

"Under the circumstances, it is much more feasible to assume it is a phase variance that occurred suddenly on their planet."

"A phase variance inside a phase variance. I think Iím getting a headache just trying to keep this straight."

"Indeed! However, that does not explain why the people disappearing did not just step back into the right variance again."

"Some did remember? The others probably panicked when their companions suddenly disappeared from around them and ran in the opposite direction - towards the mountains. Remember the mountain people made reference to the fact that forest people were found roaming around the mountains."

"Sick or injured."

"Thatís right, Tuvok. They probably ran into some of the wildlife. A couple of people by themselves wouldnít have had much of a chance if the animals were as savage as weíre led to believe."

"Indeed!"

"Excuse me, Iím not really sure I understand everything you are saying. Does the air disintegrate you?"

"Iím sorry Branwe, we were sort of thinking out loud. But no we donít believe so. We think you disappear into another - um - world, so to speak."

"The way you did when you disappeared this morning?"

"Yes, I didnít realize you saw us."

"Quilla did actually. We couldnít understand where you could have gone. So are you saying that the Little One is not dead?"

"Well, weíll need to see the boundary and everything first, but there is a very strong possibility."

"Could you take us to the boundary?"

"Of course, Commander Tuvok. But the fence is very long. We will need Mallee to show us where she put the Little One over."

"Very well, I guess weíll just have to wait. It isnít as if we havenít had a lot of practice at that, have we Tuvok?"

"Indeed! However, I am concerned, regarding these wild animals you spoke of Dr. Branwe. They may already have injured Mr. Paris. In his weakened state, he would be easy prey."

"Tuvok, sometimes I wish you werenít so practical," Janeway sighed.

"I donít believe that there would be too many animals left anymore in the mountains. You see that was one of the many reasons we argued with the mountain people. They hunted, with no regard for preserving any of the animals. Their numbers were decreasing rapidly and the mountain people didnít care. All they were concerned with was the present. Let the future take care of itself, was their motto. We forest people began breeding animals especially for our meat requirements, and growing crops to help sustain us. Most of us prefer this now. The mountain peoples said it was too much work when the food was already here. I believe that after all these rotations they would have hunted most of the animals to extinction."

"The mountain people seem to have a very flawed logic."

"Yes Commander Tuvok, they have."
 

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Branwe paced around nervously. "I think Iíd better come with you. I can show you where the fence is. I feel so responsible."

"Youíre not responsible for whatís happened," the Captain reassured him. "You did youíre best to look after Tom."

"I didnít protect him."

"You did all you could. We appreciate the offer, but we donít want you to get into any trouble."

"No Captain. There wonít be any trouble. The enforcers believe the Little One- sorry- Tom is dead. The teachers are not happy with us, but there is nothing they can do now. I insist."

"Let me go too," Mallee urged. "I know exactly where I put the Little One over. Youíre quite certain heís not dead?" When she had first returned home and the enforcers and teachers had left, she had been completely overwhelmed when her father had told her about the other little people and their ideas. This Captain and Commander Tuvok were very nice though, and didnít seem to be angry with her.

"As I explained before, we can not be sure until we examine the fence."

"Of course, Commander Tuvok. You will let me show you wonít you?"

"Mallee, youíre exhausted. Itís a long trip to the boundary and it will be nightfall before we reach it. Youíve just come back from there."

"It doesnít matter, Father."

"It does to me. I need you to stay here and look after Quilla. This could be a dangerous trip. We donít know how friendly the mountain people will be. I donít want you in any more danger. Iíll be gone quite a long time as I donít know how long it will take to find the Little One in the mountains."

"Actually, we have a technology that can get us to the boundary very quickly, if youíll trust us?"

"Of course Captain. I trust you completely."

"Good. Youíll have to put an armband, like this, on. Tuvok will bring one back for you in a minute."

"Very well. Are we going to disappear like you did before?"

"Yes," Janeway nodded.

"Please Father, let me come too. You need me."

"No Mallee. I can show them where you put the Little One over the fence, if you explain it to me properly. Please stay here and look after Quilla. She needs you, and you need to rest."

"Youíre Father is right," Janeway said. "Youíve had a very emotional day and gotten into a lot of trouble. Itís not necessary to come with us."

"I donít care about the trouble. Nothing else will happen to me now. The teachers have banned me from the learning center for a quarter rotation, but thatís all."

"Thatís quite a lot actually," her father told her. "There will be a lot of accusatory looks and comments when you go back. The teachers will make it very hard for you to learn."

"Thatís why I have to help get the Little One back. Donít you understand? It would have all been for nothing otherwise. I donít care how long theyíve banned me anyway. Iím never going back to the learning center."

"That would be a mistake," Tuvok told her. "I believe you wished to be a teacher."

"Not now. Not after seeing what they are capable of."

"Perhaps it is time for a change. Time for a new type of teacher. A teacher who is willing to keep her mind open to all possibilities. Time for somebody like you, in fact."

"Me?"

"Tuvokís right Mallee. By the time you finish your studies- sorry- learning, youíll be fully-grown and able to make a difference. It really would be all for nothing, if you didnít take advantage of what youíve learned from all of this."

"Do you really think I could make a difference?"

"Yes, I believe you are capable of achieving anything you set your mind on."

"Who knows?" Janeway added. "You could turn out to be your worlds greatest teacher."

"Thank you," Mallee answered softly.

"Captain," Tuvok said gravely. "I believe that we just broke the prime directive. That I, in fact, initiated it. I will write a full report."

"You do that Tuvok, but I donít think we broke it, just bent it a little."

"A fine distinction Captain."

"Yes isnít it? I want you to shift back and contact Chakotay to let him know what the plan is. Tell him to meet us at the co-ordinates where Seven and Vorik are and then bring back an armband for Branwe."

"Yes Captain."
 

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Tom sat up slowly in his cage. It was late afternoon he guessed thankfully, as the sun was now low in the sky. It had become unbearably hot in the cage during the middle of the day and except for a few drinks of water the giant woman had brought him, he had had no relief from the heat.

A large party of people had returned to the village a few hours ago and there had been some sort of a meeting held not long after. They had all assembled around his cage, talking and gesturing wildly before sitting on the steps nearby. Tom supposed they were talking about him and deciding what to do with him.

The man who had caught him that morning had had a fair bit to say and then a few others in the crowd had spoken up as well. Everyone seemed to defer to six older men sitting on one side of the circle. There seemed to be quite a bit of heated discussion before the meeting broke up and Tom was left wondering what had happened. No one had been near him for quite some time.

Running his hands through his hair wearily, he looked around. There was no one about. They had all gone inside the buildings and left him alone. He reached over to the door of the cage and examined the lock. It was like nothing he had ever seen before. Still, heíd learnt how to pick locks in prison. He was sure with a bit of patience he could unlock this.

He needed something sharp to use in the lock, but searching around in the cage, he could find nothing. All that he had with him was the cup the woman had given him and the all in one suit heíd taken off. Hurrying over to the suit, he picked it up. It had strange fastenings on it, made of some sort of metal. They were stitched into the lining and looked almost like old-fashioned hairpins. Perfect!

Trying not to tear the fabric too much - heíd need the suit again when the sun went down completely -, Tom managed to pull one of the clips out. Keeping an eye out for any one coming, he turned his attention back to the lock. Being able to fit his arms between the bars helped a lot. It wasnít long before he heard a small click.

Hurriedly tying the suit around his waist, he slipped out of the cage and raced away.
 

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"It would appear my assumption was correct."

"Thereís only one way to be certain, and thatís for one of us to test it. The manual probe has come back intact so itís time for one of us to take the plunge."

"Well Captain, I donít believe it should be you."

"Oh Chakotay? Why?"

"Youíre too important. Iíll go."

"I believe I am the logical choice, as it is my theory."

"My nanoprobes will be able to adjust to the new variance. I believe I am a much more logical choice."

"Really? I didnít know Iíd asked for volunteers."

"Sorry Captain."

Branwe stood back and watched in amazement, these strange little people. The four of them were perched up on the top of the boundary fence arguing over who would take the chance of being disintegrated. It was a little unsettling. They seemed to be convinced that their theory was right and had thrown a strange round object past the boundary. It had disappeared and then reappeared a few moments later. They had poked long sticks into the air, only to have half of the stick disappear and then reappear when they pulled it back.

It was the strangest thing he had ever seen. He was still trying to get over the feeling of disappearing himself. His house had vanished from around him, when he put the armband on and Commander Tuvok had pressed a dial of some sort on it. He had found himself standing in the middle of the forest, with no sign of the village anywhere.

The Captain had hit her badge thing and spoken to nobody and then he had felt the strange sensation of being pulled into tiny little pieces and then coming back together again. It hadnít hurt in the slightest and that had been the strangest thing of all. Commander Chakotay, Seven and another little man called Ensign Vorik had been standing in front of him.

After Commander Chakotay had consulted the map he had given him, showing exactly where they needed to be, the Commander had spoken to nobody as well, and the strange sensation had engulfed him again. All of them except for Ensign Vorik had appeared in front of the boundary fence. It had been amazing. Certainly something to tell his grandchildren about one day.

With the little peoples permission, he had lifted them up to the top of the fence. They had seemed rather embarrassed to be picked up he noticed, even Commander Tuvok, who had insisted that he could not feel embarrassment. He wondered how he would feel if somebody picked him up and carried him around. He cringed inwardly. No wonder the Little One, -sorry- Tom, had been so reluctant. He was filled with remorse over the way they had treated him.

Chakotay unhooked the rope he was carrying over his shoulder, and dropped it over the fence. Turning around he handed the other end to Branwe. "Would you mind securing this for us?"

"Of course. I donít think Iíd better try and use it to climb over the fence though. I doubt it would hold my weight as it is so small."

"Donít let the size fool you, Branwe," the Captain smiled. "That ropeís strong. Try it, youíll see."

Branwe tied the rope to a tree and then used it to help him scramble to the top of the fence. He soon found himself sitting on the top with the others. It was a small jump to the other side for him. He watched in amazement as Chakotay let himself down the other side of the fence and then jump when he neared the bottom. The Commander disappeared.

Branwe looked at the others. "Is he all right?"

"Weíll find out in a minute," the Captain told him.

A few moments later Chakotay appeared again about halfway up the rope, climbing towards them. He looked up and smiled. "Good to see you again."

"You too," Janeway called out.

As soon as Chakotay reached the top of the fence, he let out a sigh. "Talk about weird. That would have to have been one of the strangest experiences Iíve gone through."

"Explain Commander?" Seven demanded.

"When I landed on the ground I looked up and you were all gone. The fence had changed to stone and the rope was dangling in mid air, with nothing holding it up. It felt really strange to climb back up and put my hands on what looked like nothing."

"Was there any sign of Tom?"

"Yes Captain. There were footprints all over the place, same size as mine. No others though."

"Well thatís good news."

"Indeed Captain. Commander, were you able to ascertain in which direction the Ensign headed?" Tuvok enquired.

"Yeah, his trail should be easy to follow. Even for me," Chakotay grinned.

"Whatís it like over there? Any different to here?" the Captain asked.

"Well sitting up here, it looks like more forest that eventually leads to the mountains, but when you get to the other side it looks a little different. There are not so many trees and the mountains are a lot closer. It was- well- weird, as Harry would say."

Janeway smiled. "Speaking of Harry, I think it would be a good idea to let he and BíElanna know of our progress."

"Of course. I promised them Iíd tell them as soon as we had anything definite. It was the only way I could get them to stay on the ship. You know Captain; weíre going to need a fairly big away team to go into the other variance. In case of trouble with wild animals or the mountain people. We wonít be able to phase shift back to Voyager when we get Tom, weíll have to come back to the boundary fence and climb over into this phase and then shift back to Voyagerís phase."

Janeway nodded. "I know. But we really donít want to interfere with these peoplesí beliefs anymore than we have already. If these mountain people see a big group of us wandering around I think it would seriously compromise the prime directive and weíve done enough of that as it is."

"Indeed!" Tuvok agreed. "I suggest a very small group of us enter the other variance."

"I think I should go over there with you. If we do run into the mountain people, I will tell them that you are my mutants. I donít think that theyíd be hostile towards me. We didnít part under the best of circumstances, but we still treat each other civilly. Iíll probably have a lot of questions to answer, but Iíll tell them that Iím looking for a lost mutant that got over the fence by mistake. They will believe that because they have mutants of their own, that they treat as their slaves. Or at least they used to."

"Lovely," Chakotay said dryly. "Tom could have jumped out of the frying pan into the fire here."

"Oh, please donít misunderstand me. They do not treat them cruelly. The mountain people train them to do menial chores, but they are more like their pets. They breed them for that specific purpose. They create all sorts of strange creatures with their scientific experiments." When everyone was silent, trying to digest this disturbing news Branwe added. "Now you understand why we have nothing to do with them."

"Dr. Branwe is correct. We can use this unfortunate situation to our advantage," Seven said.

"Yes," Janeway agreed. "Branwe, is this fence patrolled?"

"Yes Captain, but very irregularly. Thereís never been any need. I am a little concerned that with whatís happened they may increase the patrols. Are you worried about somebody coming by and seeing what weíre doing?"

"Itís a possibility. Tuvok, you stay here with Seven and keep an ear out. Take the rope down as soon as weíre over. Weíll throw something over the fence when weíre ready to come back."

"Yes Captain. However, I am concerned about the wild animals that Dr. Branwe mentioned. It is not known for a fact that they are now extinct. Just the three of you will make an easy target."

"Weíll just have to take that chance. Tom already has."

"If you insist Captain."

"I do. Youíd better give us plenty of time before you panic and send in the search parties for us. Tomís had the whole day to get a huge head start on us."

"I can assure you, I will not panic Captain."

Janeway sighed. "Of course not Tuvok."

"I donít think the Little One - sorry - Tom, would be that far ahead of us if we hurry. In his weakened state he wouldnít be able to go too fast, and he would have to keep stopping to rest."

"I hope youíre right Branwe. Tomís pretty resilient. I donít fancy chasing around after him for the next two or three days," Chakotay said with a smile.

"Tuvok, let Voyager know what weíre doing and youíd better get a few other people to come down and relieve you and Seven every now and again. We could be quite some time."

"Aye Captain. Perhaps Ensign Kim and Lieutenant Torres would benefit from feeling they were doing something. That is of course, if they have been able to control their emotions."

"Good idea Tuvok. All right then. Letís do it."
 

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"Culgon, itís gone," Ilana gasped as she ran back into the room.

"What? No. It canít be." Culgon jumped up and hurried outside. "Howíd it get out?" He raced over to the cage only to see that it was indeed empty. "Well, Iím not going to be held responsible for this. The elders should have taken it straight to the teachers and not left it here like that. We werenít told to guard it, after all." He looked around. "Someone might have taken it."

"Who?"

"How do I know? Some one with a soft touch like you, that didnít want the teachers having their fun with it. You didnít let it go did you?"

"Culgon! How can you ask me that? Would I have come in here and raised the alarm if I had?"

"Perhaps. You would have given it more time to get away though."

"Thanks. I think. There were a lot of people arguing at the meeting against letting the teachers have it. I wasnít the only one. Many people wanted to take it in as a pet, and treat it like we do our own mutants."

"Maybe one of them took it."

"Do you really think so? Once the elders make their decision, we always go along with it, no matter how we feel. Perhaps it got out by itself."

"Iíd like to know how. This locks been tampered with. Somebodyís unlocked it with a closing pin. Look!"

"Are you going to tell the enforcers?"

Culgon nodded. "I told you. Iím not taking the blame."

"Maybe we should have a look around first. See if we can find it."

"You look all you want. Iím going to report it. If I donít, theyíll find a way to blame me for it escaping."

"Culgon, nightfall will be here soon. It shouldnít be roaming around in the mountains at night with no protection. Help me find it."

"Not me. Anyway what does that matter? It was going to be killed by the teachers if it had stayed here so if the Urangi Beasts get it instead, itíll still be dead."

"The teachers wanted to learn from it though. They wouldnít have killed it straight away."

"Who cares? Iím not a teacher. Thereís nothing I could learn from it. Deadís dead. Iíd advise you not to go too far away in your search though, the Urangi Beasts could just as easily get you."

"Well, come with me then. A great hunter like you should be able to protect me."

"All right. All right. You start searching around the immediate vicinity while I go and alert the enforcers. Iíll set up a proper hunting party to search for it and be back as quick as I can."
 

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Tom jogged as fast as he could, away from the settlement. He didnít know how long heíd have until they realized heíd escaped or even if theyíd bother to chase him, but he wasnít taking any chances. After a while he stopped to catch his breath. Heíd been heading further up the mountain and the climb was becoming quite steep. Gods, this is awful! I still canít run properly and Iím still as weak as a kitten. Itís been what - four days, maybe even more - Iíve lost track, since the father took my appendix out. It shouldnít take this long to get over a simple operation like that. I know I was pretty sick - peritonitis and all - but if Iíd been on Voyager, I would have been as right as rain the second day.

Taking a huge breath, he started off again. A sudden noise in the bushes ahead of him, made him stop. A small furry animal darted out onto the path. Tom heaved a sigh of relief. This looked like this planetís equivalent of a rabbit. Okay Tommy Boy, get a grip! A little rabbitís not going to hurt you.

More rustling, and about a dozen more rabbit-like creatures appeared in front of him. They scurried past in a mad flurry of fur and disappeared down the mountain path. Hey, a fellow could get hurt feelings you know. I know I look a little different to what youíre used to, but still.

Tom shook his head and started forward again, only to be stopped by a loud snarl as a huge beast jumped down from a rock above him. It looked like a cross between a wolf and a buffalo, about the same height as he was, and definitely did not look friendly. The beastís razor sharp teeth gnashed together, as it eyed Tom hungrily.

Okay, well at least I know the rabbits werenít running away from me. "Nice doggy, thingy," he tried. He stepped back slowly, as the beastís growling intensified. It came closer until Tom could smell itís fetid breath. "Phew! You ever hear of breath mints?" Tom backed away further. The beast followed. "Stay!" Tomís voice came out as a squeak.

Bunching itís muscles up, the beast prepared to pounce and Tom jumped back, losing his balance. Feeling himself falling backwards, he looked up into the wild beastís eyes as it sailed through the air towards him. Everything seemed to be happening in slow motion and Tom managed to hold out his arms to brace for the impact.

Landing heavily on his back, he felt the ground crumbling away from around him. Realizing too late that he had fallen sideways off of the path and towards the edge of the mountainside, he could only watch helplessly as the beast plummeted over the side. He didnít have time to celebrate, however, as he then felt himself falling downward as well.

Trying to grab hold of something to stop his headlong plunge, he managed to grasp hold of some tree branches hanging over the side of the cliff face. They were unable to stop his fall however as they broke as soon as he touched them, but they did slow his descent.

Landing with a bone-sickening crunch on top of the beast that had tried to kill him, Tom lost consciousness immediately.

End Part Seven