In Harm's Way
Paris took a deep breath. His eyes focused on the entrance to his quarters. Every day it got harder and harder to leave the relative safety the room offered and venture out into the bowels of the ship where danger lurked. Recently regenerated ribs still ached from the latest beating.
When Janeway had told him that she had invited the Maquis to join the Voyager crew, he hadn't been kidding when he said he would need a bodyguard. Despite Chakotay's assurances, Paris knew many of his former colleagues believed him to be worse than a Cardassian. To them, he was a traitor who had been willing to trade their lives for his own freedom. He didn't blame them. To be truthful, they were right - about that Tom Paris. Recent circumstances however, had changed him in ways he hadn't even yet discovered himself. The Thomas E. Paris who had endured two beatings in two days was not the same individual who had merited such treatment.
He didn't feel comfortable reporting the incidents to the captain or her first officer. He didn't want to do anything that could jeopardize his present position. Though it sounded strange, he almost felt sorry for his attacker. Such anger needed an outlet. A few bruises seemed a small penance for his previous transgressions.
Raising his head and squaring his shoulders, Paris crossed the invisible boundary protecting him from his unknown assailant. Soundlessly, the automatic doors opened. Turning to his right, he headed for the bridge.
The first blow, a chop across the neck, dropped him to his knees. Intent upon finally learning the identity of his accuser, he defiantly lifted his head. Before his eyes could bring the features into focus, a fist smashed into his face, just below his right cheekbone. The force of the blow sent him skidding across the floor. Exposed flesh burned with fire. Stars danced in front of his eyes, making him nauseous. While he sprawled dazed and defenseless, a foot slammed into his side, shattering already brittle bones. Then, as suddenly as the attack had begun, it was over.
When air eventually returned to his lungs, Paris struggled to his knees. Pain flared, threatening his hard fought battle to remain conscious. One arm supported his aching rib cage, while the other kept him in an upright position.
"Is something wrong, Lieutenant?"
Whether B'Elanna Torres was his assailant or his savior, Paris couldn't be sure. Nor did he care. If he didn't get moving, he would be late for duty. In reinstating his rank and position, Janeway had given him a second chance. He would do nothing to jeopardize that trust. "Help me up."
With more strength than the slender body seemed capable of, Torres lifted Paris to his feet. "What happened to you?"
"Would you believe I tripped over my own feet?" Paris forced a laugh, a gesture that ended in a grimace as the movement shifted bruised and seared flesh.
Observant eyes noted his pained expression. Putting an arm around the injured officer's waist, B'Elanna said, "I'll help you to sickbay."
"No!" Paris pulled away from the supporting grasp. Staggering slightly, he resumed his journey to the bridge. "I'm on duty."
"Suit yourself," Torres indifferently agreed, spurning her usual penchant for arguing. Belying her apparent lack of concern, she followed the injured man even though engineering had been her original destination.
Disconcerted, Paris turned as he entered the turbolift to block the young woman's entrance. "I don't need an escort."
Torres' only reaction was to edge past her companion. Facing the doors, she seemingly ignored Paris' very existence. All thoughts and feelings were masked behind her Klingon facade.
Though shipmates for less than a week, Paris was already aware of the engineer's legendary stubbornness. Yielding to the inevitable, he traveled in subdued silence. What interpretation would Janeway put on it when he arrived with a chaperon?
Anxiety momentarily fled as the doors opened to admit him to the bridge. As always, his eyes were immediately drawn to the viewscreen. He never tired of the sight that greeted his seeking gaze. To others, it was an endless field of darkness and light. To him, it was a wonderland. The fulfillment of his dreams. A dream he thought he had lost.
"What the devil happened to you, Mr. Paris?"
Janeway's question drew the younger man's attention to his captain. Sheepishly, he lied, "I had a little run in with a bulkhead. The bulkhead won."
"I can see that," Janeway agreed, rising from her chair. "You better report to sickbay immediately."
"It looks worse than it is, Captain," Paris hastily protested, steering past his superior to stand at his station. "I can stop in for repairs at the end of my shift."
Puzzled eyes swung from Torres' unexpected presence to the battered face of her helmsman. Reluctantly, Janeway replied, "Agreed."
Dizzy with relief, Paris leaned over Morgan's shoulder for the briefing he needed before assuming the conn. His legs started to shake, making it difficult to concentrate. He was near collapse when his subordinate finally relinquished the chair. Wondering if he had misjudged his fitness, Paris slipped into the vacated seat. It had become impossible to inhale without enduring an almost paralyzing pain. The short, shallow breaths he had been forced to resort to made him lightheaded, blurring his vision. Conceding defeat, he swung his seat to face the command chair, "Captain, I -- seem to be -- having -- difficulty -- breathing. I--"
No longer able to support itself, his battered body collapsed to the deck.
* * * *
Janeway paced the length of the room. Her short, choppy stride displaying the depth of her feelings. As much as she hated to admit it, she had not only grown to like Tom Paris, she had even learned to respect him. Not once during their recent encounter with the Caretaker had he shirked his duty. She had found a far different man from the one the Starfleet records had painted.
"This is a sickbay," the holographic doctor whined, placing himself in front of Janeway, halting her movement. "If you wish to exercise, I suggest you procure a recreation room."
"How's Mr. Paris?" Janeway demanded, ignoring the advice.
Turning back to his patient, the doctor detailed, "A broken rib punctured a lung. He'll be fine as long as he stays away from the Klingon calisthenics the holodeck offers."
"What makes you think that was the cause of his injury?" Janeway suspiciously demanded, remembering Paris' report of an encounter with a bulkhead.
"Because that's the excuse he's furnished for the other two beatings he's received."
"Beatings!" Janeway dazedly regarded the physician. "He told me he tripped and fell."
The doctor indignantly raised his chin, "You may think less of my abilities because I'm a hologram, but I assure you, I know a physical assault when I see one. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a chart to update."
Janeway absently nodded consent as her eyes rested on the bruised face of her unconscious helmsman. Anger burned inside her. It was an emotion directed at herself more than at the boy in front of her. She had been so cocky, so sure that if she had been willing to accept Paris as an officer so would the Maquis and the rest of her crew. Her overconfidence almost cost Paris his life. Pressing the badge on her shoulder, she ordered, "Commander Chakotay, Mr. Tuvok, report to sickbay, immediately."
As she waited for her First Officer and her Chief of Security, she resumed pacing. It was an activity that seemed to clear her head, making it easier for her to think. Would Paris give them the identity of his assailant? If he did, what punishment could be dispensed? Starfleet justice was seventy thousand light years away.
A groan drew her to the patient's side. Putting a hand out to soothe the injured man's agitation, Janeway whispered, "Welcome back, Lieutenant."
The memory of his pain reflected in his eyes, Paris took a cautious breath. A slight wince showed that not even a good doctor, holographic or corporeal, could perform miracles. While most of the outward signs of the beating were barely visible, beneath the surface, tender flesh would heal at nature's speed.
"The doctor said you were very lucky. He was able to regenerate the lung a broken rib punctured." Chakotay and Tuvok quietly entered the room. A slight nod of her head was Janeway's only acknowledgment of their presence. "The doctor also says your injuries are the result of a beating, and that this isn't the first time you've reported to sickbay in this condition. In fact, he recounted an entirely different story from the one you related." Anger drowning the compassion she had originally felt, Janeway asked, "Has it become a habit with you to lie to senior officers, Mr. Paris?"
"No, ma'am," Paris nervously denied.
"Then I think you better explain yourself."
A muscle twitched near his swollen right eye. It was the only sign of the young officer's distress. "I didn't make a report because I don't know who the assailant is. I didn't want you to think I couldn't do my job. I thought if I could find out who it was, I could talk to them." With a quick glance at Chakotay, Paris finished, "Maybe smoke a peace pipe."
"The spirits only guide those who are willing to listen," Chakotay solemnly advised. "Your assailant doesn't appear to have that capacity. A warrior who's afraid to show himself cannot hear the words of the Great Spirit."
Janeway's anger subsided in the wake of the explanation. Clearing her throat, she said, "Clearly, our first course of action is to discover the identity of your assailant."
"I'll talk to my people," Chakotay offered.
Irritated by the proprietary tone coloring her first officer's voice, Janeway fought the urge to remind him that as captain, the Maquis were her people now. "In the meantime, Tuvok, it's clear that Mr. Paris will require a bodyguard once he leaves sickbay."
"Agreed, Captain," the Vulcan security officer acknowledged. "I do have one question. How do we know the assailant was a Maquis?"
Chakotay regarded the other man in surprise. "That should be obvious. Who else would have a motive? After all, Paris did betray us by leading Starfleet into the Badlands."
"Even the Maquis must realize that Voyager would've followed you with or without Mr. Paris' assistance," Janeway pointed out.
"It is possible," Tuvok extrapolated, "that these attacks are linked to the incident that caused the lieutenant's resignation from Starfleet rather than his involvement with the Maquis."
"Check on it, Tuvok," Janeway ordered.
* * * *
Though sensitive to the emotions of her crew, Janeway could do nothing to relieve their anxiety. Nerves already on edge since they had been catapulted out of their quadrant were close to snapping as news of the attack on the Voyager's helmsman swept through the ship. The threat of internal strife struck morale a crippling blow.
"Captain," Rollins called from the security station, "sensors are picking up an asteroid field directly ahead."
"Mr. Kim?" Janeway called, turning her attention to the young ensign.
"Confirmed, Captain." Kim's skilled hands flashed across his console. "I'm getting some very unusual readings from the fragments."
Their perilous circumstances depriving her of the luxury of testing inexperienced crewmen, Janeway ordered, "Senior officers to the bridge."
"This is incredible," Kim gasped, staring out the viewscreen at the approaching field. "According to my readings those asteroids are composed of trilithium."
Janeway felt her muscles turn to jelly. Trilithium was a highly volatile explosive. A rock less than a meter across could badly damage their shields. The larger ones could destroy the ship. "Can we go around the belt?"
"Doubtful, Captain," Tuvok replied, quickly assessing their options as he relieved Rollins. "The field extends beyond the range of our sensors."
"Can we come about and outrun it?"
"If our warp engines were at full capacity, we might have had a chance. Under present circumstances we would be overtaken in one-point-two-five hours."
Janeway's gaze rested briefly on her first officer's face. A slight shake of his head answered her silent question. He had no idea how to avoid their fate, either. "It looks like we have no alternative but to go through it and hope there's enough room to maneuver."
"Permission to take the conn?" On less than steady legs, Paris leaned against the railing arcing the bridge.
"Permission denied." Janeway hesitated before adding, "You can barely stand."
"I don't need legs." Paris cautiously stepped down into the well of the bridge. "All I need are my eyes and my hands."
The indecision that tied her stomach in knots wasn't visible on her face as Janeway turned to the young ensign currently manning the conn. "Mr. Morgan?"
Emotion played across the young face. His eyes darting to the viewscreen before resting on his superior, Morgan admitted, "I'm a good pilot, Captain. But, in this situation, I think you need someone who's more than just good."
"Take the conn, Mr. Paris." As she watched her helmsman slowly make his way to his station, Janeway prayed that she wasn't making a mistake.
Rising from his command chair, Chakotay crossed to the conn to monitor the readouts the pilot would be too busy to supervise. "I'm amazed the doctor released you, Lieutenant."
"He didn't have much choice," Paris revealed, easing himself into position, "after I terminated his program."
"One minute to the asteroid belt," Kim called.
"Red Alert all stations." Janeway wrapped her hands around the arms of her chair. "At your discretion, Mr. Paris."
They had barely crossed the boundary into danger when the ship shuddered.
"We took a hit on the starboard shield," Kim relayed.
"No damage, Captain," said Tuvok.
Steady hands flashed across the board turning the ship to port, then to starboard. When they suddenly dipped to go under an asteroid twice their size, Janeway found herself in mid-air for a few seconds before gravity landed her with a painful thump back in her seat. Once, for her birthday, Mark had taken her to an old-fashioned amusement park. One ride had been called a roller coaster. She had loved the speed and the threat of danger lurking around every curve. That ride would seem tame after this.
An explosion off the port bow nearly pushed the ship into a bolder almost twice their size. Only Paris' quick reaction saved them from disaster.
"Port shield down twenty percent," Tuvok called.
"Divert power from the aft shields," Janeway advised. "I doubt one of those things can come up behind us and nip us in the butt."
"That would seem most unlikely," Tuvok seriously agreed.
The ship swerved to avoid a small but still lethal asteroid only to find itself facing two incredibly large boulders traveling side by side.
"Can we go around?" Janeway demanded, her fingernails biting into the arms of her chair.
Tuvok shook his head. "Negative, Captain."
"There isn't room to go between them," Kim reported, fear clearly showing on his face.
"There better be," Paris returned, ignoring the sweat streaming down his face. "That's the only place we can go. Captain, I suggest we drop the shields."
"Without shields we will be defenseless," Tuvok protested.
"They can't protect us against something that size," Paris pointed out. "But if our shields even touch them, we've had it. We've got a better chance without them."
"Drop the shields, Tuvok," Janeway ordered.
"Hang on," Paris warned, as he turned the ship on her side.
Janeway quickly shifted both hands to her left armrest and hung on with all her strength. A throbbing in her head spoke of the beginning of a headache. When the vessel was finally eased down to an even plane, she closed her eyes in gratitude. She had barely reopened them when an asteroid only large enough to be visible, flashed across the screen and exploded as it impacted the hull. "Raise the shields," she belatedly commanded. "Damage report."
"Hull breach, deck twelve!" Kim supplied. "Repair crews are on the way."
Small fires burned at the conn panel. With unprotected hands, Chakotay slapped at the blaze trying to smother it.
Worried that they might lose control, Janeway called, "Mr. Paris?"
"She's still responding, Captain." Ignoring the flames licking at his fingers, Paris manipulated the controls raising the vessel over another large asteroid.
Once again the ship shuddered.
"Shields are holding, Captain," Tuvok supplied, anticipating his superior's request.
Her gaze locked on her helmsman, Janeway saw he was starting to show signs of fatigue. Back at the New Zealand Penal Settlement, Paris had told her he was the best pilot she could have. At the time, she had thought the statement a brash boast made by an arrogant young man. Now, she knew he was right. He had more than validated her decision to reinstate him. "How much further until we're out of this field, Mr. Kim?"
"If the sensors are correct, twenty kilometers, Captain."
Kim had barely finished his report when the enveloping haze of the asteroid belt disappeared. Sighs of relief were audible across the length of the bridge, and Janeway suspected, throughout the ship.
Tuvok verbally expressed what they already knew. "We have vacated the asteroid belt, Captain."
"Stand down from Red Alert," Janeway ordered. Flexing fingers stiff from maintaining such a tight grip on her arm rests, she rose to her feet. Crossing to the slumped figure of her helmsman, she put a hand on the limp shoulder. "Well done, Mr. Paris."
"Thank you, Captain." Exhaustion and pain were clearly audible in the trembling voice.
"Mr. Chakotay, Mr. Kim, accompany Mr. Paris to sickbay." Returning to her seat, Janeway added, "And see that he stays there this time."
Ignoring the pain of his own burned hands, Chakotay lifted Paris to his feet. Putting a shoulder under the other man's arm, he observed, "For once, I'm glad he disobeyed orders. Otherwise, we could all be dead."
"Just don't make a habit of it, Mr. Paris," Janeway cautioned, fixing a piercing gaze on the young man warning of retribution if her helmsman should disobey her orders again.
* * * *
Despite the soothing benefits of a hot shower, her muscles still ached. It wasn't until long after the crisis had passed Janeway realized that she had been using her body in an abortive effort to help Paris guide Voyager through the asteroid belt. The aches and pains that still plagued her every move were the consequences of her attempt.
A soft chime alerted her to the fact that someone was requesting admittance to her ready room. Squaring her shoulders to hide the exhaustion she could not reveal, she called, "Come in."
Apparently unaffected by their recent encounter, Tuvok strolled confidently through the doors. "I believe I know the identity of Mr. Paris' attacker, Captain."
"Who is it?" Janeway demanded, mixed feelings of relief and anger stirring her blood.
"Ensign Blane in engineering," Tuvok reported, his face impassive. "According to Starfleet records, his sister was married to one of the officer's killed at Caldik Prime. This fact coupled with the doctor's report that Ensign Blane has been treated for a bruised hand twice in the last two days gives a ninety-seven percent probability that he is the assailant."
"Good work, Mr. Tuvok. Please escort the ensign to my ready room, immediately."
The doors had barely closed behind her security officer when Janeway hit the desk with a clutched fist. The pain helped to focus her anger. Realizing she had little time to do so, she quickly buried her feelings and called up the official transcripts of the incident on Caldik Prime. Knowledge could be an insidious weapon.
She was rereading the last report when the chime announced Tuvok's return. Rather than use a voice command, she flicked the switch to turn off her computer. "Come in."
From the files, Janeway had learned Blane was a native of Tessauous. Due to its gravity, the humanoid population tended to be taller and heavier than an earth human. Even with this warning, she stifled a gasp when Blane entered the room. Paris had been lucky to escape with bruises and a few broken ribs. Bone and gristle were little defense against a powerful fist. What had probably saved the helmsman's life was Tessauians generally hated physical violence. Blane had apparently buried a lifetime of training in his quest for vengeance.
Realizing nothing could be achieved by prevarication, Janeway said, "My security chief has provided strong evidence you are responsible for the assaults upon Mr. Paris. What do you have to say for yourself?"
"He's lucky I didn't kill him," Blane insolently returned.
"No, Ensign," Janeway corrected, "we're all lucky. If it wasn't for Mr. Paris' skill we might've been destroyed in that asteroid belt."
"That so-called skill was a death sentence for three innocent officers."
"Unfortunately, we all make mistakes." Rising from her seat, Janeway rounded her desk. "To get home, we need Mr. Paris. I sympathize with your feelings, but I can't allow you to jeopardize the safety of this ship or her crew. I'm not asking you to like Mr. Paris, but I am telling you that you will treat him as you would any superior officer."
"And if I don't, what will you do?" Blane asked, anger oozing from every pore. "Will you throw me in the brig for the next seventy-five years?"
"If I have to," Janeway acceded, not intimated by the other's manner.
Backing down mentally, if not physically, Blane yielded. "You won't have to."
"There is something you might want to consider," Janeway suggested, speaking as though what she was about to say was an afterthought. "The initial investigation placed the blame for the accident on your sister's husband. If Mr. Paris hadn't come forward and confessed, no one would've ever known the truth. He would never have been forced to resign. Your family would've lived with the belief your brother-in-law's incompetence killed himself and two other officers."
"Does that mean I have to forgive Mr. Paris?" There was no softening or hint of remorse in the deep voice.
"No," Janeway unhappily conceded. "However, as a superior officer, you do have to obey him or you'll spend the remainder of this mission in the brig. Have I made myself clear, mister?"
* * * *
Paris was exhausted, yet he couldn't sleep. Nor did he want to. It was times like this when his guard was down that they came to haunt him. He would tell them how sorry he was, how he wished he had been the one to die. They laughed in his face, just as they had been laughing only minutes before their death.
The soft swish of opening doors was followed by the Sickbay lights automatically brightening to a soft glow. Janeway crossed to the bed and put a hand on the limp arm of her helmsman. "Still awake, Tom?"
"I guess there's a little too much adrenaline still floating around in my system, Captain," Paris evaded.
"I thought you'd like to know," Janeway said, explaining her unexpected visit, "Tuvok found out who was attacking you. He was right. It was related to the incident on Caldik Prime."
"Don't tell me who it is," Paris hastily appealed, throwing out his hand as though to cover his captain's mouth to stop the release of information.
Puzzled by the request, Janeway said, "I've already talked with your assailant. He's decided he'd rather cease his attacks than spend the rest of the mission in the brig."
"For your own safety, however," Janeway asserted, "I think you should know his identity so you can be on your guard."
"That's exactly why I don't want to know," Paris protested, turning his face away in shame.
Moving her hand to the agitated young man's shoulder, Janeway gently probed, "Why, Tom?"
"Because every time I see him, it'll remind me of what I did." Blue eyes filled with a pain that wasn't physical focused on the captain's face. "I don't need any more reminders."
"You didn't do it on purpose, Tom."
"That knowledge doesn't make it any easier to live with."
"All right," Janeway reluctantly agreed, the tears in her eyes the only sign of her emotional empathy. "As long as you promise to report any further attacks."
A profound silence filled the room. The only sound was the soft humming of the bio bed. Finally, Paris yielded, "It's a deal."
"Do you think you can sleep now? Or, should I activate the doctor and have him give you a sedative?"
"I think I can sleep."
"I'll expect you back on duty as soon as the doctor releases you."
"Yes, ma'am." Paris waited for her to remind him it wasn't crunch time yet. When she didn't, he realized she understood him better than he thought. For him, it had been crunch time. If he were forced to relinquish his position as helmsman again, life would not be worth living. He might as well surrender to the specters that haunted his soul. A strong hand squeezed his shoulder pulling him from his nightmare.
The lights had dimmed and the doors had closed behind his superior before Paris whispered, "Goodnight, Captain, and thank you."