"I know all about you Paris," the elderly scientist shouted. "I know you were in prison."
"That has nothing to do with . . ."
"We'll see what your Captain has to say about this," Wren threatened, turning away. "When I get through with you, you'll never wear that uniform again."
"I can't let you do that." A curved blade in his hand, Tom followed the Banean physicist. Lydell Wren reached out her hand, "No, Tom, stop!"
"No - o - o!" Tom Paris fought the sheets that bound him to his bed - and his memories. His raw throat burned from screaming. Perspiration rolled down the side of his face and was soaked up by his pajamas. It'd been weeks since he'd been found guilty of murdering Tolan Wren and condemned to relive his crime. Weeks since Tuvok had proven his innocence and saved his life. The Baneans had removed the chip, but they couldn't remove the dreams that continued to plague him. Knowing that the crime he was reliving was not his own didn't ease his suffering. It only re-enforced his feelings of guilt for the events on Caldik Prime. There was no surgical procedure that could remove those memories.
"All Senior Officers report to the conference room." Janeway's voice sounded loud in the quiet room.
Wishing he had time for a sonic shower, Paris peeled off his pajamas and threw on a uniform. Though he'd changed in record time, he was still the last to arrive for the meeting. The stares he got made him wish he'd taken the time to shower and risk Janeway's wrath. He knew what he must look like with his sweat-soaked hair curling around his ears and his flushed face. Self-conscious, he slipped into the remaining empty seat and schooled his face into a picture of calm. To his relief, Janeway didn't say a word about his appearance. Rising from her seat, she immediately began the briefing.
"Sensors have picked up strong energy readings from the only planet orbiting that star." She pointed at the brightest ball of light visible through the window. "Mr. Neelix, do you know anything about this system? What might be causing the readings we're getting?"
"Well, Captain," Neelix hedged, "not exactly."
Looking away, as though she were pleading with an unseen deity to give her strength, Janeway urged, "Could you be more specific?"
"I don't know what's causing the readings," Neelix clarified. "I only know that every ship that has gone to investigate hasn't returned."
Janeway nodded, "That's more or less what I suspected given the nature of the readings."
"But we're going in anyway?" Neelix sighed in resignation.
"Not we," Janeway corrected, "me. I'll take a shuttlecraft to investigate."
"Naturally," Neelix muttered.
"You're not going alone." Chakotay's statement was not phrased as a question.
"No," Janeway conceded. Returning to the table, she put her hands on the back of her chair. "I'm going to need a good pilot to get through those EM waves."
"I'd like to volunteer, Captain," Paris quickly offered, raising his gaze to meet her eyes.
Janeway nodded, "I was hoping you would, Lieutenant."
"I'd like to volunteer as well, Captain," Kim eagerly announced.
"I'm sorry, Mr. Kim," Janeway smiled gently at the young ensign. "The risk factor is too high to needlessly endanger anyone else."
"Taking that into account," Tuvok passively observed, "is it wise to endanger yourself? You are the Captain."
"Before I was a Captain, I was a science officer. I believe my experience in both fields could be invaluable. I doubt we'll get a second look."
"Why take the chance at all?" Neelix demanded in exasperation. "There are other planets where we could get the energy we need."
"These readings are almost off the scale," Janeway excitedly explained. "If we could find a way to harness the power, it could be our ticket home."
"What's a ticket?" Neelix asked of no one in particular.
"Commander Chakotay," Janeway ignored the Talaxian and addressed her first officer, "if we're not back in seventy-two hours, you're to take command of this vessel and continue the journey to the Alpha Quadrant. Is that understood?"
Chakotay hesitated before finally acknowledging, "Understood, Captain."
"There is to be no rescue attempt." Her eyes scanning the other officers, Janeway pressed, "Am I clear?"
His eyes meeting hers, Chakotay nodded, "Perfectly."
The doors opened, revealing the shuttlebay. The sight of the small ships lined neatly around the perimeter of the large hanger never failed to excite Janeway. There was a smile of anticipation on her lips when she stepped through the doors. It faded when she saw Chakotay waiting for her. Squaring her shoulders as if for battle, she held up a hand to prevent him from speaking. "Nothing you can say will change my mind. I'm leading this mission, Commander."
A grimace flashed across the handsome features, "I already know that, Captain."
"Then why are you here?" A puzzled frown creased Janeway's brow.
"I can't stop you," Chakotay conceded, "but I was hoping I could talk you into at least giving yourself a fighting chance by taking another pilot."
"Why would I want to do that?" Janeway crossed her arms and tilted her head to stare up at her first officer. "Lieutenant Paris is the best pilot we have."
"Normally, I would agree with you." Chakotay nervously shifted under the stern gaze, but didn't back down. "You know as well as I do that the device the Baneans implanted in Paris' brain was a lot easier to put in than it was to take out. The doctor only certified him for duty three days ago."
"Which he wouldn't have done if the Lieutenant wasn't fit."
"Captain, you saw what he looked like in the conference room. If the doctor had seen that, do you still think Paris would be flying?"
"That's not my call to make. I'm a Captain, not a doctor." Janeway dropped her arms and turned away. Her eyes fell on the shuttle being prepared for the mission. "I need the best pilot we have if I'm to succeed. Mr. Paris is the best."
"Captain," Chakotay said, gritting his teeth, "I know Paris has had difficulty being accepted by the crew, and I know you've tried to make it easier on him by openly showing your support, but getting yourself killed is going a little too far."
"Isn't that funny," Janeway noted, cocking her head, "You see my chances of survival diminishing if I take Lieutenant Paris, while I see them increasing."
Chakotay unhappily sighed, "I'm not going to change your mind, am I?"
"It was a nice try," praised Janeway, smiling gently at him, "but no."
As Janeway walked toward the shuttle, she could see Paris in the pilot's seat doing a pre-flight check. Despite Chakotay's dire warnings, the sight filled her with contentment. While her First Officer may have noticed her attempts to boost the young man's confidence, he obviously hadn't noticed Paris' equal desire to show his gratitude. With the obstacles they faced, there was no one she would rather entrust her life to.
"Captain," Chakotay called, "good luck."
Janeway smiled briefly, before reminding him, "Don't forget, Commander, seventy-two hours."
Climbing aboard the shuttle, Janeway pushed the button to close the door. Her last glimpse of the handsome face of her First Officer showed her that she'd failed to reassure him. She had never seen him look so unhappy. It was unfortunate that she had been unable to make him understand that it wasn't obligation alone that made her want Paris as her pilot. It was confidence. She truly believed he had the ability to get her back to Voyager.
"We're ready for take-off, Captain," Paris called.
Making her way to the co-pilot's seat, Janeway strapped herself in, "Take her out, Mr. Paris."
With an ease that made his companion envious, Paris lifted the small craft and flew it through the narrow opening. Rather than being scared of what lay ahead, Janeway was excited. To explore the unknown was the reason she'd joined Starfleet. She smiled wryly. Her crew was certainly getting more than they'd bargained for when they signed on.
"Was Chakotay trying to talk you into changing pilots?" Paris perceptively inquired.
Janeway's eyes rested on the young man at her side. Though he had tried to invest his voice with an unconcerned flippancy, she heard the fear that lay behind the question. "He was concerned about your health," she conceded.
"Yeah, right," Paris snorted in disbelief.
Janeway frowned as she defended her First Officer, "Your appearance at the briefing justified his concern."
"I know." Paris bit his lip. The internal battle he fought was visible on his face. "I've been having nightmares," he finally confessed.
"Will it impair your abilities?" Janeway demanded.
"No, Ma'am," Paris almost shouted.
"Relax, Tom," Janeway soothed, shifting her gaze to the approaching planet. "If I thought it might, you wouldn't be in that seat right now."
The shuttlecraft bounced against the first EM wave.
"Hang on, Captain," Paris warned, "here we go."
Taking her pilot's advice, Janeway clung to the arms of her chair. She watched with amazement as Paris' hands flew across the board. She was good herself, but she had never seen a human react so quickly. It reminded her of the time she'd seen the Enterprise's second officer Commander Data in action. As an android, he was able to move at a speed that was barely visible to the human eye.
The craft shook violently. Janeway felt like a wrapped Christmas present that someone was shaking to try to guess what was inside. For the first time, she felt a touch of fear.
A clinging mist briefly obscured the viewscreen as they entered the planet's atmosphere. Instead of decreasing as they'd expected, the buffeting increased. Unable to anchor himself, Paris was thrown from side to side. He ignored the bruising pain and fought the controls.
They broke through the heavy cloud cover into a world shaded a bright green. The shuttle stopped pitching, allowing Janeway to lean forward and punch a command into her console. "Chlorine," she said, "this planet has a chlorine atmosphere."
"I knew this was going to be a fun planet," Paris muttered, working the controls to slow their descent. No sooner had he relaxed and settled back to look out the viewscreen then the ship began to spin like a top. The world sped by them at a dizzying speed. "What the hell!" Fighting the G-forces that slammed him back in his seat, Paris finally got his hands on the controls.
"Can you get us out of this?" Janeway shouted, above the roaring engines.
Skilled fingers punched at buttons that were blurred streaks of multi-colored lights to Janeway. It was incredible to her that Paris could distinguish one from the other. She wished Chakotay could see him in action. She was certain it would make her First Officer reconsider his opinion of the Lieutenant.
The engines screamed in protest, quieting only when they finally exited the maelstrom. Janeway's sigh of relief was short lived as she saw that they were uncomfortably close to a towering mountain. "Pull up!" she ordered.
"Engines aren't responding," Paris informed her, desperately fighting to regain control of the shuttlecraft.
Janeway stared through the green haze at the yellow terrain. "Prepare for impact."
The words had barely left her lips when the port landing strut struck a protrusion twirling them almost a hundred and eighty degrees. Janeway's head slammed against the hard edge of her chair. For a moment, stars danced on a familiar black velvet tapestry. Though she knew it would hurt, she shook her head and tried to clear it - only to wish she hadn't. A towering mass of yellow earth filled the viewscreen. She didn't even have time to shout a warning before everything went black.
Chakotay stared out at the planet with an anger that he had to fight to keep hidden. He should be on that shuttle, not Janeway. Her reasons for going were relevant, but that only made him madder. Why did she think an energy source was more important than her life? They would find energy elsewhere, but in all the universe, there was only one Kathryn Janeway.
Would he be this worried, he wondered, if she'd taken another pilot? He didn't trust Paris. He was sure that the only reason the younger man hadn't betrayed them yet, was that in this quadrant, there was no place for him to run. Janeway was naive. She didn't know the type of person she was dealing with. Life in Starfleet hadn't prepared her for people like Paris. She didn't realize she would have to watch her back. Chakotay had tried to warn her, but she wouldn't listen. By the time she discovered the truth, it would be too late.
Drumming his fingers on the arm of his chair, Chakotay asked, "Is the shuttle still within sensor range, Mr. Tuvok?"
"No, Commander," Tuvok replied, checking his readings, "they became invisible to our scanners the minute they entered the atmosphere."
"Be sure you keep checking," Chakotay ordered.
A slanted eyebrow rose slightly. It was the only indication that the Vulcan was displeased. "Of course."
Chakotay silently berated himself. Tuvok was an exceptional officer. He didn't need to be told how to do his job. As his uneasiness grew, Chakotay wondered who he was more angry at, Janeway or Paris?
Pain followed Janeway from oblivion back to consciousness. This time, however, it was mostly in her legs. Careful not to move her head, she slowly opened her eyes. Smoke partially filled the cabin obscuring her vision. Coughing, she looked around for the fire. When she found nothing, she sighed with relief. Apparently something on this ship was still working. If the fire controls were operational, maybe the ship wasn't damaged beyond repair.
She raised her head to see if Paris could help her. Tears filled her eyes as her gaze rested on his battered face. He was only four feet away, but it might as well be twenty. With her legs trapped against the control panel by her own chair, she couldn't reach him. He was twisted at such an angle, she was sure he had to be dead. She struck the chair with her fist. She couldn't help him or herself.
Biting her lip, she pushed against the chair. Ever so slowly, it moved across her lap. Her stomach twisted as the pain grew more severe. Finally, just when she thought she couldn't stand the pain any longer, the muscles in her arms turned to jelly and dropped to her side. Sweat rolled down her face as she tried to catch her breath. The chair was only partially off one leg. She would have to do it all again. She closed her eyes. It would take deep concentration to rebuild her courage.
The voice seemed to be coming to her from a dream. Is this what it had been like for Paris?
When it was repeated, Janeway knew she wasn't hallucinating. She opened her eyes and rested them on her live pilot. "How badly are you hurt, Tom?"
"My left hand seems to have taken the brunt," Paris said, holding up the appendage that had been smashed almost beyond recognition.
Janeway flinched at the sight, but knew she couldn't help him in her present circumstances. "I'm trapped," she explained, hitting the chair with a clenched fist, "do you think you could get this thing off of me."
"Sure," Paris readily agreed. Unhooking his restraint, he groaned as he rose. Blood leached from his face.
It was obvious to Janeway that his hand wasn't his only injury, but before she could stop him, he lifted the chair off her legs. Almost blacking out, Janeway fought to stay conscious and used her arms to pull herself to safety. She heard, rather than saw, Paris release his grip. Metal clanged against metal. The loud noise echoed around the cabin, renewing the throbbing in her head.
When she felt in control again, she opened her eyes to see Paris limping toward her with the medical kit in his good hand. Knowing the minimal supplies it contained, Janeway knew it would be little assistance with the severity of the injuries they'd sustained.
His face unusually solemn, Paris ran the medical tricorder up and down his superior's body.
"Well?" Janeway impatiently demanded.
"A concussion and two broken legs," Paris outlined.
Janeway sighed in exasperation, "That's not telling me something I don't already know. Let me have it."
When he was a little slow to comply, Janeway grabbed the tricorder from his hand. She felt her heart skip as she ran it over Paris' form. Not counting the injuries she could already see for herself, he also had two broken ribs. She knew that if he moved around too much, one could puncture a lung and he'd be in real trouble. Yet, he was the only one who could repair the shuttle and get them off this planet.
"That bad, Captain?" Paris' attempt to sound flippant failed.
"You've got some broken ribs, Tom," Janeway explained. "You'll have to be careful."
"Right now, it's more important that I see if this ship can fly."
When Paris started to turn away, Janeway put a hand on his arm, "You better let me bandage that hand first."
Without a bone-knitter, there was little they could do for each other. Though she was as gentle as she could be, Paris passed out long before she'd finished. Janeway smiled with sympathy - and envy. At least he wasn't feeling any pain. She sighed with relief as she tied the last knot. It wasn't easy for her to inflict pain. In some ways, it hurt her almost as much as it did Paris. Sitting back, she waited for him to regain consciousness. With trembling fingers, she pushed a stray lock of his hair off his sweat-soaked forehead. It revealed a knot that was already turning black and blue. She was finding it difficult to keep up her spirits. Would they die here?
She didn't know how long he was out since the chronometer was one of the instruments that had been destroyed in the landing. She only knew she was starting to get worried.
Moaning as he sat up, Paris apologized, "I'm sorry, Captain."
"There's nothing to apologize for, Lieutenant," Janeway reassured him.
Rising to his feet, Paris flushed with embarrassment, "I'll take a look outside and see how much damage was done."
"You better use an oxygen mask," Janeway advised.
Janeway watched in helpless frustration as Paris prepared himself to go out into the chlorine atmosphere. There was so little she could do to help him. Her legs might be useless, but her hands and her mind weren't. Slowly and carefully, she pulled herself over to the damaged control console. She had to stop frequently, whenever the pain threatened to overwhelm her. Sweat was dripping from her brow, and every muscle in her body was shaking by the time she reached her destination.
After a short rest, she removed the paneling and inspected the cables. Many were burned and severed. Still, she didn't feel disheartened. It would be tedious, but not difficult to repair. As soon as Paris returned, she would have him get her the tool kit. Depending on what he found outside, they still had a chance. It might be slim, but it was better than none at all.
Chakotay walked into the Captain's private dining area - that was no longer her's , thanks to Neelix. It was late, so the room was almost empty. He found B'Elanna Torres immediately. But, to his disappointment, she wasn't alone. A smile lit her face as she laughed at something Kim said.
Amazed, Chakotay shook his head. Sometimes he barely recognized this B'Elanna Torres. He was surprised and proud at how quickly his Maquis crew had adapted to Starfleet rules and regulations. However, he was most pleased with B'Elanna. It hadn't seemed to matter that she had little choice. She'd made herself an indispensable member of this crew. She, and the others, had buried their hatreds and prejudices and become one crew. Exactly what Janeway had wanted, a Starfleet crew. Would she ever get to command them again? Or, would he spend the rest of his life wondering if he was partially to blame for her death? If he'd been a little more forceful, could he have convinced her that Paris would betray her?
While he mentally debated his options, Kim rose and left. The door had barely closed behind him when Chakotay took his place. "I need time," he whispered.
"What?" Torres snapped, her good humor lost in confusion.
"The seventy-two hours the Captain gave me are almost up. I need a good reason why we can't leave."
B'Elanna's stern features softened. Checking the chronometer, she offered, "In four hours, you'll be Captain. We'll have to follow your orders. If you say we stay, we stay."
"No," Chakotay said, shaking his head, "I can't disobey the Captain's last order. It'll make the crew think they won't have to obey mine."
"Good point," Torres agreed.
"I need an excuse," Chakotay clarified. "A mechanical reason why we can't leave."
"I just took the warp engines off-line to do repairs. We can't do that again."
"There's got to be something else."
"Shields," B'Elanna said, so loudly it made Chakotay flinch. Quickly lowering her voice, she explained, "The shields have been fluctuating recently. Nothing major, but we won't be able to travel at warp speed while I'm looking into it."
At impulse, Voyager would still be within the planet's sensor range for another six hours. It wasn't much, but it was better than nothing. "I'll take it," Chakotay approved.
"When do you want to be notified?" B'Elanna asked.
"Just before we're about to leave orbit.'
Without another word, the Chief Engineer pushed back her chair and rose. As she walked away, Chakotay thanked his spirit guide for giving him such a friend.
"I know about you Paris. I know you were in prison."
"That has nothing to do with . . ."
"We'll see what your Captain has to say about this. When I get through with you, you'll never wear that uniform again."
"I can't let you do that."
"No - o - o - o!
A hand touched his arm. Paris froze. He could feel the cold sweat beading on his brow. Who waited for him behind his closed eyelids? Why couldn't they just leave him alone? Would he never be free again?
"Tom?" The hand on his arm gently shook him. "Wake-up, Tom."
Relief flowed through him as he recognized the voice, "Captain."
When the blue eyes finally focused on her, Janeway smiled, "It's all right, you were having a nightmare."
Janeway wasn't telling him something he didn't already know. It wasn't the first time he'd had this dream, and he knew it wouldn't be the last. Nightmares were something he'd learn to live with after Caldik Prime. It wasn't surprising that the frequency and intensity had increased since his experiences on Banea.
When Janeway had suggested that he get some sleep while she repaired the wiring to the control panel, he'd tried to fight her. It had been a losing battle from the start. Her stern gaze eventually wore him down. He'd closed his eyes vowing to feign sleep. But, his exhausted, pain-racked body betrayed him. All too soon, the nightmares had come to visit him - as he'd known they would. It was embarrassing to lose control in front of his superior. She was the one person who believed in him. "How are the repairs coming, Captain?" he asked, hoping she wouldn't press for an explanation.
The worried gaze on her tired face shifted to understanding. "All essential systems are back on-line. I've found something very interesting. Come see."
Paris rose to stand behind the pilot's chair, which Janeway had appropriated since her own had been destroyed.
Punching some buttons, Janeway pulled up a scan of the ultra-violet wavelengths. It showed several tornado-like funnels. Some appeared to be upside down. "I believe these to be the source of the energy readings we got," she speculated, changing the view slightly. "Some of the sensors are still off-line, so it's difficult to be sure."
"I'd say we got caught in one just before we crashed," Paris said, carefully studying the readouts.
"Agreed." Janeway punched a few more buttons until she got a fuzzy report on the funnels. "You said the engines were beyond repairing as far as escaping the gravitational pull of the planet. Would it be possible to bring one on-line by cannibalizing the other?"
"It might be possible," Paris cautiously answered, "but we could never reach orbit with only one engine."
"We won't have too." Janeway pointed to one of the inverted funnels on the screen. "This will do it for us. We can ride it most of the way up."
Paris frowned as he studied the readings, "The shuttle may not be able to withstand the energy forces inside that thing, if they're all like the one we encountered before."
"We won't know until we try," encouraged Janeway.
"Even if we do achieve orbit," Paris quietly estimated, "it'll only last ten or fifteen minutes. We won't have the power to break away."
"I realize that."
"With the chronometer broken, we don't know how long we've been down here. Voyager might've already left."
"I know that too."
"They why even try?" Paris softly pleaded.
"Because it's the only chance we've got," Janeway gently pointed out, meeting his eyes with her own. "The only other alternative is to stay here. We can't go outside without oxygen masks. How long do you think they'll last? How long before we run out of supplies?"
"I guess it comes down to whether we want to die slow or fast," Paris acknowledged, staring intently at the funnels on the scanner.
"If we stay, it means certain death," Janeway observed. "With the funnels, we at least have a chance."
"I'll take slim over none."
Paris stared out through the viewscreen at the deadly green gas that passed for an atmosphere on this planet. If was going to die, he'd rather die fighting. "I'll get to work on that engine, Captain."
"Commander," Tuvok's passionless voice drew Chakotay's attention. "You asked me to inform you when the seventy-two hours were up."
Chakotay stared straight ahead, "When will they be up?"
His voice devoid of emotion, Chakotay ordered, "Mr. Hanes, prepare to take us out of orbit."
The helmsman's reply was barely audible, "Yes, Sir."
"Dammit, B'Elanna," Chakotay silently swore, "You've waited too long." For the first time in his life, he hated being in command. "Take us out, Mr. Hanes, warp factor two."
"Engineering to Bridge."
"Belay that last order, Mr. Hanes," Chakotay hastily called, punching the button that would connect him with engineering. "Go ahead, Lieutenant."
"Sir," Torres reported, "we've discovered some fluctuations in the long range sensors. I recommend that we not use warp drive until we clear up the problem."
Chakotay hoped he didn't look as relieved as he felt, "Estimated repair time?"
"Too soon to tell, sir. Until I discover the problem, I won't know the cure."
"Understood, Lieutenant, carry on." Pressing the button to end the transmission, Chakotay returned his attention to his helmsman, "Take us out, Mr. Hanes, impulse power."
"Yes, sir," the pilot's response was more definite this time.
"It's fortunate," Tuvok observed, "that the Lieutenant discovered the fluctuations when she did."
Biting his lip to keep from smiling, Chakotay agreed, "Very fortunate."
The shuttle doors opened. Thick, green gas tried to enter only to be stopped by an invisible barrier. The energy shield became a mosaic of shapes and colors as it repelled the gas. Janeway would have found it beautiful, if she hadn't known how deadly chlorine could be. She was glad Paris had a mask to protect him. Without it, the gas would eat away the mucus membranes of his respiratory passages. Over exposure would ultimately result in death.
Paris stumbled into the shuttle and pressed the button to close the door. He'd taken only a few steps when his knees buckled and he collapsed to the floor, coughing harshly.
Horrified, Janeway ignored her own pain and dragged herself the short distance to her pilot's side, "Tom, what happened to your mask?"
In between bouts of coughing, Paris confessed, "I needed it to finish the repairs on the engine."
"There must have been something else, you could've used?" Janeway argued, though she knew her concern was already too late.
Hurt flashed across Paris' face, "B'Elanna might have had a better idea. I didn't."
Realizing her fear had been interpreted as disappointment, Janeway softened her voice, "How long have you been breathing that gas?"
"Long enough," Paris said.
"There's nothing in the medical kit that can help you," Janeway's eyes clearly showed her distress.
A fit of coughing prevented Pais from replying. He covered his mouth with his arm and turned his face away. When the seizure eventually abated, he wearily dropped his arm. Janeway was alarmed to see blood on his sleeve.
"Captain," Paris croaked past his raw throat, "if we don't get off this planet, there won't be anything that medical kit can do for either of us."
Knowing he was right didn't ease Janeway's fear, but there was no time to indulge it. "Can you help me into the pilot's chair?" she asked, crawling back to the front of the shuttle.
"I can still fly, Captain," Paris protested.
"One handed and half-paralyzed with coughing?" Janeway outlined, "I don't think so."
Paris' only acknowledgement that he agreed with her logic was to help her into the chair.
"I may be the Captain, Lieutenant," Janeway said, familiarizing herself with the jury-rigged controls, "but I'm not above taking advice. Feel free to tell me if you think I'm doing something wrong."
For a moment, Chakotay thought he heard excitement in Tuvok's voice. However, when he looked at the Vulcan, the face was as impassive as usual. "What is it, Mr. Tuvok?"
"I've just picked up something on the sensors," Tuvok cautiously reported.
"Is it the shuttle?" Chakotay tried to keep the eagerness from his tone, but he knew he'd failed miserably when he saw Tuvok's eyebrow arch.
"At this distance and with only short range sensors on-line, I can't give you a definite answer."
"Then take an educated guess."
Though no emotion was displayed on the Vulcan's features, his displeasure with the request was obvious. "My guess," Tuvok repeated, making the word sound dirty, "would be that it is the shuttle."
"Chakotay to engineering."
"How long before long range sensors are available?"
"Well . . ."
"We need them now."
"You got them."
Rising from his chair, Chakotay moved stiffly down to stand near the helmsman. Tension and worry had robbed him of his normal agility. "Well?" he expectantly addressed his security chief.
"It is the shuttle," Tuvok confirmed.
"Bring us about, Mr. Hanes," Chakotay ordered. "Life signs, Mr. Kim?"
"There are two," Kim said, though the words seemed to bring him no joy. He frowned as he gazed at his superior, "One is very faint."
Returning to his chair, Chakotay pressed the intercom button, "Bridge to transporter room, lock on to the two life forms in the shuttle bearing 004.2. As soon as we're in range beam them directly to sickbay."
Kim's voice was barely audible as he reported, "I just lost one of the readings, Commander."
"Transporter room," Chakotay almost shouted, "do you still have the coordinates for both of the occupants of the shuttlecraft?"
"How long before you can begin transport?"
"Engaging now, Sir."
"Mr. Tuvok," Chakotay said, striding toward the turbolift, "you have the con."
Once he was alone, Chakotay was able to vent his anger. The faint reading had to be Janeway's. Paris would never put his own life in danger for someone else. Chakotay's mind projected his nemesis' face onto the wall in front of him. His fingers curled into the palm of his hand. He struck out, only pulling his punch at the last minute. He didn't want to have a sore fist when the real face was standing in front of him. By the time he was finished, Chakotay swore, Paris would wish he'd never left the New Zealand Penal Colony.
The car slowed warning him that he was nearing his destination. He dropped his hands to his side and schooled his face. Paris would be the only one who would see him without his command mask.
The doors opened. He nodded bruskly at the young ensign waiting to enter, before striding down the corridor. His anger was still driving him when he entered sickbay. He'd only taken a few steps when he stopped in stunned confusion. Janeway lay on the first bio-bed. Though her face was pale and she seemed to be in pain, she was very much alive. At the other end of the room, the Doctor and Kes were frantically working on a body that he knew could only be Paris'. Chakotay couldn't take his eyes off the Doctor as he absently greeted his superior, "Welcome back, Captain."
"Thank you, Commander," Janeway acknowledged, her attention focused on the tableau to her right.
A puzzled frown creasing his brow, Chakotay asked, "What happened?"
Frequently distracted by the Doctor's shouted commands, Janeway haltingly gave him a brief report of the mission.
When she faltered, Chakotay pressed, "How did Mr. Paris get so badly injured?"
"He used his face mask to finish the repairs on the engine." Janeway's voice cracked as she whispered, "He risked his life to save mine. That chlorine gas destroyed the mucus membranes of his respiratory system. Somehow, he managed to stay conscious long enough to help me pilot the shuttle into orbit."
Even as guilt ate at him, Chakotay found it difficult to believe that he'd been so wrong about Paris. Could a man change so completely, in such a short time? Or, had he misjudged him all along?
Janeway's questioning voice brought Chakotay's head up. He tried to read the verdict on the hologram's expressionless features. When he failed, he shifted his gaze to Kes. Noting her sweat-soaked hair and pale face, he closed his eyes. Somehow it didn't seem fair that he should begin to respect the younger man only to have him die.
"Mr. Paris is not going to die."
Chakotay opened his eyes and stared at the Doctor with a mixture of relief and fear. A hologram couldn't read his thoughts, could he?
"Then Tom will recover?" Janeway said, desperate for more details.
"In time," the Doctor optimistically reported. Taking a bone-knitter from Kes, he ran it slowly along Janeway's right leg. "Mr. Paris was legally dead when he was beamed aboard. Only my superior skills saved him."
"Modesty becomes you, Doctor," Chakotay sarcastically muttered.
Ignoring the comment, the Doctor continued, "I did minor repairs on his nose passage and trachea. Once his lungs are functioning again, I'll go back and complete the job. He'll be on the regenerator for a while, but he should recover fully."
"Why are you able to replicate Mr. Paris' lungs," Chakotay asked, "but you couldn't when Neelix lost his?"
Speaking slowly, as though he were explaining to a child, the Doctor replied, "Mr. Neelix is Talaxian. His lungs were a more integral part of his respiratory system. Since they were completely removed, there was nothing for the regenerator to repair."
Chakotay blushed in embarrassment. He'd forgotten that the Vidians had completely removed both lungs. To distract the irritating physician, he asked, "How badly is the Captain injured?"
"She's fine, now," the Doctor said, turning off the bone-knitter.
"Then I can go to my quarters?" Janeway eagerly inquired, sitting up.
"Not so fast," the Doctor cautioned, pressing her back down. "I have a few more tests to run before I can release you."
Chakotay only half-listened as Janeway fruitlessly argued with the physician. It was a battle she would never win, but she already knew that - as they all did.
Even as he questioned his own actions, Chakotay wandered over to where Tom Paris lay unconscious beneath the regenerator. An ugly bruise was visible beneath strands of hair that had fallen across the wide forehead. It contrasted sharply with the slightly bluish tinge of his flesh. The defensiveness that was usually present on the handsome face was missing. Chakotay, realized he was partly to blame for the younger man's need to protect himself. When he'd pledged to support Paris from Maquis retribution, he'd fulfilled his promise. He'd protected him from everyone, except from the man making the promise. Of all people, Chakotay knew he should've remembered that words can hurt just as much as fists. He had never tried to hide his contempt or his distrust. Now that Paris had risked his life to save the Captain's, Chakotay was confused about his feelings. He would have to find some time to pay a visit to his spirit guide. Maybe she could give his tortured mind direction.
Janeway glanced around her ready room as she waited for the hot beverage. She had never expected to see her ship, much less this room, again.
When her coffee appeared, she lifted the steaming cup and turned cautiously toward her desk. Every time she moved, she expected to feel the same blinding pain that had been her constant companion for the last three days. The memory of her agony would stay with her much longer than the actual period of suffering. She briefly wondered if it compared, even slightly, with the nightmares that plagued Paris. She knew the Lieutenant would continue to endure sleepless nights, but she was confident that he would eventually find peace from his demons. Not for the first time, she wished they had a counselor on board. She had confidence in Tom Paris, he would find his way. It would take him longer without assistance.
She smiled as a more recent memory replayed in her mind. Still encased in the regenerator, Paris had begged her for a reprieve from his sentence. She'd taken flight before the Doctor had informed his patient that it would be another day before parole would be granted. She was quite certain the news had not be well received.
A soft beep informed her that someone was outside her door requesting admittance. "Come," she called, settling in the chair behind her desk.
"You wanted to see me, Captain?" Chakotay asked, crossing to stand in front of the curved desk.
The smile disappeared from Janeway's lips. "When I give an order, Commander, I expect it to be obeyed."
"Naturally, Captain," her confused first officer agreed.
"I've been reading the security logs for the past several days. According to them, we should never have been rescued. You were still within the proximity of the planet a full five hours after my orders to leave."
"Captain," Chakotay calmly explained, "you didn't specify what speed we were to engage. When Lieutenant Torres reported that long range sensors were fluctuating, I decided to proceed with caution."
"Commendable, Commander," Janeway reluctantly approved.
"We could safely engage impulse engines, so that's what I did." Chakotay cocked his head and caught his superior's eyes with his own, "Are you unhappy that we were still here to rescue you, Captain?"
Janeway disgustedly shook her head and rose, "Of course not. I simply will not tolerate anyone, even you, disobeying my orders."
"Understood." Sobering, Chakotay admitted, "Be assured, in the future, I'll think twice before challenging your decisions. You were right about Paris, and I was wrong."
"Don't be too hard on yourself, Commander," Janeway soothed. "Unlike you, I didn't have any pre-conceived prejudges to overcome."
"I'm the first officer, I shouldn't either."
"You're also human." Janeway took a sip of her coffee before confessing, "There are times I find Tom Paris extremely irritating too. But, when he's at the helm of this ship, I thank God for putting him there. Without his skills, I'm not sure if we could make it back to the Alpha Quadrant."
"Me either," Chakotay surprised himself by agreeing.
"Maybe, you should tell him that?" Janeway softly suggested. "Knowing you have the respect of your superiors can help you put demons at rest."
Chakotay thoughtfully nodded, "Maybe I will."