Disclaimer: All hail Paramount, ruler of all things Trek.
Many thanks to my rather insane beta reader, Brigid, who kept insisting that this get written! All hail sporks . . .
Trials By Fire
There's a term I heard once: we're going to hell in a handbasket.
Maybe we are. It's becoming a distinct possibility on this ship - today at least. Engineering is going to go through hell, and I would do anything not to return to the Bridge. Not with her there. Not without him there. Not knowing that I followed the order to fire.
Her command still echoes through my mind. Fire! Fire! Fire at will!
No, don't. Rather, fire at Tom.
I did. And so did Tuvok. And . . . my fingers shook, I almost couldn't do it. But, it's been drilled into my head long enough - the word of the Captain is law. So, we fired.
I wish we hadn't.
We're lucky he's alive. I'm lucky he's alive. Janeway is lucky he's alive, because if he weren't, I don't think Chakotay could stop B'Elanna from ripping her to shreds.
And Chakotay would be the only one to try to stop her.
B'Elanna . . . .
I turn my head, and she's still standing there. She hasn't moved at all, staring after his retreating back. His head held high, shoulders squared - the way she will always see him. Proud, defiant to the last.
B'Elanna's still standing there, not blinking, not moving a muscle. She has her arms crossed over her chest, and I imagine the Doctor would tell her that's a typical defensive reaction, trying to block everything out, keep people from talking to her. I don't think anyone will try to talk to her. Not for a long time.
If only it were that simple.
She finally moves, eyes blazing with anger that will burn for a long while - at Janeway, at the Moneans for all this. And though she thinks I don't know this - at herself.
She turns to me, and I look past her at Seven, looking superior as always. B'Elanna doesn't blink, just looks at me. As if I, his best friend, the man who used to be his closest confidante, can answer for Janeway's actions.
Nearly killed my . . . best friend. Hah! That's a laugh. Tom Paris, my best friend? Something I wouldn't have imagined ever. Even on Deep Space Nine, there was something about him. I don't know.
Maybe it's preordained, who we'll know, who we'll like, who we'll hate, who we'll love. I don't really believe in a god.
I'm glad. Because I don't know what kind of god would put us through these trials by fire . . . a hellish god, perhaps.
Maybe predestination plays some kind of part. Maybe that's why I'm standing here, now alone in an empty corridor, still staring at the turbolift doors that have swallowed the man I call my best friend.
The man who, for all his past, his shortcomings . . . found a cause, and now he's in the brig. For, what did Tuvok say? Thirty days.
Engineering's in for hell.
But, then again, maybe we're all going to hell.
Sooner than we'd like.
The rumor mill says Engineering is unbearable.
I'm not surprised.
No one is surprised.
I've talked to B'Elanna once or twice, but the conversations are so painfully cordial that they're almost unbearable. She's trying not to lose her temper, trying not to cry - can she cry? I don't know. I've never seen it happen.
But I'm standing here anyways, under orders from Chakotay to drag her out of Engineering. And it's only 0315 hours. An early night, if the rumor mill has any truth to it.
Stupid, stupid, stupid.
We all are. Tom, B'Elanna, Janeway, Chakotay, me. Stupid. Stupid enough to let something like this tear us apart - we were a family. We were a family last week.
The door opens, and the engine room is empty.
Well, I can't see anyone. I hear the sound of tools on metal, no voices.
I don't want to be here. She's going to be hostile . . . it was so long ago that I tried to deny that trait in her. And so much has changed.
"B'Elanna?" I call, and my voice is stronger than it should be at 0315. My only response is the continued hum of the warp core.
"Come on, Maquis," I say. "I know you're in here."
A crash. But no words.
Welcome to hell. Someone's personal hell, someone's escape. And our hell as well, for upon entering, we meet someone akin to the devil incarnate.
A crash, a muted curse.
"B'Elanna, come on." If Tom were here, B'Elanna would be out the door in a second, a whirlwind of yellow and black. If Tom were here . . . .
I wouldn't. I wouldn't be here, standing rooted to the deck, begging. If Tom were here . . . .
Fire! Fire! Fire!
I joined the firing squad. An executioner. Fire!
I fire. I miss. I fire. I miss. I fire . . .
"Look, Maquis. Get out of this damn engine room, or I'll tell the Doc that you aren't sleeping or eating."
I fire . . . .
What? He . . . what? Blink. Again.
"Well, then get out of here, or Chakotay will have my hide for not following orders."
I didn't say that. I didn't say that. I didn't . . . .
I take aim. I fire. And right on target, my life incinerates before my eyes.
I'm not doing this. Not . . .
Venturing into the lion's den, unarmed, unprepared. With only one strategy to get past the gaping, bloody jaws.
Familiar smells, forever ingrained in my mind as being hers. Hers . . . .
Her responsibility. Her rules. Her regulations. Her Prime Directive.
Does she feel any resentment, any remorse?
Her face raises to look at me. "Ensign."
Ensign. Yes, that's me. Not . . . not Tom. I'm the ensign.
Who's the captain? Captain Proton wasn't able to save the day this time.
Not this time . . . not ever. Fiction!!
"How may I help you, Ensign?" she asks, pouring another cup of coffee into her cup. Her fifth or sixth, by this time of day. A gulp. A swallow. "Hmm?"
Uh . . . standing outside the fire, preparing to step into the flame.
"Captain, I request permission . . . ." I request permission to break the rules. Defy your orders. Go hurling at impulse towards the forbidden.
"Captain, I request permission to visit Tom." There. I said it.
Breathe. Breathe. Breathe.
"Permission denied." She draws it out in that painful, grating voice of hers.
Solitary confinement. Do the words cruel and unusual mean anything to her? Anything at all?
What . . . can I say now? "Permission to be dismissed." A demand, an order . . . an order!
"Permission denied." The words are softer now. How does she do that? A maternal figure and an executioner all in one. A mother, a leader, yet the one who holds the key to all of the torture devices. And uses it.
She puts her coffee down, always a sign that she's going to lean forward and say something she thinks is encouraging. Funny. I always thought it was encouraging.
"Harry." Not ensign. Ensign! That's ME!
She leans forward. "Harry, I need you to understand that I understand what you're going through."
Like hell, Captain. Like hell you do. You don't know what it is to have to press the button - pull the trigger - that will fire the shot that will kill your best friend. Your closest confidante. The one person on the ship who can . . . .
Tom has a gift with people. I wish I knew how he does what he does.
She looks up at me. "For whatever it's worth, Harry," she says, "I am proud of you."
Like hell you are, Captain.
I enter the messhall, steps as even as always. I'm sure of myself, right?
Right. Shining flourescent green on my first day on the bridge, I was sure of myself. Falling over myself to please the captain, I was sure of myself. Facing death and destruction, I was sure of myself.
Facing gossip, I am sure of myself.
Gossip . . . .
They find it so much fun. The crew. Laughing about each other while someone looks away. Placing bets on private matters that never remain private. Eavesdropping, spreading lies.
Tom and B'Elanna have complained more than once to me about being the center of attention. They want a normal life.
On a starship, lost thousands of lightyears from home, they want normal. They want normal where each day brings a new conflict, where each week brings a new threat. Normal. Right.
I step into the messhall, and the crew keeps talking.
"Culhane . . . ."
Doc tells me that Tom isn't well, that he didn't take Culhane's little maneuvers well.
Doc rubbed it in. I'm sure of it.
Tom isn't well . . . . What will B'Elanna say to that?
Hit something, hit someone? Put a hole in a console with her strong fists.
"Culhane pulled into this double roll. I wasn't sure the inertial dampers would hold."
Had Tom been flying, there would be no question about safety. We wouldn't know we were moving. But, no . . . Tom's locked away.
"Hey, there's our new pilot!"
Culhane looks around. Sees eyes on him. Smiles sadly.
Shakes his head.
No, Culhane's not the new pilot. Interim.
Interim until Tom gets back. Waiting to reclaim the place at the helm that is rightfully his. And Culhane knows this.
He looks around. Sees his friends. Sees me.
And the gossip stops. They talk about . . . weather. Weather.
A normal life on a starship. A normal life begins with being together, wherever you are. It begins with mutual understanding and friendship. It begins with love.
It begins with being together.
Of course, Tom's not here right now.
A normal life.
Right. I close my eyes. And the gossip starts again.
One thing alone has come out of this hellish day. I get to visit Tom tomorrow. Five, ten minutes, no more - no less?
Janeway called me into her ready room after the staff meeting.
B'Elanna had been civil somehow, rattling off her status report and then sinking into her chair. She didn't say anything to Janeway, but she didn't try anything either.
She needs to talk to Chakotay about this. The ship doesn't need its chief engineer see-sawing between depression and imagined happiness.
Janeway called me into her ready room after the staff meeting.
She was silent as she sat on her couch and looked out at the stars rocketing by at warp speed. She was silent as she poured herself a cup of coffee, not asking me if I wanted a cup.
She sat back and crossed her legs, and her expression was entirely unreadable. She didn't turn towards me.
"What would you have done in my place, Ensign?" she asked. Ensign - it had to be Ensign. Not Harry, not Mister Kim - Ensign. She continued to stare at the streaks of light that whizzed by her too-large window.
What would I have done in her place? What, Harry!? What would you do, Ensign?
I didn't answer her.
She turned towards me, keeping her legs crossed, her arms crossed. "You'd have let him go, Ensign. You'd have let him blow the plant, wouldn't you."
That voice. Charmer, my captain is. Charming, mothering, and malicious. No one lives to cross Kathryn Janeway. Maybe Tom's lucky in that.
I didn't nod, I didn't move. She claims to know me well, she could tell me what I thought.
"You know the Prime Directive. By heart." That's right. Ensign Kim, all Starfleet, all good - all the time. Just like Captain Janeway. "But you still would have let him fire." She uncrossed her arms and gulped her coffee. I think she might have finished the cup right then, because she didn't pick it up again. "Why?"
Why? Because he's your best friend? Because his . . . his what? His lover would kill you if you didn't? Because it's the right thing to do? Why, Ensign?
I couldn't answer her. Not immediately.
I stared at my hands, clenched in my lap. "Captain," I started. She waited, looking like a statue.
"Captain . . . I couldn't . . . willingly - knowingly . . . kill? Kill, harm . . . a friend. Not a friend." I paused. I had to say it. "Prime Directive be damned, Starfleet shot to hell." I swallowed. She seemed to be listening well enough. "I would do anything for Tom, Captain."
She uncrossed her legs. "Why did you obey my order, then, Harry?" And she looked like someone who was beginning to doubt herself. As if she was remembering something beyond the dictates of Starfleet.
I almost laughed at her question. "You're the Captain."
And Janeway looked away. She folded her hands in her lap, and I didn't think I should be there. She smiled, a sardonic smile. "I admire that in you, Harry." Harry, now. No longer Ensign.
She stood, and I followed. A dismissal. I walked towards the door. It began to open, and she stopped me with a hand on my shoulder. "Tomorrow, 1600 hours - brig."
The one good thing that came out of this day - I can visit Tom tomorrow. 1600 hours. In the brig.
But the bad thing that came out of this day . . . bad? Maybe. Could I do it? Kill a friend for the sake of principle? Could I?
Maybe I could.
I obeyed the order to fire.
I find her in the messhall, staring out the window. Not eating anything.
Not exactly the B'Elanna I've come to know.
"Hey, Torres," I begin, and I don't know how she'll react. I don't think she'll knock my head off in the middle of the messhall, but there's no guarantee.
Almost like that day in Engineering.
Something's different now - what, I don't know. Something's different now. Something.
There are two tactics I can use with her. Silence, or chatter. Either way, she'll usually get mad and storm out. Or get mad and yell. Or growl in that frightening tone of hers that scares even Chakotay.
I chatter. About the one taboo topic.
The one thing I know that she doesn't.
"Tom's doing . . . well, Tom's doing about as you can expect. He's lonely, he misses his friends, he misses you. He's writing a letter to his father." I try to keep this as conversational as possible.
Which is not very, because B'Elanna's eyes are beginning to blaze.
Smart, Harry. Real smart.
I keep going.
"He was thinking of throwing it out - not finishing it. Which would be typical, as he hasn't ever really finished anything."
I'm still alive?
"I told him as much, you know." Calculated cruelty. I want her to get mad, to hit me so hard I wake up in sickbay next week.
I want to know what she's thinking.
"And then I walked out. We didn't get a chance to--"
She's in my face, breathing hard. "Didn't get a chance to what, Harry?" she growls. I shrink away. She continues, narrowing her eyes to deadly slits, a threatening smile coming to her face.
I am scared. Hostile?
Hostile doesn't even begin to cover it.
"Didn't get a chance to catch up? Swap stories? Talk about life behind bars?" She goes on, voice getting quieter and more frightening as she continues.
I can't move, I'm backed against my chair, leaning as far back as I can. I don't move.
"Tell me, Starfleet," she begins again, using the nickname as a threat. "What did you expect to do when you got there?" The voice is so soft, so deadly . . . .
She bends closer, and I can feel her breath on my face.
"Answer me, Harry."
She should have gone into the interrogation business. They'd all be cowering at her feet by the time she was finished.
I open my mouth. "Uh."
"What, Harry? Can't answer a simple question?"
No, I can't answer a simple question, Torres. I don't know the answer. I was expecting the Tom I've grown to call friend - not the man I thought we'd left far behind.
I shake my head.
The grimace drops from B'Elanna's face, and she steps back. I fall forward, and she doesn't move.
"What was that, Torres?!" I demand through wary breaths. She pushes herself away from me, standing closer to the window. She turns towards the door, and as she walks away, I hear the briefest answer.
Echoes of the Void.
The melody is as haunting as before, pulling at heartstrings and putting tears in eyes.
The name is frighteningly apt for the situation. A void . . . .
Not the void we passed through earlier this year . . . was it this year? I have never known a month to pass so slowly. Not that void.
But a similar one. That void tore at relationships, sent crewmembers reeling into depression, started avoidable arguments.
So similar to this one.
Echoes of the Void.
This one echoing that one.
Maybe I'm crazy, trying to make everything better in my mind. Maybe nothing will ever be right, and we'll spend the rest of this journey at each other's throats - barely civil, barely speaking.
I don't know if B'Elanna's spoken to anyone outside of ordering her staff around since our confrontation in the messhall.
I do know that Janeway's gone back to the stiff captain she was at the beginning of this journey. Rules and regulations, black coffee or die, not smiling on the bridge. That's Captain Janeway. Not "sir" or "ma'am," but Captain, through and through.
The void echoes.
It echoes loneliness. Solitary confinement. For every one of us. For me, at least.
Who can I talk to? My two best friends are gone, one a self-imposed recluse, one a prisoner of war.
Is it war? Which captain will prevail? The one working for good and right, seeking to stamp out intergalactic evil? Or the one working for protocol and standards, seeking to uphold a directive that is often the only thing that keeps her crew sane?
Is it war?
It's war to stay alive out here, some days. It's a war . . . to keep my eyes open as my fingers hit the keys in order and my mind searches for answers that do not exist.
Which captain? Janeway did what she knew was right. Upheld the Prime Directive - General Order One. The foundation on which our Federation is based. Janeway . . . did was right.
Which captain? Proton did what he knew was right. Worked to help a floundering society - something a compassionate heart cannot resist. The core of which is pure gold. Proton . . . did what was right.
Is it war?
Out here, in this void of eternal space, it's war.
War to keep going. To do the right thing. To obey the Captain - who is always right.
The captain is always right. That's one thing I learned in the Academy. She is. Even if she's firing torpedoes at your best friend, she's doing it for the right reasons. The right reasons.
For the right reasons, Ensign.
The basic principle of your society, Harry.
Echoes of the Void.
The Prime Directive leaves a lot to be desired. Doing the right thing . . . is never black and white.
Captain Proton doesn't rule the galaxy.
Something we all remembered a little too late.
She's sitting in my one comfortable chair, slouched into its warmth as if it's her sole protector in the universe.
She came in a while ago, an angry apology mumbled under her breath. I imagine Chakotay goaded her into it, but I don't doubt her sincerity. She never does anything halfway.
I'm just surprised she didn't storm out. I'm even more surprised that she's not pacing and cursing.
And I'm reminded that she's half human as well. We all talk about her Klingon side, some with distaste, some with anger, some with hate, some with reverence, some with love. But no one ever mentions that she's half human. As if that part of her is diminished because of the Klingon in her.
But here she is, sitting in my chair, not saying a word. Just being here.
I wonder what she's thinking.
Because, despite that for almost six years she's been one of my closest friends, I can't read her at all. Chakotay can, but he's known her forever. Tom can.
And I think that's it.
We all know when she's angry. We all know when she's being devious.
But outside of those characteristics, no one knows much about her inner self.
I wonder what she's thinking, slouched before me.
I start to talk, not in the way I did the last time, but softer. "B'Elanna," I begin.
She cuts me off. "Don't, Harry. Just don't." At least I know what she means. I sit back and wait for her to continue. "Because nothing you say will make the least bit of difference."
"B'Elanna," I try again. She holds up a hand, and I have to stop.
She turns towards me, and she looks tired. "What, Harry?" There is no animosity in her voice, just pure fatigue. "Are you going to tell me that it will all work out all right, because that's what always happens? If that's it, don't try." She slumps back into the confines of the chair.
Confines. Perhaps that's a bad word to use.
No, it's not. Because she's shut herself off from everyone else, that's just fine.
"No," I say.
She nods. And there is a pause. And then she asks, "What does the crew have to say about us?" she asks.
"Who?" I respond, though I know the answer. If silence was bad, this conversation will be infinitely worse.
"Tom and I. What do they say?" And this is a B'Elanna that I've never seen, perhaps a little insecure, a little worried, and very much upset.
I evade the question. "Depends on who you talk to."
She doesn't move. But the timbre of her voice changes, and my infinitely hostile friend is back. "Don't play innocent with me, Starfleet. You're not."
And she may be the first to notice that. Little Ensign Harry Kim has grown up. Enough to know right from wrong, wrong from right, and enough to question the captain's orders.
Fire. Even if I did.
"Why do you care, B'Elanna?" I ask, and I'm sure I sound like Chakotay. "Because it doesn't matter. Because regardless of what they think, you do know the truth. They don't matter."
But they do matter. Because they're the people we will be living with for the next -- however long it is. They matter more than anyone would care to admit. And I wish I knew what that truth was, because even I have those same questions.
Even if I don't participate in the talk.
I hate being senior staff.
She doesn't answer my question.
She slouches further into my chair, turning her head towards the viewscreen. The stars make perfect companions for the lonely.
And that's when I know that the gossip mill has got it all wrong. That they have - that we have, even I have - underestimated Tom and B'Elanna.
They have an emotional commitment, an adult relationship. Something truly impossible and implausible.
And there is nothing more I can say.
Nothing but, "I'm sorry."
She stares at the stars.
Three more days, and life will begin again.
The senior staff meeting was short, sweet, and to the point.
The empty space ahead of us is of no consequence.
Engineering is in top shape, courtesy of B'Elanna's self-enforced overtime.
The only security breach was someone cashing in on one too many replicator rations, and it was so minor that we all had a very tense laugh at Tuvok's serious expression.
Neelix rushed through his plans for a welcome back party for Tom, assuming the captain would hate the idea. But she okayed it and looked around the table. Rollins, filling in for Tom, shifted uncomfortably.
Chakotay looked amused as B'Elanna drummed her fingers on the table, not paying a bit of attention.
And Janeway cut off Seven of Nine's tirade about the Astrometric sensors.
Even she, it seems, is looking forward to Tom's return.
And now I stand here on the bridge, checking the chronometer every thirty seconds. Waiting for Tuvok to release Tom to B'Elanna's waiting arms.
Wondering how he'll be after these thirty days.
When I saw him he was bitter, he was curt. He was writing a letter to his father, but he was threatening to throw it out.
I hope he finished it. Simply to prove something to himself.
But I wonder if he'll have changed at all.
He used to joke about the things he learned in prison, the things he learned in bars, the women he left behind in the Alpha Quadrant. We caught on that it was an act, but he still has those airs about him that make him who he is.
I hope that never changes. I want him to be condescending and egocentric. I want him to charm everyone he meets with that smile and those eyes. I want him to be Captain Proton, the one who wipes the galaxy of all evil.
Because the rank shouldn't matter. Not on this ship, at least, where we're family and friends before we have rank and station. At least we used to be.
Because Tom will retain his status as best damn pilot in the Delta Quadrant. He'll still be the greatest holoprogrammer I've ever seen. He'll still be the only person who can garner a smile out of B'Elanna Torres even after the worst crises.
And he'll still be my best friend.
Who would have thought? Neon green Harry Kim befriending an ex-con with more skeletons in his closet than we've seen on this trip. Highly unlikely.
I hope that none of that changes.
Because we've had enough rough spots to last lifetimes.
I suppose I'm standing here with a dumb smile on my face, because Janeway looks at me as she says, "Mister Tuvok, the time is 1800 hours."
And then she turns away.
Tuvok leaves the bridge, and Janeway has this awful smile on her face.
Because, just like me and everyone else, she wants Tom to come home.
I am the executioner.
I am the savior.
I am the blind man, following without question as I am led into a trap.
I am the only clear-sighted one, doing as I see fit.
I followed the order because I had no choice.
I wouldn't do it again.
Because now I see life with Tom around. It's as simple as laughter on the bridge or B'Elanna's bright smile.
Because, if I have learned one thing on this journey through hell, it's that Starfleet regulations are never set in stone. Not the Prime Directive, nothing. Because, in my mind, lives are more important than non-interference.
In my mind.
I followed the order because I had no choice.
The only minds it entered were those of the Engineering staff, who were close to breaking Tom out of the brig simply to restore their chief's sanity.
But not me.
Janeway . . . is the captain. Plain and simple as that. And I follow her orders to the letter, whether I disagree or not.
Maybe that's where Tom and I differ.
He does what he knows is right. I follow orders.
And Tom now wears his single pip with pride, a display that shows everyone that he stood up for his beliefs. I wear mine in the hope that I'll get promoted someday.
But rank doesn't matter.
Now there are two ensigns on the senior staff, that makes no difference.
B'Elanna can now pull rank on Tom, but he'll enjoy it.
And that's it.
This is over, for now.
I've learned too much and too little, but I don't care.
I care only about my friends and their happiness. I care about the well-being of the ship. I care about my captain.
My friends are happy now. Inseparable, irritating, but happy.
The ship is in top shape.
And Janeway . . . can be content that at least one of her officers believes in her.
I'm off to save the galaxy from all evil.
Captain Proton needs a sidekick, after all.