by Janice Liedl-Myatt
Summary: An experimental navigational interface is all that will save Voyager from alien attack, but might cost Tom‘s life. Can B‘Elanna change the odds? Rated PG-13. Set after "The Killing Game."
Standard Disclaimer: Star Trek and its characters belong to Paramount and Viacom, I‘m only borrowing their toys and I promise to play nicely. You have permission to download and print this story for your personal amusement. Permission is also granted to link to or repost this story, providing this disclaimer is included and the author is informed. Direct all feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.
All through the early morning meeting in the briefing room, Lieutenant B‘Elanna Torres warily eyed Voyager‘s second-in-command. There was an air of suppressed excitement, almost glee, on Chakotay‘s tattooed face that boded ill for a Chief Engineer, tired after a night on the Gamma Shift. -Whatever it is,- B‘Elanna prayed fervently, -let it be something to do with Neelix or Harry or whoever, just not me and my ship.- B‘Elanna caught the commander‘s dark eyes darting towards Seven‘s impassible face. The former Borg sat still as a statue; head tilted just a few degrees from vertical as she listened to the debate over the starship‘s present course.
The Talaxian morale officer was gesticulating wildly. "I just don‘t see the value in this, captain! We know from our last planetfall that the Maleelian Commonwealth is reputed to be a belligerent and combative force in this sector. Their flotillas would present a serious threat, even to a starship of Voyager‘s class. I suggest that we change course to skirt the Maleelian territories and avoid any trouble."
Captain Janeway raised a calming hand. "We appreciate your advice, Mr. Neelix, but circumnavigating the Commonwealth would add at least seven months to our journey home. The Maleelians could solve our problems simply enough, but all attempts to negotiate with the Maleelian ambassador met with failure. They are simply uninterested in permitting strangers to pass through their highly prized trading lanes."
Ensign Harry Kim nodded vigorously. "And we can‘t just skirt the edges of their claim. The Commonwealth‘s territories are bounded by some dangerous anomalies, including a cluster of unstable protostars."
"Those protostars might be the only thing to convince me to alter our course around Maleelian space," Janeway commented wryly. "It would be a unique opportunity to explore the astrophysics of a developing star cluster. . . ." She tapped her fingers impatiently against the padd that lay in front of her. "However, in this case I can‘t justify slowing our journey by the several months it would require to bypass the Maleelian‘s claims."
Commander Chakotay leaned forward from his relaxed position at the Captain‘s right hand. "Astrometrics has provided us with some information that might well work to our advantage. There‘s a region of unsettled space that stretches almost across Maleelian territory; a sort of "no-man‘s land," if you will. This corridor seems to attract little traffic by either Maleelian merchant convoys or their military fleets. If we keep to this relatively untravelled space, we stand a good chance of avoiding detection."
"But why do the Maleelians avoid this region? Is there something dangerous that they know of and of which we are simply unaware?" Tuvok‘s questions indicated that the cautious head of Security still reserved judgment. "We know too little of this sector to risk the ship and her crew. Furthermore, captain, might I remind you that you once held similar hopes for the ‚Northwest Passage‘ through Borg territory?"
Seven looked to Chakotay, as if seeking permission to speak, then turned to Tuvok. "The comparison is invalid. Commander, long range sensors confirm that this region of space contains little of economic value to the Maleelians. There are no M-class planets and little in the way of valuable elements in those few planetary systems that do appear in this sector."
"But, without further information, we cannot be sure whether economics or other motives inspire such avoidance on the part of the Maleelians," Tuvok countered gravely.
"That is, of course, true," Seven of Nine acknowledged, "but based upon the intelligence Mr. Neelix has provided and the evidence from our sensor analysis, I am confident that my interpretation is the correct one."
A raised eyebrow was all that indicated that Tuvok was not similarly convinced, but it was a sign B‘Elanna Torres recognized well enough. With a sigh, she slouched further in the uncomfortable briefing room chair. A sudden elbow in her side caused the engineer to jump slightly. With an angry glint in her dark eyes, B‘Elanna hissed at Tom, "Stop it!"
"Hey, Torres," came the pilot‘s whispered reply, "just thought you were falling asleep. Wouldn‘t be on to have Voyager‘s engineer snore her way through the daily briefing." A mischievous grin lit Lieutenant Tom Paris‘s long, handsome face as he locked eyes with the diminutive, duranium-strong woman seated next to him.
"Tom, pay attention," B‘Elanna insisted angrily. From the corner of her eye she saw Commander Tuvok incline his head in their direction. With his sensitive Vulcan hearing, the senior officer was sure to overhear their sotto voce conversation.
The tall helmsman looked ready to debate her order, when the captain called for attention. "That‘s enough discussion, everybody. I appreciate all the input, but after consideration I‘m still going to go with our dash along the Maleelian corridor. In my mind, the advantages outweigh the risks. Besides, Commander Chakotay tells me that we might just have something up our sleeves that will reduce the risk even further." Captain Janeway gestured to her first officer. "If you‘d like to explain, commander?"
Chakotay nodded and began. "About two months ago, Seven of Nine came to me with some observations about the efficiency of certain ship systems." B‘Elanna unconsciously clenched a fist against her knee, certain that another of Seven‘s interfering ideas about engineering was about to come. She relaxed slightly as Tom covered her hand with his own in a firm, supportive caress.
Chakotay continued. "According to Seven, there were several "unacceptable inefficiencies" in the way we ran our ship. I explained to her the difference between Borg and Starfleet standards-" everyone at the briefing table, except the former Borg and Tuvok smiled at the commander‘s dry understatement "-but I invited her to bring forward any proposals that might improve our performance."
"Among the many proposals she submitted was one that caught my interest." At this, Chakotay activated the large viewscreen and called up a series of schematics. "According to her report, the most serious deficiency in Voyager‘s protocols was in navigation."
Tom‘s indignantly indrawn breath was easily audible to B‘Elanna. She felt his hand stiffening above hers, and shifted her fingers so that they interlaced with his. "What do you mean by navigation?" Tom managed to ask.
Seven turned her impassive gaze upon the fair-haired pilot who sat across from her. "Borg ships are piloted by drones who work in perfect synchronicity with sensors and enact maneuvers as they are indicated. Compared to the Borg, Voyager operates at 78.6% of optimal navigational response efficiency. That is unacceptable."
Still gripping B‘Elanna‘s hand, Tom leaned forward across the table to glare at the perfectly groomed woman. "I don‘t believe it! I‘ve seen Borg piloting firsthand and I didn‘t find it that impressive."
"That is because the Borg cubes that you encountered were not facing conventional opponents, but Species 8472. Their biological symbiosis was an even more perfect adaptation than the Borg had achieved." Seven‘s tone blended admiration and hate in the admission of the extra-dimensional aliens‘ capabilities.
"Well, I hope you‘re not suggesting that Voyager be piloted by a bunch of Borg drones or one of those aliens, ‚cause I‘m telling you now, that wouldn‘t be an improvement," Tom replied dangerously.
The captain intervened soothingly, "I‘m sure that‘s not at all what the commander had in mind, Tom." She quirked an amused eyebrow at her first officer, "Is it, commander?"
His mouth quirked with suppressed laughter. "Not at all, captain. In fact, what Seven proposed to me was that we adapt several well established technologies, most of them developed in the Federation, to improve our conn response times."
B‘Elanna interrupted incredulously, "Excuse me, commander, but just what kind of technologies are you talking about?" *They‘d better not be Borg,* was her unvoiced warning. Chakotay seemed to pick up on the unspoken worries of his friend and subordinate and smiled reassuringly.
"Several fairly old ideas and one or two new ones, Lieutenant Torres," Chakotay answered. "Much of what Seven criticized was the lag time that inevitably occurs between the issuing of orders and their execution. She pointed out that not only do we have communication lags between the captain and her subordinates, but that consulting instruments brings a further delay."
Tom snorted in disbelief. "So, whatcha going to do, commander, hardwire the ship into the captain‘s brain?"
"Hardly," the first officer reproved. He called up a diagram on the viewscreen, resembling a thickened arch. "Seven‘s comments reminded me about old Earth interest in what was called "heads up" instrumentation. It was introduced into some ground vehicle operations in the late twentieth century. More sophisticated devices, including a body-fitted computer called the WearComp enjoyed a brief popularity in the early twenty-first century."
"However," Seven broke in, "there were many problems with the technology as it then existed. Primitive holography resulted in indistinct imaging. The biolinking technology was undeveloped. The technology was soon abandoned as impractical."
"What we‘re proposing," Chakotay added, forestalling Tom‘s comment, "is to take that principle and refine it, using modern technologies. Specifically, a search of the Starfleet medical database turned up an avenue in the form of VISOR technology." The viewscreen shifted again to display the picture of a dark skinned man in Starfleet gold and black, wearing a matte bronzed appliance that covered his eyes, stretching almost from ear to ear.
The EMH leaned forward eagerly. "Commander Chakotay, if I may?" Without waiting for the first officer‘s acknowledgment, the ship‘s doctor explained, "Commander Geordi LaForge of the Enterprise was the first to utilize this fully-developed VISOR technology. His eyes were nonfunctional and standard surgical or cloning procedures were not successful in restoring vision. But VISOR technology provided the commander with enhanced visual senses, far superior to normal humans. The Commander‘s VISOR enables him to perceive a wide range of radiation and particles invisible to base-range humanoids." The EMH smirked triumphantly at the end of his explanation, almost if he, himself, had created the technology he had so lovingly described.
"Much of the VISOR technology is also similar to Borg visual enhancement," Seven added helpfully. "Of course, Borg implants have the added benefit of conveying a detailed range of analytic readings that enable drones to examine and assess objects with great speed."
"What we‘re proposing is to adapt the VISOR technology to carry navigational imaging and sensor readings. Voyager‘s pilot would also be outfitted with a set of linked gloves, that would enable him, or her, to direct the ship based upon the integrated information always on display."
Tom shifted uneasily in his chair. "Let me get this straight, commander. You‘re suggesting that Voyager be flown like it was some sort of personal holographic game?" He paused for effect, then continued in a sarcastic drawl, "Isn‘t there a word for this they used back in the twentieth century? Virtual reality? Well, let me tell you, commander, it was a bust then and it‘ll be a bust, now."
Chakotay crossed his arms comfortably and leaned back against the curve of the wall. "You surprise me, Tom, I‘d‘ve thought you‘d be the first one to want to try a "new toy" like this."
"Yeah, well I‘m not," Tom bit off. B‘Elanna empathized with Tom.
She wasn‘t any happier than he at the thought of this Borg-driven tinkering with Voyager‘s systems, especially since the last disastrous episode when they‘d lost the warp drive trying to create a Borg-style transwarp corridor. Chakotay has to be nuts, she thought in disbelief. *Well, at least Captain Janeway won‘t approve this insane idea.*
B‘Elanna‘s comfort was shortlived, as the captain spoke for the first time since Chakotay began his presentation. "When Commander Chakotay brought this idea to my attention, I have to admit that I, too, was sceptical. But I asked him to work with Seven and create a working prototype of the interface. They‘ve been at it now for several weeks and are now ready for the first "real world" tests."
B‘Elanna‘s spine straightened with a crack. "What?" the half-Klingon barked. *This is beginning to feel more and more like a really bad day,* she thought darkly.
"That‘s right," Chakotay continued smoothly as B‘Elanna visibly fumed. "We have a prototype ready to use with one of our shuttles. I was hoping that Tom would volunteer to be the test pilot," his dark eyes swept across the room to meet Tom‘s stormy gaze, "but if not, I‘m more than willing to do the duty myself."
"What will it be, Tom?" Captain Janeway asked.
Tom drew himself up carefully. "I appreciate your offer, commander, captain, but I‘m not sure that I‘m entirely comfortable with this proposal."
"Why not?" Janeway inquired, her face knit with concern as she tried to puzzle out the reason behind the uncharacteristically reticent response from Voyager‘s daredevil helmsman.
"Frankly, Captain, this interface idea sounds a bit rough around the edges. What kind of pre-testing has been done on the hardware? How well does it link with the computer? How does the pilot process orders given by someone he can‘t see with these -things!- over his eyes and on his hands?" Tom leaned back in his seat, obviously stemming a further list of questions and challenges about Seven‘s latest innovation.
The captain grimaced. "Well, I‘m sorry to hear that, Tom. I won‘t order you to test the hardware." She swiveled in her seat to look at her first officer. "Chakotay, you‘ll act as pilot for the tests. I want B‘Elanna to work with you and Seven on the installation of the interface links with our computer and the shuttle‘s systems. Is that understood?" Her gaze sought out the agreement of everyone still seated at the table. "Good," she concluded as she stood up from the table. "Dismissed." She strode from the briefing room, with Chakotay close behind her.
B‘Elanna rose slowly from her seat at the briefing table. Tom‘s set face worried her, yet she didn‘t know what she could say or do that would shake him out of this discontent. Maybe later in the day, when she joined him in the holodeck for some eagerly awaited down time, B‘Elanna could probe the mystery. For now, she settled for a quick squeeze of his shoulder and strode for the exit.
"Lieutenant," Seven interjected, just as B‘Elanna had reached the threshold. Sighing inwardly, B‘Elanna squared her shoulders and turned to regard the other woman.
"What is it, Seven?"
The tall blonde reached out to hand her padd to B‘Elanna. "These are the specifications for the interface. A detailed breakdown of materials and construction are included."
"Wellll," drawled B‘Elanna as she unhappily accepted the padd, "I‘ll be checking it over myself before we begin construction."
Seven‘s right eyebrow rose affrontedly. "There is no need.
These specifications are correct and complete."
"As Voyager‘s Chief of Engineering, I‘ll be the judge of that," B‘Elanna crisply informed the other woman before sharply exiting the briefing room.
In the privacy of the turbolift whisking her down to Main Engineering, B‘Elanna surveyed the material on the navigational interface. Reluctantly she admitted that the idea and execution were both ingenious. B‘Elanna thought she detected Chakotay‘s hand in the set of overrides, buffers and monitoring devices included in the design. Seven, she thought cynically, would not have given such consideration to the operator.
Once back in her domain, with the dim lights and rhythmic hum of the warp core comfortably enveloping her, B‘Elanna assembled a small team to begin assembly and testing of the prototype. When Joe Carey came on shift at 1600 hours, she gratefully handed over the project and went off-duty. There was only time for a hurried dinner in the Mess Hall before B‘Elanna rushed to meet Tom at Holodeck Two.
Tom‘s program was already running when she arrived, a few minutes late, at 1633 hours. B‘Elanna entered hesitantly. All she knew was this was another one of Tom‘s personal programs. Unlike Sandrine‘s and the popular resort program, Tom‘s many personal programs were generally designed for one or two participants. As she strode through the holodeck doors she saw a wooden wall, its deep red coat of paint faded and chipped. Long strands of grass marred the sharp edges where the building walls met the ground. Muffled sounds of metal on metal directed her steps along a well-worn pass in the dry grass, to the right.
Tom was facing away from B‘Elanna, bent over an unfamiliar metallic object. Her mind quickly racing, B‘Elanna identified it as another one of his beloved twentieth-century cars. She absently acknowledged that as her eyes lingered on Tom‘s figure, leaning over the open front end of the vehicle. Her breathing was loud enough to be heard in the pastoral quiet of the prairie farmland the holoemitters projected. At least, that‘s what B‘Elanna assumed caused Tom to raise his head abruptly and injudiciously, given the low overhang of the engine‘s covering where he worked.
"Ouch. Damnit!," Tom raised a hand to the crown of his head and rubbed it feelingly, then gingerly backed away and straightened. The white, short-sleeved shirt he wore was thin enough that his skin tone turned it to a deep cream, except where thicker folds of fabric trimmed it at neck and armholes. Sweat already darkened the fabric in a few spots and one dark brown line marked the front, where Tom had obviously been leaning against a dirty component. B‘Elanna‘s eyes drifted higher, to see Tom‘s face distorted into a rueful scowl.
"No matter how many times I remind myself to be careful, I always bump my head on the damned hood," Tom explained, gesturing towards the sweep of shaped metal arced above the engine. "Nice of you to join me, Torres."
B‘Elanna stepped forward to join Tom at the front of the car. She curiously looked down into the maze of unfamiliar parts. "So this is what your program is," she ventured, "an old-Earth automotive study?"
"Hell, no, B‘Elanna, this isn‘t some academic study," Tom explained. One hand leaned down to caress the silver metal that trimmed the front of the vehicle in a set of parallel lines. "I just like to tinker with old twentieth century cars. Historical recreation is a great hobby. Of course, I never could afford the real thing, but with holodecks like this one, it‘s hard to tell the difference. Besides, messing with a classic car engine is fun."
"Fun?" queried B‘Elanna, standing hipshot with her arms crossed.
"You‘re beginning to sound like an engineer."
Tom arched an eyebrow suggestively. "Find that sexy, Chief?"
With lips pursed, the half-Klingon considered Tom‘s question.
"Hmm. That‘s hard to tell. I‘d have to see how good you are with your tools." Her voice deepened on the final words and she returned Tom a glance as suggestive as his own.
The pilot‘s grin broadened and he gestured towards the engine in front of them. "Maybe we could check them out . . . together?"
B‘Elanna stared dubiously at the unfamiliar mechanisms of the old Earth automobile. Despite Voyager‘s retrieval of another ancient automobile earlier in its journey across the Delta Quadrant, she had to admit she knew little about these old vehicles. Professional curiosity warred with a fear of embarrassment. Her adventurous spirit soon decided the issue. After all, almost anything with Tom was guaranteed to be fun!
"All right," she declared, pushing up the sleeves of her engineering smock and uniform, "I‘ll give it a try."
"Whoa there," Tom cautioned. "First we have to get you into the proper ambience."
B‘Elanna eyed Tom sourly. She‘d almost forgotten how annoying she found the pilot‘s interest in micromanaging holographic experiences. "Ambience," she drawled, hoping that he didn‘t mean what she thought he meant.
"Yeah, you know, you‘ve got to have the attitude, the look, the clothes," Tom supplied cheerfully. "Computer, open a holographic subchannel and project a selection of female attire, old Earth circa 1969." A dark rectangle fuzzily opened to his right and displayed the image of a long-sleeved dress in a pale yellow color. That disappeared to reveal a jacket and straight green skirt. Tom tilted his head to one side. "No, I was looking for something more informal," he directed. The image changed again to reveal what seemed to B‘Elanna like a dressmaker‘s nightmare, a loudly patterned bra-like top and microscopic skirt. An angry frown knit her brow. Tom sighed wistfully as he noted B‘Elanna‘s reaction to the first choice. As a parade of similarly skimpy outfits appeared, B‘Elanna was about to turn the subchannel off when Tom intervened.
"How about this one?" The outfit now displaying was a bit more respectable. At least the loose top, with its half-length sleeves and geometric patterns would cover a woman‘s upper body fairly well. The fringed, miniscule shorts, of a similar soft blue to Tom‘s pants, however, B‘Elanna rejected. A holographic shirt she could easily handle by shucking her uniform top, but to wear those projected shorts she‘d have to strip and although the thought of doing that with Tom was always pleasurable, she knew that Harry had been invited to join them later. -No way-, B‘Elanna vowed, -will Harry, or anyone else on Voyager, see me parading around in something that ridiculous.-
B‘Elanna tilted her chin. "The shirt, okay, helmboy. The rest.. . ," she let the threat drift off darkly.
Tom Paris hadn‘t become B‘Elanna Torres‘ lover and best friend without being able to read at least some of her signals. He took what he could get. "Okay, this time. But someday, Torres, I‘d like to see you dress the whole part." He directed the holodeck to create a holographic shirt for B‘Elanna to wear. In her turn, the young engineer stripped off her smock and jacket, standing in her brief grey halter while the shirt formed around her. Despite its illusory nature, the garment moved and felt like a real top. B‘Elanna had to admit that, wearing the loose shirt adorned with sharply-defined brown, gold and white patterns, she felt a bit more part of the scene they now inhabited.
"Good, now that‘s taken care of we can get to work." Tom stepped forward that leaned across the engine. "This baby‘s in great shape. I programmed the computer with a variety of classic cars: Mustangs, Cougars, Jags and so on. But this has got to be one of my favorites."
"Pardon my ignorance, but what kind of car is this?"
Tom feigned indignation. "My dear lady, you have the privilege of working on a genuine, eight-cylinder 1969 Chevrolet Camaro. In their heyday, this was the kind of car a guy wanted to have to impress his buddies and," Tom‘s left hand sneaked out to caress B‘Elanna‘s behind, "his best girl."
"Oh," was all B‘Elanna could manage as Tom‘s light touch roused her senses. She knew that her body was leaning over the engine of the car as Tom named and described the functions of various components, but her concentration remained fixed on the idle sweep of his long fingers along her back.
She shot a glance to her right. Tom‘s voice droned on in a pedantic monotone, but his lips quirked and his eyes flicked from the engine to meet hers. "Pig!" she accused, arresting his roving hand with an iron grasp.
"Guilty as charged," Tom spluttered as he tried to retrieve his abused appendange. B‘Elanna held on perversely, drawing him towards her. Awkwardly, still half-bent over the engine compartment, Tom lurched towards her. It wasn‘t until he leaned fully into her that B‘Elanna realized she‘d been had.
Despite her best efforts, her lips twitched and she smiled. "You‘re not really planning to work on this engine, are you, bright boy?"
Tom leaned his head so close that she felt his warm breath on her cheek. "Nah, more like work on an engineer, I think," he admitted before claiming her lips for a deep kiss.
B‘Elanna was more than willing but a hazy part of her mind shouted alarms. "Tom, what about Harry?" she managed.
"Harry? I forgot!" Tom stepped back carefully from the hood, drawing B‘Elanna with him. "Computer, state location of Ensign Kim."
"Ensign Kim is on the bridge."
Tom‘s lascivious grin returned. "That‘s right, Harry mentioned to me that Tuvok had asked him to work an extra half-shift tonight.
He‘s helping the commander set up some new internal security sensors."
"Hmm, then Harry‘s no problem," B‘Elanna mused.
"No more than he ever is," Tom quipped. B‘Elanna assumed a foreboding look and twisted his forearm. "Hey, ouch!"
"Harry‘s my friend," B‘Elanna explained with mock anger, "and I won‘t have you badmouthing him to me." A small grin belied her stern words.
"I always knew you liked him better than me," Tom groused.
She smiled sweetly. "Guess you‘re just going to have to try and change my mind."
Tom pulled gently on her free hand. "Then come with me, sweetheart. I‘m going to show you another benefit of excellent holoprogramming, as performed by yours truly." They took a few steps to the building B‘Elanna had first seen. A large set of doors set slightly open, revealing a darkened interior. Tom edged inside and B‘Elanna followed.
"There should be a hayloft in here," Tom explained as he led her a few more hesitant steps inside. As their eyes adjusted to the dim light, Tom crowed triumphantly. "Aha!"
He stood beside the wooden ladder. "After you."
B‘Elanna wrinkled her nose. "Gee, thanks." Quickly she climbed the ladder, to end about three meters above the floor in a room filled with golden stems that crackled and shifted under her feet.
Tom‘s head popped up over the edge. "Here we are." B‘Elanna looked around hesitantly. "Just exactly what is this place."
"Don‘t tell me they didn‘t have haylofts on Kessik IV?"
B‘Elanna scowled defensively. "Not so far as I knew."
"Well," Tom explained, "haylofts are part of mythic Earth tradition. For generations, countless young men and women explored the, um, natural world, by spending time in haylofts." He looked around the room. "Consider this an initiation into a time-honoured human ritual," he continued as he rummaged in a chest against the building‘s steeply sloping outer wall. Emerging with a soft blanket in his hand, Tom turned to B‘Elanna. "Madame, if you‘re ready?"
With a flourish he laid the blanket across a deep pile of the sweet-smelling hay then grasped B‘Elanna‘s hand to pull her gently down beside him. A mischievous smile lit his face. "Computer, delete holographic shirt on Lieutenant Torres." In an instant, the top dematerialized, leaving B‘Elanna only in her uniform pants and singlet. "You see why wearing the entire holographic outfit would have been a lot more fun? Oofhh," he exclaimed as, with a well-placed shove, B‘Elanna rolled him back onto the blanket.
"Time to put up or shut up," she threatened, pinning her tall lover back against the soft nest. Keeping his wrists pinned on either side of his head, B‘Elanna lowered her mouth to his.
His mouth opened readily, tongue eagerly stroking her own, invading the recesses of her mouth. Tom‘s head raised slowly off the blanket as B‘Elanna teasingly withdrew. His eyes fluttered open and he smiled. "Put up," he cryptically pronounced as he ground his hips against her own. B‘Elanna raised an eyebrow. "Good choice, helmboy," she managed before lowering her head to his, "Now, shut up."
"So this is what a hayloft is for?"
"Yup," Tom replied. He reached a hand out to smooth her hair, extracting a strand of hay that he then used to tickle her nose. She wrinkled it warningly. Nestling close to Tom, head pillowed on his arm, she lay beside her lover. Her eyes followed his, up to the wooden ceiling of the loft where dust motes danced in the scant rays of light.
Unwittingly, their playful mood sobered. B‘Elanna thought she knew why. Tom was revisiting that morning‘s briefing. Inwardly she debated. Should she let it slide? That was hardly the style of B‘Elanna Torres. She propped herself up on her right elbow, regarding Tom‘s still distant expression. "Ration credit for your thoughts," she offered.
Surprise caused Tom‘s blue eyes to refocus on B‘Elanna‘s flushed face. He smiled despite himself.
"I don‘t know. Somehow I have the feeling if I won that bet I‘d feel worse than if I lost."
B‘Elanna smirked at Tom‘s joke, but refused to be distracted.
"You‘re thinking about the new nav system, aren‘t you, Paris?"
Tom stiffened slightly, the expression around his eyes tightening. "And if I was?"
B‘Elanna thought for a moment. She had to be careful and choose her words, neither of which were her best skills. "What was it about Chakotay‘s and Seven‘s idea that really bugged you?"
Tom slid slightly away and rolled to his side so that he could see her more easily. "You really want to know?" he asked.
B‘Elanna nodded. "I know you, Tom Paris, it‘s not in your character to be cautious when a new challenge presents itself. The man who broke the warp ten barrier wouldn‘t normally hesitate from trying something new."
"Yeah, well, maybe I‘ve changed since then," Tom responded.
B‘Elanna reached out to run a finger along the line of his jaw.
"Of course you‘ve changed since then," she cajoled. "I‘d never have been seen with the pig you were then."
Tom‘s lips quirked into a brief smile, then resumed their sombre lines. He broke eye contact and stared intently at rumpled fold of the blanket between them. "Well, B‘Elanna, I guess I‘m just a little . . . spooked by this new idea. It doesn‘t sound natural."
"Natural!" B‘Elanna hooted, in spite of herself. "This from a man who pilots a starship, works as an assistant to a medical hologram, plays in a holodeck and has been catapulted into the farthest reaches of the galaxy?"
"Yeah, I know, coming from me it does sound strange," Tom acknowledged. "But it‘s the interface system. It seems like they‘re taking the joy out of piloting. Pretty soon they‘ll just be bypassing people all together and letting a computer drive the ship."
His eyes drifted off. She could see he was trying to find words to express himself. He began hesitantly. "It‘s kinda like what it is with these classic cars in my programs. You see, twenty, fifty, a hundred or more years later, collectors still treasured them and try to keep them just they way they were designed. Sure, there‘ve been technological advances since they were first designed, but what matters more is to keep things real. To keep things the way they were designed. The way they ought to be."
B‘Elanna nodded slowly. "Kind of like putting impulse engines on your Camargue, out there, huh?"
"That‘s Camaro, you ignoramus," Tom corrected in good humour. "But, yeah, kind of like that. More so, though, I feel is that we‘re opening a Pandora‘s box. Despite what Seven says, I think Starfleet designer‘s have given us one of the best set-ups. If we have to rely on some high-tech interface built around one individual, we‘re asking for a lot of trouble, to my mind."
"It‘s more than that though, isn‘t it, Tom? I mean, I believe you‘re sincere about these concerns, but something else is bothering you," B‘Elanna prodded when Tom fell silent.
He lay back on the blanket, pillowing his head against his crossed arms.
"Well, I‘m not very happy that Chakotay and Seven were working on this without consulting me," he admitted. "Everytime I think I‘m part of the team, something like this comes along and I learn that I‘m left out of the loop again."
B‘Elanna snorted. "You‘re not the only one who got left in the dark, you know. After all, it is my ship they‘ll be tinkering with!"
"Yeah, but with you it‘s never a question that Commander Chakotay doesn‘t trust you. With me, it always is," Tom insisted.
"Well, I think you‘re wrong there, Tom." At his disbelieving snort, B‘Elanna left that line. "I also think you‘re wrong not to be part of this testing."
Tom arched an eyebrow as he slanted a look in her directions.
"Et tu, Brutus?"
"Funny, funny, Paris," she retorted. "No, I mean, if anybody is going to be using this new interface in the future on Voyager, I‘d prefer that it was you. You‘re our best pilot, probably the best pilot we could have, and if the captain‘s going to be installing this system, you‘re the one who should be using it."
"Hmmm," was Tom‘s unconvinced reply.
B‘Elanna sat up, uncaring of her unclothed state. Caught up in the argument. "Look at it this way, Tom. Would you rather have Chakotay, or, God help us, Seven piloting this ship in a crisis, just because you‘re not up on the latest technology? Or would you rather be the one."
Tom‘s eyes gleamed in the dim light. "You‘re just saying this ‚cause you‘re worried about your precious ship," he accused.
She growled in frustration. "No, I‘m not, Tom. Well, I am always worried about the ship, but that‘s not the point. The point is that you‘re the best person for this job. If you‘re not doing the testing, it won‘t get done right."
Tom sat up suddenly, closing the space between them. "Okay, okay," he interrupted her diatribe. B‘Elanna opened and closed her mouth wordlessly. His sudden acquiescence disarmed her.
"Huh?" she queried eloquently. Tom raised a finger to her lips. "I‘m saying, Torres, that I see the truth in what you‘re saying. The captain‘s going ahead with these tests and I‘ll be damned if Chakotay is going to have one up on me if we end up integrating these systems. Besides, if I‘m there at the testing stage, maybe I can find the flaw in the plan that will scrap this so-called improvement altogether."
"Anyway," he said huskily, his blue eyes coming so close she could see the distinctive shading of his irises, "according to my calculations we have at least another hour on our holodeck reservation and I wouldn‘t want to waste it."
Assuming a pose of innocence, B‘Elanna turned to reach for her clothes. "That‘s right, I never did get to see how good you are with your tools, did I?" With her head turned, she never saw the tackle that brought her down.
"What is it, B‘Elanna. Am I playing a little rough for you?" Tom asked solicitiously, a twinkle of mockery lightening his expression.
"No, dammit, I‘ve just rolled off the blanket into the hay and it prickles!"
While Tom convulsed in laughter, B‘Elanna seized the moment to roll them both onto the relative comfort of the blanket. Soon they were too engrossed in each other to notice where they were at all.
In the end, it took three days before B‘Elanna was comfortable with the new instrumentation. She established a monitoring system in the shuttle Olympe that Chakotay would operate during the testing. Seven elected to remain on board to monitor the main computer interface while the Doctor nervously supervised Tom‘s outfitting with modified VISOR system. When all systems were ready, B‘Elanna rode the turbolift up to deck five, where Tom was being fitted with the navigational interface. She arrived in sickbay just as the doctor was finishing his procedures.
"Not wanting to carry out a full-fledge neural implant, I‘ve designed this cutaneous patch that will faciliate data transfer between your cerebral cortex and the VISOR control system." The doctor carefully secured a thin, circular device to Tom‘s left temple. Tapping briefly on his diagnostic padd, the EMH hummed happily. "Two smaller transmitters in the gloves will work through the VISOR," he continued as he indicated the wire mesh gloves Tom was smoothing into place. "Careful, Mr. Paris! Those are delicate instruments!"
Tom shot the holograph a dirty look. "Hey, doc, don‘t you trust me?"
"Of course I trust you, Mr. Paris," the doctor responded airily, "which is why I‘ve made sure we have three additional pairs of gloves along with several spare patches. However, we have only one VISOR so I‘d appreciate it if you‘d leave that alone until the start of the test." He fixed Tom with a dark look.
"You don‘t have to worry there, doc. I‘m not looking forward to putting on that torture device until I have to."
Piqued, the EMH turned his back on Tom and began to stow his instruments. Tom hopped down biobed, carefully avoiding touching anything with his gloves.
"Here, I‘ll take that," B‘Elanna offered as Tom helplessly regarded the VISOR. It had been modified slightly from the implant they‘d seen in the briefing room. The ridged front had given way to a sleek metallic covering, while two small earpieces had been added to carry the slight weight of the interface.
"Guess I‘m ready to go," Tom offered nervously as they exited sickbay, en route to the shuttle bay.
"Chakotay is already warming up the shuttle, and Seven‘s in Astrometrics, just waiting for the test to begin.
Tom nodded, obviously a bit distracted. B‘Elanna didn‘t begrudge him that. Although he‘d run through the holographic programs a few times under Chakotay‘s careful tutelage, he still didn‘t know how this new interface would act when fully functional. The pair kept silence until just outside the shuttle bay doors.
B‘Elanna stepped in front of Tom before he could enter. His startled gaze questioned her actions. "Look," she said, "I just wanted to let you know that, if you don‘t want to go ahead with this, you don‘t have to. I don‘t want you thinking you‘re doing it for me or something."
Tom stopped her babbling with a sweet smile. "Thanks, B‘Elanna, but I‘m doing this because it‘s my job. I may not like this new scheme the Commander and Seven have cooked up but you all were right. I‘m the best one to test it."
B‘Elanna returned his smile a bit uneasily. She glanced backwards over her shoulder to the shuttle bay doors. "Well, then, just one more thing before you go. . . ." Her free hand wrapped around Tom‘s neck, lowering his mouth for a passionate kiss. His hands confined in the gloves, Tom was unable to return her embrace but the eager response was enough for the moment.
She released him from the embrace, took a deep breath and then turned around to activate the automatic door. It hummed open and Voyager‘s Chief Engineer and pilot entered the shuttle bay.
"Lieutenants," greeted Chakotay formally, "I‘m glad you‘re here." With one hand, he indicated the open shuttle hatch. "I‘ve got the Olympe ready to go. Tom, if you‘ll take the copilot‘s seat, I‘ll take the VISOR from B‘Elanna. Captain Janeway‘s given us an hour to perform today‘s test, so we‘ll take her right out and get underway." His words and actions gently excluded the engineer.
B‘Elanna watched as the two men entered the shuttle to finish the preflight. Resolutely, she tapped her combadge. "Torres to Engineering," she hailed.
"Engineering here," came Susan Nicoletti‘s familiar voice.
"The Olympe is ready for the test. Route all incoming data from the shuttle‘s monitors to Astrometrics," B‘Elanna ordered as she exited the shuttle bay. Tom might be flying his test, but she had her own duties to perform as Chakotay‘s actions had reminded her. This hour of down time would serve well to perform a refit of the torpedo reloading mechanisms. B‘Elanna made a mental note to see if Ensign Vorik had enjoyed that pleasure yet.
Maintenance and other routine tasks filled the rest of B‘Elanna‘s shift. Like the others, she‘d sighed in relief when Captain Janeway pronounced a successful end to the test in a shipwide announcement. But four hours later, B‘Elanna had heard little more. With a final flourish, she tapped the controls that sent copies of her shift report to the command officers and into the engineering logs. Duties complete, she was more than eager to hear Tom‘s story.
She entered the mess hall to see quite a crowd surrounding Tom. Neelix hovered on the edge, trying to keep one eye on his cooking while he listened to Tom‘s account. To B‘Elanna‘s eye, another eight crewmembers jostled around Tom and Harry, asking excited questions.
She came to the edge of the group and unapologetically worked her way in. A steady glare forced Gerron out of the seat he‘d been enjoying beside Tom. B‘Elanna appropriated the chair as Tom, without missing a beat, draped an arm loosely around her shoulder.
"Well," he was explaining, "before Chakotay engaged the VISOR, I felt like I was sitting in a black box. Then the systems came online and, let me tell you, it was nothing like the simulations we‘d run in the holodeck!"
"How‘s that," Harry Kim enquired curiously.
Tom pondered for a moment, quizzically rubbing his chin. "In the simulations, it was just like any piloting experience. I‘m not sure but I think the holoemitters interfere with the interface‘s direct effect. Whatever it was, when Chakotay activated the system out there in the shuttle, it felt like I was the shuttle."
"Come on," Harry chided.
"No, really! The VISOR makes you feel like you‘re the one floating in space. It was disorienting at first, let me tell you. I thought I‘d be spacesick for a moment or two, until I got used to it. But after a while, you get used to the new environment. I could see and use the controls, and yet never lose sight of the entire starfield. And let me tell you, I was able to do some fancy flying in that rig."
B‘Elanna indulgently observed Tom‘s excited and pleased expression. Given the captain‘s insistence on the testing, she was happy that Tom had enjoyed the experience he‘d so strenuously fought at first.
Neelix bustled up beside B‘Elanna, placing a tray in front of her. "Here, Lieutenant, I saved some Grixxi griddle cakes for you." Tom leaned back to answer a question from Ensign Davies while B‘Elanna warily eyed the gray-blue circles on the plate in front of her.
"Gee, thanks," she acknowledged drily. Neelix preened slightly, then leant forward.
"You‘re welcome, Lieutenant Torres. I made them specially when I heard how well Lieutenant Paris‘s test flight had gone. Funny, though, he hasn‘t touched his yet." The Talaxian raised his voice to address the crowd. "Now, now, everybody, there‘ll be enough time to hear about Mr. Paris‘s flying later. Right now it‘s time to eat. Griddle cakes for everybody!"
The crowd reluctantly broke up, with only a few taking the cook up on his offer. Beside B‘Elanna, Tom sighed and tightened his hold on her shoulders. "Whew!" he managed, looking ruefully at Harry Kim, still seated across the table.
Harry raised an eyebrow before carefully cutting into his own serving of Grixxi griddle cakes. Dubiously he eyed the food before bringing fork to mouth. B‘Elanna and Tom watched intently while he chewed and swallowed.
"Verdict?" Tom asked.
Harry grimaced. "I‘ll give it a six out of ten. A little salty for my tastes." Doggedly, he carved himself another bite while Tom and B‘Elanna followed suit.
B‘Elanna stole another look at Tom. He seemed to ignore the flavour, although he put down his fork with finality after only eating a third of the serving. Then again, that could probably be attributed to Neelix‘s creative cookery. Less objectionable to her half-Klingon palate, half of her griddle cakes still went untasted. Harry, however, seemed to feel obligated to eat all of his.
"So," Tom began, folding his arms as he lounged back in the molded chair, "if all the data checks out, we‘ll be doing another shuttle test run tomorrow."
B‘Elanna looked up in surprise. "So soon?"
"The captain wants to get any problems shaken out of the system before we enter Maleelian space," Harry explained. His eyes narrowed as Tom raised a hand to rub at the back of his neck. "Something wrong, Tom?"
"Nah, probably just tension, but I‘ve got a bit of a headache," Tom replied. He rose from the table, lifting his tray, "Look, B‘Elanna, Harry, I‘m sorry to cut this short, but I owe the doc a half-shift in sickbay while he tutors Sam Wildman and Jenny Delaney."
"Finally getting some other understudies lined up, is he?" Harry smiled broadly.
Tom nodded enthusiastically. "After that last scare, I‘m doing everything I can to make sure that there are other qualified medical assistants on this ship." He strode away to stow his tray, then swung by for a quick farewell to B‘Elanna. "See you at 2200, your quarters?" he asked. B‘Elanna nodded abruptly, unwilling to show too much disappointment at his early departure.
As Tom exited the mess hall, Harry shook his head disbelievingly. "His attitude‘s sure changed since he flew that shuttlecraft. You should have seen the telemetry! Even Commander Tuvok was impressed. Using that equipment, Tom scored at or above the benchmark in three standard Starfleet tests. If this equipment works as well for Voyager. . . ." Harry let his voice trail away as he considered the possibilities.
B‘Elanna harrumphed as she poked her fork at the cooling griddle cakes. "We didn‘t get much info down in Engineering. But I did notice that the interface drew a lot of power and computing time from the shuttle‘s systems."
"Well, in my mind, that‘s a small price to pay if it will get Voyager out of the next tight situation we run into," Harry averred, memories of weeks under Hirogen control still clearly on his mind.
"That may be," B‘Elanna retorted heatedly, "but you‘re not the one expected to cobble together the resources to support new systems. We‘re limping together on patches and prayers, Starfleet, and I‘d rather see us get fully restocked and refitted before we go tinkering with one of the last systems in full working order."
Harry grinned affectionately across the table at B‘Elanna‘s outraged expression. Whatever he might have said next was lost when his combadge chirped. "Seven of Nine to Ensign Kim." The tactical officer sat up and responded, "Ensign Kim, here."
"Ensign Kim," the filtered voice acknowledged, "I require your assistance in Astrometrics."
"On my way," Harry responded. He ruefully excused himself. "Sorry, B‘Elanna, but I promised Seven to give her a hand in setting up the plans for an improved interface."
B‘Elanna‘s eyebrows rose high in displeasure. "Without clearing it with engineering?"
Harry looked shocked. "This is just the design stage. It‘s supposed to be in Commander Chakotay‘s hands in the morning for his approval. I‘m guessing that you‘ll be seeing this in engineering tomorrow." With a jaunty wave, Harry exited the Mess Hall.
Disgustedly, B‘Elanna looked around. The current crowd was thinning out and she didn‘t want to wait and see what other delicacies Neelix had cooked up. Clearing her tray contents into the recycler, B‘Elanna prepared to leave the common room.
Time sat a bit heavily on her hands that evening. She and Tom didn‘t have any holodeck time for two more nights, so she couldn‘t distract herself with a program. Chakotay was busy, she knew, so there was no use begging for a game of hoverball. She considered going back to engineering, but decided against interrupting the quiet schedule of repairs she‘d left for Joe Carey to supervise. In the end, she settled for those thankless tasks she usually guilted Tom into doing for her. Inwardly grumbling, she put her uniforms into the ‚fresher, tidied the other clothes that haphazardly littered her quarters and sorted through the padds on her desk. By 2200 her quarters were abnormally tidy, she‘d bathed and changed into a chocolate brown, richly napped pants suit that she‘d replicated after the latest refit. It had taken nine days worth of replicator rations, but B‘Elanna felt it worth the sacrifice. Her half-Klingon metabolism enjoyed the warmth of the rich fabric, but she‘d noticed Tom‘s eyes lingered along the curves and lines the folds of the fabric caressed.
At a few minutes after the hour, the door chimes interrupted her lazy musing. "Enter," she called. Tom took two steps in before seeing the woman curled up on the couch. His smile broadened. "Boy, are you a sight for sore eyes!" he enthused as he sat down beside her.
B‘Elanna cracked a feral grin. "So you didn‘t get any ideas about giving Jenny Delaney some special tutoring?" she purred.
Tom‘s eyes widened in shock. He raised a hand to his chest and affected a hurt expression. "B‘Elanna, I‘m hurt! You know there‘s been nothing between Jenny and me for years!"
"Just reminding you, Tom," she warned, leaning closer. "I marked you and you‘re mine."
Tom lounged back into the soft cushions of the sofa. "Take me, I‘m yours!" His falsely dramatic pronouncement sent them both into helpless laughter, before B‘Elanna proceeded to act on his claim. After all, she didn‘t want Tom to think she never took his wishes into consideration.
By the time they crossed into Maleelian territory, Voyager had inaugurated the new navigational system into its protocols. Captain Janeway proceeded cautiously. In the morning briefing, she praised the section leaders who‘d collaborated on the project, concentrating her praise upon Seven and Tom. "I‘m glad to see that you‘ve taken such an active role in this, Tom," the captain said. Tom shrugged his shoulders dismissively. "It‘s really Seven and Commander Chakotay you should be congratulating," he answered. "I‘m just the guinea pig."
Seven‘s brow crinkled. Once again, another of Tom‘s obscure phrases had eluded her. The EMH considerately leaned over and explained the term in a whispered aside. Her face smoothed. "Lieutenant Paris is correct," the blonde asserted. "His major function has been as test subject, yet that contribution has been valuable." She paused, then her mouth pursed as if tasting something distasteful.
"Thank you, Lieutenant," Seven finally managed.
The captain‘s eyes danced with mischief and B‘Elanna stifled a laugh of her own. Obviously, the former Borg‘s lessons in human interaction continued apace.
"Ahem," Janeway finally managed. "Well, now that the system‘s been tested, I‘ve decided that we‘ll start training all our pilots in its usage. For the moment, I don‘t intend to replace our regular navigational system with the VISOR technology, but I‘d like all our pilots to become familiar with its usage."
Commander Chakotay leaned his elbows forward on the table. "For now, at least, we‘ll be scheduling an hour each shift for pilots to work with and become familiar with the new set up. Also, all pilots will be expected to log five hours in simulator time before working with the new protocols. So for now, that just leaves Tom and myself as qualified in the VISOR interface."
"Is our goal to switch over to the new interface permanently?" Harry enquired.
The captain frowned minutely. "Not at this time, Ensign. But there are some situations where it would be most useful. For instance, if we had chosen the route near the protostar cluster. The new interface would make it possible to do a very close fly-by on such unstable stellar phenomena."
"Similarly," Chakotay added, "if we did happen to run into one of these rumoured Maleelian flotilla, I‘d think the new interface would give Voyager a real advantage against so many small and maneuverable opponents."
The captain cleared her throat and looked around significantly. "Since the Maleelians failed to respond to our diplomatic overtures at our last planetfall and have ignored all other attempts to communicate, I want to get through their territory as quickly and quietly as possible. Mr. Paris, we‘ll maintain a cruising speed of warp seven." She turned a steely eye on her engineer. "Can the engines handle this, Lieutenant Torres?"
"Since we managed to secure a sizeable amount of dilithium in trade, we‘re well-stocked. The engines are operating at reasonable efficiency. As long as we don‘t try to push that for more than, say, ten days, I think we‘ll be all right."
Janeway nodded thoughtfully as she tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. "At warp seven we should be clear of the region in less than that. All right, people, I think that‘s it for now. Dismiss." The briefing room began to clear. B‘Elanna shot a smile at Tom making his way to the conn. She held back, and collared Chakotay.
Her longtime friend smiled as she caught his arm. "What can I do for you, B‘Elanna?"
She looked over her shoulder. "It‘s Tom. I‘d like you to keep an eye on him."
Chakotay‘s expression sobered. "What‘s the problem?"
She frowned uncertainly. "I‘m not sure. But he‘s been taking a number of analgesics. He doesn‘t complain much about them, but I know he‘s been having some bad headaches. And his sleep. . . ." B‘Elanna‘s voice trailed off as she realized maybe her mentor didn‘t need to hear too much about her private life. But this was important! She continued determinedly. "His sleep‘s been restless, interrupted. He seems almost to stop breathing, then comes to with a shout. I‘m wondering if it might have something to do with all the hours he‘s putting in on the new nav system. Yesterday he was wearing the equipment for five hours."
Chakotay‘s expression became thoughtful. "It sounds pretty serious. I wonder if it might be related to the system itself, rather than overwork. We‘ve been trying to monitor any physiological reactions to the headgear. To the best of my knowledge, Tom hasn‘t mentioned anything about this to the doctor. I‘ve had a few headaches myself recently, but I‘d thought they were simply due to the fact that I was using a VISOR that we‘d replicated to Tom‘s measurements. I‘ll have to ask him about this." Face carefully blank, the commander preceded her from the briefing room.
As the turbolift carried her down to Main Engineering, B‘Elanna sagged against the compartment wall. Tom wouldn‘t be too happy if she got him called on the carpet with Chakotay, but she was worried enough to risk his displeasure. Last night she‘d heard him get up twice from the bed and dose himself with painkillers from his med-kit. His sudden enthusiasms and penchant for over-doing had gotten him into trouble on occasion. She scowled so darkly that Ayala, who‘d just gotten on the turbolift, drew back cautiously rather than possibly provoke B‘Elanna‘s notorious temper.
Finally in Engineering, B‘Elanna was able to channel most of her worries and anger into more productive outlets. She supervised a complete refit of the internal sensor systems that Lieutenant Commander Tuvok had suggested "would be beneficial." Several ensigns were dispatched to further the automation of hydroponics through the installation of monitors and an extended watering network. By the end of the shift, B‘Elanna was more than satisfied with the amount of work her people had accomplished, but she was unable to relax.
It‘s probably just from knowing we‘re in hostile territory again,- B‘Elanna told herself as she entered her quarters. -Just for once it would be nice to find the Delta Quadrant equivalent of Risa.- Her lips curved at the thought of spending some time on that pleasure planet, in Tom‘s company, of course. Of course, what she didn‘t want to admit to herself was her fear of Tom‘s reaction to her morning‘s conference with Chakotay.
Those fears seemed justified. A personal message from Tom awaited her on her personal console. B‘Elanna tapped for access then scrolled through the text. In curt words, Tom informed B‘Elanna that he‘d been placed on medical leave for the next thirty-six hours. He regretted missing their evening‘s date in Holodeck Two and so on but he was under orders to be resting, quietly, in his quarters.
B‘Elanna could feel the pique in Tom‘s wording and insinuation. He blamed her for this mandatory rest and wanted her to know it. She suppressed the urge to put her fist into the terminal‘s glassy screen. After all these years on Voyager, she‘d developed a number of channels to control her Klingon impulses. Putting aside a fleeting regret over the loss of an hour of holographic vacation with Tom in Tahiti, B‘Elanna looted her clothes cupboards for workout gear and headed for the holodeck. An hour spent battling holographic opponents proved the perfect antidote to her ill humour. At the end of her session, her sweaty hair closely molded the lines of her skull and sweat darkened the utilitarian gray clothes. Dismissing the program, B‘Elanna left the holodeck in search of sleep.
The next morning‘s briefing was notable for Tom‘s absence. The holodoc stiffly explained. "Lieutenant Paris‘s dermal patch seems to have been the culprit behind an increasing number of headaches and other minor discomforts. I have modified the patch to create a variable data flow that will lower the transmission rate during lull times at the conn. This should reduce or eliminate Lieutenant Paris‘s headaches."
Seven of Nine‘s eyes widened. "Your modifications might hamper the efficiency of the mechanism! Why did you not clear these alterations with me?"
Commander Chakotay cleared his throat. "He approached me about these changes, Seven. I ran the simulations on the new specifications and found no problem. So I gave the authorization."
Seven opened and closed her mouth twice. Obviously she wanted to challenge Voyager‘s first officer but somehow restrained herself. B‘Elanna caught the captain watching the exchange closely. When it was clear that no further outbursts were forthcoming, Janeway swiftly dealt with the rest of the day‘s business.
Dismissed, the officers stood to leave. B‘Elanna looked up when Harry touched her arm. "So, how‘s Tom?" he asked.
B‘Elanna shook her head dismissively. "I wouldn‘t know, Harry. He left me a message last night that all but told me to butt out. You see, I was the one who told Chakotay about his headaches and got him in trouble."
Harry grinned. "Pouting, is he?"
B‘Elanna had to smile at Harry‘s choice of words. She matched paces with the tall ensign as they left the room. "Yeah, I guess that‘s right. Tom‘s just thrown himself at high warp into mastering this new system, like he does with everything he takes up. Commander Chakotay and the holodoc pulled him up short and, since he can‘t grumble at them, I got it all."
"Poor B‘Elanna," Harry mocked.
She whirled to face him, startling Harry. "Watch out or I‘ll dump it all on you, Starfleet. Care for a little unarmed combat practice?" She snarled theatrically.
Harry retreated and she snickered. After all these years in the Delta Quadrant, it was still fun to tease poor Harry.
By the end of her shift, B‘Elanna still had a wealth of righteous indignation seething inside her. Tom, of course, was the target. A voice inside counselled prudence, but B‘Elanna ignored it. According to the computer, Tom was still in his quarters on medical rest. She made her way there only to stand in front of the doors. The little voice shrieked for her attention and B‘Elanna almost heeded its warnings. But then, caution and prudence weren‘t B‘Elanna‘s favourite virtues. She activated the doorchime.
"Who is it?" Tom‘s voice asked.
"Me," she answered shortly.
A moment‘s pause ended in the doors gliding open. Tom stood in front of her in his pajamas, hair rumpled. "Go away! You‘re not supposed to be here."
B‘Elanna‘s eyes narrowed dangerously. "Do you have a deathwish, Paris?"
Tom looked around huntedly, then leaned closer. "It‘s the doc, B‘Elanna. He‘s got me sewn up in here with monitors and explicit orders to remain "alone and secluded" for the duration of this leave. Says that he‘s going to make sure that I get the rest I need."
"Oh, really?" An eyebrow arched in surprise, B‘Elanna considered this. "You‘re not saying this just to get yourself off the hook with me?"
Tom affected innocence. "Who, me?" But before he could say more, the disgruntled voice of the EMH sounded through the room‘s speakers. "Mr. Paris, what is this? I distinctly ordered that you rest during your leave, yet I‘m reading heightened activity levels on all bio-monitors!" Tom shrugged his shoulders helplessly and began to step back from the threshold.
B‘Elanna grinned nastily. Stepping back into the hallway she paged engineering. "Joe, there seems to be a problem with the bio-monitors on decks three and four. Would you inform the doctor that we‘ll be taking them off line for the next, hum, twelve hours, ‚til we can sort out the problem."
She could hear the grin in his voice as Lieutenant Carey acknowledged her order. "Need any help with this repair job, Lieutenant?" he asked teasingly.
"No," she replied consideringly, "I think this is a job I can handle myself." Her widening smile matched Tom‘s own as she entered his quarters and his waiting arms.
The crews‘ hopes for a peaceful traverse of Maleelian space ended half way through Alpha shift. B‘Elanna was in Main Engineering, supervising the manufacture of some new EPS conduit flashing when the captain‘s voice barked over the comm system. "Red Alert! Maleelian fleet sighted on an intercept course." Routine tasks were abandoned as the engineering team readied for possible battle and the technical emergencies that always ensued.
A series of small, thundering booms rocked the ship. Arms braced on either side of the monitor, B‘Elanna surveyed the damage reports that flowed into her main console. "Nicoletti, get a crew in the Jeffries Tube Six, Deck Four. We‘ve got a coolant leak." Nodded acknowledgement, the other woman motioned two ensigns to join her with their toolkits and headed out of the section.
Another round of percussive blasts rocked the ship. Damage reports were minimal, B‘Elanna noted, although shields dropped another three percent. Determination squaring her jaw, B‘Elanna punched in the sequence to activate shield rotation. "Not my ship, peta‘Q!"
Endless minutes later, Voyager roiled under repeated assaults. Of themselves, they were inconsequential but by B‘Elanna‘s readings, at least one hundred and sixty small craft battered the Federation starship with energy beams and torpedoes. Given the large number of opponents, B‘Elanna was amazed they‘d managed as well as they had. Judging by the readouts, Tom‘s piloting was inspired, evading the most damaging attacks while steering a course through the swarm of Maleelians.
The smaller vessels were agile, but lacked heavy weapons and powerful engines. If Voyager could only winnow its way through the fleet without suffering a crippling hit, her powerful warp drive would leave the hostile force behind. B‘Elanna frantically directed her crew to richen the antimatter mixture, hoping an extra boost would speed the ship to safety.
As the warp engines pulsed to Warp Eight, B‘Elanna sagged in relief. Monitors showed the Maleelian fighters dropping back, unable to maintain the heady speed of their larger prey. She palmed her combadge to report the minor damage in engineering to Captain Janeway. "Torres to Janeway."
Silence met her hail. She was about to try again when the captain‘s harried voice responded. "Janeway here."
"Captain, we‘re . . ." B‘Elanna began to report then paused, "what‘s the matter?" Through the comchannel, she heard Chakotay‘s voice biting out an order for emergency medical transport.
"B‘Elanna, I don‘t know how to say this, but Tom collapsed at the helm as soon as we went to Warp Eight. Commander Chakotay wasn‘t getting any lifesigns."
Before this, B‘Elanna had always scoffed at stories where a character‘s blood ran cold. But she felt a chill rush through her torso and limbs. A sharp crack pulled her out of her reverie, and she looked down at the console‘s frame to see fragments of plas-metal piercing her hands where she‘d convulsively crushed the structure.
The pain seemed disconnected as B‘Elanna stood. But others noticed the blood flow and hurried to ease their Chief away from the shattered console. Somebody‘s uniform smock was used to cradle her hands and she felt Joe Carey‘s comforting arm around her shoulder, directing her through the main doors and to the turbolift.
All the way to sickbay, B‘Elanna fought the numbing cold that gripped her. Shock and fear battled with a consuming Klingon urge to smash and batter something, anything. Sickbay‘s door opened to reveal the EMH bent over Tom‘s form on the main biobed. "Get me the respiratory stimulator," he demanded. A pale Jenny Delaney offered an instrument to the doctor while Harry Kim resumed an explanation the doctor‘s orders had interrupted.
"Tom was piloting like a wizard. Some of it had to have been the VISOR system. I mean, he‘s good and all, but there were more than a hundred ships out there after us. He was knifing through them like they were nothing. Then when he‘d finally worked his way through the fleet and the captain ordered him to warp eight, he just sorta folded over the console. Commander Chakotay was there in an instant, but said he wasn‘t getting any lifesigns. Commander Tuvok said that the primary controls were not responding and shifted over to secondary systems. A jolt seemed to flow through Tom‘s body, then, but we weren‘t getting a pulse or any breathing. So we initiated an emergency medical transport." Harry eyed the EMH anxiously.
"And barely in time, I might add, Mr. Kim," the doctor declaimed as he injected Tom with a hypospray. "I have been able to restore Mr. Paris‘s autonomous systems. He is now breathing and his heart is circulating blood. There should be no permanent damage. . . ." The holograph‘s voice trailed off as he stared disbelievingly at one monitor.
"Ten ccs of neuradol," the EMH demanded of the medical replicator. A full hypospray materialized in front of him and he swiftly injected Tom with its contents. A frown darkened the doctor‘s image as he brought a small instrument to bear on the side of Tom‘s neck.
"What‘s the matter?" Harry Kim asked anxiously.
The holodoc‘s expression darkened. "I‘m not sure, but I‘m not getting any significant brain activity from Mr. Paris. Certainly nothing congruent with his normal waking or sleeping state."
B‘Elanna broke her dazed silence at the door. "What are you saying, doctor?"
The EMH turned swiftly, eyeing the injured Chief with some sympathy. "Mr. Paris appears to be in a coma, one where his brain functions have shut down so far as to elude all detection." Within a moment the holodoc was at B‘Elanna‘s side, removing the bloodstained smock and eying her puncture wounds with disapproval.
"However did you get these, Lieutenant?" he asked, leading her towards a second biobed.
"Crushed a console frame in engineering," Joe Carey supplied helpfully as B‘Elanna stared across the two metres of space at Tom‘s unresponsive form. The junior lieutenant then excused himself to return to engineering.
"Klingons!" the EMH harrumphed. "Ensign Delaney, consider this an excellent practicum for your medical skills."
B‘Elanna hardly noticed the other woman carefully extracting plas-metal fragments from the wounds and regenerating her wounds. Her eyes remained fixed on Tom, as did Harry‘s.
"There, that‘s it," Jenny Delaney remarked. The ebullient cartographer‘s voice was subdued as she, too, kept glancing over to the main biobed where the EMH had activated the bed‘s main treatment functions.
Without glancing over his shoulder, the holographic doctor seemed aware of their scrutiny. "Mr. Paris will not improve simply by wishing it so. It will require skilled medical treatment which only I am capable of providing on this benighted ship. Ensign Delaney, I will require a complete series of neural diagnostics routed to the main biobed‘s consoles. Try to keep the equipment out of Lieutenant Torres‘s hands," he advised sardonically, all the while focused on Tom‘s care.
B‘Elanna inadvertently clenched one of her newly healed hands and let her breath out in a hiss at the touch of pain that lingered while the deep tissue wounds slowly regenerated. The doctor‘s unstated dismissal rankled, but at this point, while he was starting procedures, there was little she could do. She looked up to see Harry‘s drawn face peering at her own. Gingerly accepting her friend‘s pro-offered hand, B‘Elanna jumped down from the biobed and exited sickbay.
"Don‘t worry, B‘Elanna, Tom‘s going to make it," Harry promised as they headed for the turbolift.
B‘Elanna looked up warily. "What? Oh yeah, Harry, I have faith in the doctor. But healing isn‘t always a matter of "skilled medical treatment." She glanced back as the corridor‘s turn hid sickbay‘s broad doorway. "If Tom doesn‘t snap out of it soon, I‘m going to reprogram that EMH so that he‘s six inches high and squeaks!" B‘Elanna‘s brave words hid her apprehension.
As the turbolift loomed in front of them, B‘Elanna‘s combadge chirruped. "Janeway to Torres," the captain‘s voice paged.
"Torres here," the engineer acknowledged.
"Lieutenant! I heard that you were in sickbay. I hope it wasn‘t anything serious?"
B‘Elanna regarded her hands, flexing them carefully. No twinges of pain resulted. The healing seemed complete. "Nothing serious, captain. Just some cuts. They‘re all healed now."
"Good," came the relieved response. "It‘s bad enough with Tom in there. The doctor‘s given me a preliminary report on his condition and it sounds worrisome."
B‘Elanna frowned. Harry jumped in at her lingering silence. "We left sickbay just a few minutes ago, captain. The doctor was starting some more detailed tests. I‘m sure he‘ll have Tom back on his feet soon."
"That would be appreciated! But right now it‘s my Chief Engineer I‘m needing. It looks like we sustained more serious damage from the Maleelian fighters than at first glance, Lieutenant. We‘ve had to disconnect primary navigational computers and are currently running on the secondary system. I‘ve also been getting reports of computer related problems across the ship. Both holodecks are offline. Apparently all programs just collapsed when the systems were affected. We‘re only halfway through the Maleelians‘ territory and I want this problem solved before it worsens. Understood, Lieutenant?"
B‘Elanna nodded sharply. "Understood, captain." She steeled herself with a sigh. "See you later, Harry!" As she strode into the turbolift, she saw the dark-haired ensign step back, waiting his ride to the bridge. "Deck fifteen," she directed, as she sped away from sickbay and Tom.
Entering from the dim corridors that distinguished the gamma shift, B‘Elanna collapsed bonelessly upon her unmade bed. She‘d shed her uniform carelessly in the anteroom, too tired to rummage through her drawers in search of a nightgown. Not that she‘d ever been a great fan of satiny fripperies. Life in the Maquis discouraged that. But with Tom she‘d had a willing and worthwhile audience for the few silky garments that filled the corner of one of her storage units.
The very thought of Tom served to recall the fears and frustrations of the past three days. Nothing had worked so far. The EMH‘s careful medical procedures proved fruitless. Harry sought to help, running reconstructions of Tom‘s collapse on the bridge in an effort to pinpoint the cause of his deepening coma. It chilled her to see his lanky, active form so still and silent on the biobed, yet B‘Elanna had visited Tom almost hourly. Coming off duty spent trying to control the problems still plaguing Voyager‘s holodecks and primary computers, she‘d returned to sickbay to helplessly sit beside the man she loved. The doctor surprised her with his quiet acceptance, working around her to monitor Tom‘s condition and only breaking silence to explain the purpose of his latest procedure. Motherly Sam Wildman brought a tray of food. B‘Elanna was inclined to reject the offering, but acquiesced. No use fighting over little things when Tom‘s life hung in the balance. She must have been hungry. In the end, she devoured two bowls of clear, flavourful soup, a nutty bread roll and some sweet, tangy fruit that Neelix had wrangled out of friendly farmers on Pelicos Minor. All the time her eyes remained firmly fixed on Tom‘s quiet features. Only the doctor‘s direction had been able to chide her from Tom‘s side at 0200 hours.
Knowing that her next shift began in a few hours, B‘Elanna realized she should sleep, but she couldn‘t. Instinctively, she turned to the side of the bed where Tom should have been, but all she saw were stale, rumpled sheets. Resolutely closing her eyes, she sought that inner core of concentration that had always served her well as an engineer. Commanding her body to rest, she tuned her senses to the comforting pulse of the warp engines. The subliminal rhythms that she felt more than heard seemed strangely out of synch. She rubbed her brow ridges in disgust. Was emotion hampering her basic abilities, she wondered?
No. The engines were different. B‘Elanna opened her eyes and raised herself up on her elbows. "Computer, route an audio monitoring of warp engines to my quarters."
"Insufficient parameters. Please specify."
"Damn," B‘Elanna spat, then sat up properly on the rumpled bed.
"Route an audio-only channel registering the audible byproducts of the warp engines from Main Engineering‘s monitors."
"Routing," the computer tonelessly confirmed, then a sprightly beep preceded a basso thrumming. B‘Elanna cocked her head to the left, eyes narrowed in concentration. "Filter out all data in the upper third of human-normal auditory range. Increase lower range by one third." The rhythm pounded clearly. "Now playback audio components of the engine room monitoring records, predating the installation of the nav interface, same filter." The rhythm changed, restored to the cadence she knew as Voyager‘s particular signature. "Now current channel," B‘Elanna barked. The sounds changed subtly, assuming a distinctive dissonant rush that clashed with the customary measure of Voyager‘s warp drive. Both were sounds B‘Elanna knew deep in her soul. The engines of Voyager she‘d come to know intimately during her tenure as Chief Engineer. But the other sound was one she‘d only learned during the past few months. It was the sound of Tom‘s heartbeat.
Adrenaline flooded her system and B‘Elanna fought an instinctive, Klingon impulse to spend it in immediate violence. All she had was a wild surmise. She need more than that if she was to convince the Captain and her fellow officers of what she‘d just discovered.
"Lights," she demanded as she sprang from the bed and quickly donned a crumpled crimson jumpsuit that lay at the foot of her bed. She was out the doors of her quarters before she realized she was still barefoot. But the doors of the turbolift were just ahead. B‘Elanna jogged to them soundlessly, determined to test her crazy supposition before she lost her nerve. Within minutes she was at the holodeck. Getting past the lockouts was a moment‘s work. She entered to a dizzying melange of images. With an effort, she sorted them out. The pool table from Sandrine‘s, a beach chair from the resort, a dozen other strange items set against a familiar scene of country farmland, lit orange and gold by the setting sun. Skirting several amorphous shapes, she entered the barn. Here, the holo-environment seemed more stable and secure. She mounted the ladder to the hayloft and knelt uncertainly on the blanket where she and Tom had lingered just a few days before.
B‘Elanna swallowed, then without giving way to further doubts, addressed the computer. "Computer, transfer control of the holomatrix to the primary navigational computer. Authorization Torres Omicron Delta Three."
"Beginning transfer," the computer notified B‘Elanna.
She waited in the darkened area, desperately unsure and yet hopeful. If she was wrong, the undirected holomatrix could manifest itself into incoherent waves of energy and projected matter. If she was right. . . . Slowly, as her ears adjusted, the same steady beat that had underlain the engine‘s hum manifested itself on the holodeck.
"Tom?" she whispered.
The beat continued, then slowly accelerated.
"Tom?" she repeated, a desperate, demanding edge sharpening her voice.
B‘Elanna, came a whispering voice out of the swirling darkness.
Beneath her knees, she felt the blanket and straw ebb into unsteadiness. The dim walls of the loft shimmered opalescently.
"Tom, it‘s me! I‘m here," she shouted as she clutched the dissipating cloth. In front of her, the shimmers and flows coalesced into a shadowy column.
B‘Elanna, the whisper repeated. A section of the column in front of her swung in her direction, grazing her cheek with an electric shock.
"Ow, damnit," she blurted before realization dawned. "Tom? Is that you?"
A ghostly chuckle sounded louder. Generated by the holoemitters, it nevertheless seemed to emanate from the column before her, that slowly, shiftingly took a humanoid shape. *B‘Elanna, where are we? Is this a dream?*
B‘Elanna choked out a laugh that hovered between relief and outrage. "Tom, you‘ve been in a coma for three days! The doctor‘s keeping your body alive in sickbay but you‘ve been unreachable!"
I have? the voice queried incredulously. Beneath her knees the holomatrix shifted erratically and B‘Elanna clutched at Tom‘s projected figure. Seeming solid beneath her fingers, the projection nevertheless lacked the warmth and firm definition of a living body. But it was clearly Tom, she thought, as a holographic arm encircled her, stroking her hair.
Wait a minute, Tom‘s ghostly voice asked, *if I‘m in a coma, in sickbay, where the hell is this? Dreamland?*
"Sort of. You see, when you collapsed on the bridge, lots of systems went into a cascading failure. The captain and the commander assumed they resulted from damage we took fighting off the Maleelians. But the trouble‘s persisted, and it‘s concentrated in our secondary computer systems, you know, communications, holodecks, deep memory systems. We‘ve been cutting off and isolating these systems to try and effect repairs without much success. And while each system was being removed and repaired, you were getting worse and worse. . . ." B‘Elanna‘s voice trailed off.
So? Tom prompted.
"So, lying in bed tonight I listened to the sound of the engines.
They‘d been bothering me the last few days. Even though they hadn‘t taken any damage in the attack and escape, they didn‘t sound right. Then, listening more closely, I realized what I was hearing." She looked up at the shadowy face above her. "It was your heartbeat, Tom. I realized that your mind, your memory, your consciousness was still tapped in through the navigational interface. You were the glitches in our systems we were tracing down and eliminating, all the while not knowing that with each repair we were pushing you further and further away from recovery!"
B‘Elanna‘s hold on his shoulders tightened. "I knew I was right so I had to be sure. I came here to the holodeck, where the problems have been the worst and I invoked the navigational computer. What I got was you!"
She felt the projection‘s hand sweep soothingly from her hair to the small of her back in repeated strokes. *Well, B‘Elanna, I‘m a little overwhelmed! The last thing I remember was flying Voyager through that swarm of Maleelian fighters. It took all my effort to outmaneuver them! Then nothing, really, until now.*
B‘Elanna loosened her grip to encircle the holographic projection loosely around its waist. If she kept her eyes closed and ignored the slightly hollow tones of the voice she could convince herself it was really Tom she embraced. The longer they stood there on the holodeck, the greater control Tom seemed to achieve over the projection.
Urgently, she looked up. Colour flooded the face she remembered so well. Tom‘s projection was almost flawless, but it wasn‘t the real thing. "Tom, now that you‘re aware, you should be able to reintegrate your consciousness with your body!"
A perplexed expression crossed Tom‘s face. Sure, but how?
B‘Elanna growled angrily. "I don‘t know how! I don‘t even know how you‘re manifesting this projection on the holodeck! Why not just try?"
Tom frowned in consideration. Well, he confessed sheepishly, *I‘m not exactly sure how I‘m doing this either. It‘s more instinct than anything else.* But his frown deepened and the projection began to soften and fade. B‘Elanna felt her footing begin to degrade and wondered how far it was to the real holodeck floor.
After long minutes of silence, Tom‘s voice returned. *Sorry, B‘Elanna, but it doesn‘t seem to work. It feels as if I‘m blocked when I start thinking about my real body.* Tom‘s holographic self resumed its former lifelike look, and sat down heavily upon an amorphous mass that once had been a holographic hay bale.
B‘Elanna ground her teeth in frustration as she sat down beside him. "There‘s got to be a reason," she insisted. Absently she leaned into Tom‘s familiar hug as her mind raced to tackle the dilemma surrounding Tom‘s inexplicable situation. She nibbled at her lower lip as she pondered the possibilities.
Hey, don‘t do that!
She glanced up, startled, to see the projection eyeing her hungrily.
"Do what?" she asked warily.
You know, Tom‘s ghostly voiced complained, that lip thing.
Despite the serious situation, B‘Elanna smiled. "You know, if I‘d had any suspicions that this was some alien trick or technological device, that would‘ve ended them." She giggled slightly at the absurdity of the whole scenario.
Why‘s that? Tom‘s holographic self questioned, its eyes never leaving her face.
"Because that remark is so you, Tom Paris," B‘Elanna chided.
"Look, Tom, we‘ve got to tell the captain and the doctor about this. They‘ll need to know that you‘re not in a coma, just. . . ." She struggled for a word.
Discorporate? Ethereal? Phantasmagoric?
B‘Elanna‘s surprised expression won a laugh from Tom, weak though it was.
*Don‘t forget, Torres, hooked into the computers as I seem to be, I have access to all the dictionaries in the Federation! Hey, now there‘s an idea,* his ghostly voice mused, *maybe I‘ll just take a peek at your personal logs while I‘m at it. . . .*
B‘Elanna growled warningly as she strode to the main doors. Light flooded the holodeck as the doors automatically opened at her approach, making Tom‘s projected form appear even more insubstantial. "Don‘t you even dare, Paris," she warned, then used the comm panel outside the holodeck to page the captain and the EMH.
Within minutes, a yawning Kathryn Janeway and a bemused holodoctor stood in front of Tom‘s projected form. With an expression B‘Elanna might almost call affront, the EMH‘s gaze raced up and down Tom‘s form. "Mr. Paris," he crisply rapped, "if you so desperately wanted to emulate me, I would suggest doing something else than trying to remake yourself as a hologram!" Captain Janeway smiled briefly at the doctor‘s barb, then her eyes narrowed thoughtfully.
"Tom, this puts a whole new spin on things. You say that you think you‘re still interfaced with the computers somehow?" Head cocked to the left and arms crossed, the captain appeared to be sorting out the mechanics of Tom‘s situation.
Yes, captain, came the reply, Tom‘s voice as generated by the holoemitters. *If I think about it, it still feels like I‘m getting some of the sensations of the VISOR interface, but I can‘t do anything with it.* His holographic shoulders hunched in frustration. Two steps to his side, B‘Elanna struggled to maintain as professional a composure as she could muster, barefoot and out of uniform.
Tom continued, *I, we, also tried to return my consciousness to my body, but we weren‘t able to manage that, either.* A faint tinge of fear coloured his words. *I don‘t know, do you think I‘m going to be like this forever?* A sweep of his hands indicated the confines of the holodeck.
Captain Janeway shook her head then smiled warmly. "Not a chance, Tom. Now that we know this much, we‘ll soon be able to solve the rest. Doctor? Any ideas?" Pivoting to face the EMH, the captain stood expectantly.
The holodoctor appeared to ponder the captain‘s request. After a moment, his mobile face brightened. "Why yes, captain, I believe that I do!" He raised the medical tricorder in his hand so that B‘Elanna and the captain could see the screen.
"Mr. Paris apparently entered our computer system through the VISOR navigational interface. However, immediately upon his collapse, the VISOR and the dermal patch were removed. Thus, his mind, if you will, had no way to return home to the body. There remains only a trace of a link between his two selves, just enough to keep him alive, I suspect."
During the doctor‘s discourse, an excited smile transformed the captain‘s face. "Then all we have to do is initiate a VISOR linkage between Tom here and the holodeck and his body in sickbay."
"Well," cautioned the holodoctor, "I expect that there will be more to it than that, but I should be able to manage this. I‘ll need Lieutenant Torres to help with the mechanical elements of the transfer."
B‘Elanna nodded her eager agreement.
What do I do? Tom asked.
The EMH turned towards his ghostly assistant and, with a sardonic smile decorating his face, replied, "Why, Mr. Paris, I suggest that you wait until we have the equipment ready and then click your heels together and say, "There‘s no place like home! There‘s no place like home!""
Tom‘s reply, whatever it might have been, was lost in the sudden howl of the red alert siren. Instantly, the captain was dashing out of the holodeck and towards the turbolift. "Commander Tuvok, status report!"
B‘Elanna uneasily looked towards the still open doors, then back again to Tom and the doctor. Tom caught her eyes. Go, he urged.
They‘re going to need you in engineering.
She started to deny this, then nodded reluctantly. "You‘re right," she acknowledged sadly. "Keep safe?" She leaned up to accept a chaste kiss, then turned for the exit.
As she entered the hall, she heard the doctor‘s harrumph. B‘Elanna‘s hurried to the turbolift. "Deck fifteen," she ordered, as she also thanked providence that she had a spare uniform in her engineering office. Maybe, if she was lucky, there would even be a pair of boots in her storage locker!
Main Engineering was a scene of controlled chaos when B‘Elanna entered. Assuring herself that all were preparing well for what boded to be another fierce fire-fight, she ducked into her office and swiftly donned her uniform clothes. Punching up information on the main terminal there, her confidence dimmed at the sensor logs‘ readings. Almost twice as many ships, some larger frigates as well, stretched out in formation designed to encircle Voyager. Frowning in concentration, she answered the captain‘s hail.
"Lieutenant, it looks like we‘re going to have to try and make a run for it again. Commander Chakotay tells me, though, that we need primary navigational controls restored."
"That‘s right, captain," B‘Elanna responded. "Those are some of the systems Tom‘s still linked with."
"Damn! I‘d hoped that with the holodeck as an environment, we‘d be able to pull him out of the navigational systems. We‘re going to need the main navigational computers to help us negotiate our way past the Maleelians."
Desperately, B‘Elanna called up schematics of the device. "I‘m sorry, captain, but the navigational computer appears to be the main conduit for Tom‘s computer connection. I can‘t predict what would happen if we tried to pull it out of the linkage. At best, he‘d be safe in the holodeck environment, but at worst we might find ourselves without any functioning flight system and with Tom dead." Her voice choked slightly on the final words. She hoped that the captain would understand that professional judgment, as much as personal attachment, lay behind her cautious assessment.
The officious voice of the holodoctor broke in. "I think you ought to know, captain, that my patient has been listening in on these recent events, thanks to his currently altered state, and has a suggestion to make. One which I heartily disapprove, mind you, but he insists."
Over the com-system, Tom‘s voice ironically sounded more natural.
"Captain, I think that maybe I can get us out of this mess."
B‘Elanna heard the snap in the captain‘s response. "Go ahead, Mr. Paris, I‘m all ears."
"Captain, through my current computer linkage, I can see the entire tactical and navigational records. In some sense, Voyager and I are one. If you‘d release the lockouts on the navigational system, I think I could control the ship from within the computers."
Commander Chakotay questioned, "Tom, you physically collapsed at the end of the last engagement. What makes you think that you‘ll be able to handle this?"
A chuckle coloured Tom‘s response. "Well, I‘m already inside the computers, so I shouldn‘t have a problem with that now. And frankly, now that I‘m exploring this new viewpoint, I think that I‘ll be able to pilot the ship much better than ever before. I only have to think something and it happens, at least in the holographic environment. If I had navigational controls again, I‘ll probably be able to get past that fleet that‘s massing against us and bring the ship free of Maleelian space."
"Sounds good, Tom, but what‘s the catch? Doctor?"
"The catch is, commander, that Mr. Paris‘s lifesigns are slowly degrading the more involved he becomes in the computer environment. I believe the prolonged activity in this linkage might sever the last links between the Lieutenant‘s body and his consciousness."
The captain‘s worried voice broke in. "That sounds too dangerous, Tom."
"Dangerous, captain, but it looks like our only hope! The secondary navigational systems just aren‘t up to this kind of flight patterning, even if the Commander was at the conn. The doc and I have talked about the risks and I‘m willing to take them."
"B‘Elanna," Janeway pleaded, "tell me you‘ve found a way to restore the primary systems without risking Tom this way."
Defeatedly, B‘Elanna stared at the terminal. "I‘m sorry, captain, I just can‘t see a way to do it. Maybe if I had a couple of hours. . . ."
"That fleet is less than ten minutes away, captain!" Tom interrupted. "You‘ve got to let me help!"
"Okay, Mr. Paris," the captain finally conceded, "but I expect the doctor to be monitoring your physical status all the way. If he sees a danger, we‘ll cut you out of the conn and let Commander Chakotay fly us out of here. Understood?"
Tom‘s confident reply failed to hearten B‘Elanna. She set up the protocols to re-establish primary navigational controls, and forwarded the information to the bridge. She activated the systems upon Harry Kim‘s approval and began the interminable wait.
At first, there was no clear sign that Tom‘s suggestion was working. The doctor returned to sickbay, to begin a continual monitoring of Tom‘s lifesigns. Commander Chakotay was the first to notice any change, as the helm controls gradually failed to respond to his directives.
"Tom Paris, that‘d better be you!" the captain warned as she eyed the flotilla her ship was steadily approaching.
Instead of a verbal response, Tom signalled his control by running a text message across the conn‘s display that Chakotay read off. "Tom Paris, ready and reporting for duty," the first officer relayed.
"Good," Janeway said, grasping the arms of her command chair. "Tom, I want you to try and effect evasive maneuvers. Maybe we can outflank this fleet." The starship‘s engines purred as Voyager veered off course by several degrees. From the security station, Tuvok shook his head. "Negative, captain. The Maleelians have enough ships to keep us boxed within this region. They are still ignoring all our hails and have begun to power up their weapons."
"All right, then, we‘ll have to make a run for it. Tom, try to thread through that group of small fighters. Let‘s see if we can avoid the larger ships and punch our way through a weak part of the Maleelian net."
Obediently, Voyager surged forward. The alien ships grew larger in the viewscreen as distance closed. From her relay in Engineering, B‘Elanna‘s eyes switched warily between engine readouts and the display. Small the fighters might be, but each was armed with two energy weapons and she judged that the lower projections might hold some sort of plasma weapon or other torpedo.
The smooth, static appearance of the flotilla changed as Voyager closed with the enemy. The silent ships began to dart and move, seeking to hamper the larger starship‘s escape at higher warpspeeds. A piercing scream sounded through engineering as the port nacelle took a hit. B‘Elanna dashed over to a larger console, punched some keys and shouted, "the main field compensator took a hit on that side. Switch to auxiliary!"
At the nacelle panel, Ensign Vorik obediently tapped in the commands. A frown creased his high brow. "It‘s not responding, Lieutenant," he reported.
"Damn," B‘Elanna growled in frustration. "We‘re going to be sitting ducks if we don‘t get that fixed soon." With a longing glance back at the main console, still monitoring the main screens, B‘Elanna grabbed some tools and headed for the access panel. "Ensign, you‘re with me," she ordered. Vorik obediently followed.
Inside the tube, the engineers made the arduous climb to the halfway point of the nacelle‘s support. A scorchmark signalled the damage. B‘Elanna directed Vorik to disconnect the main connectors while she brought the secondary system online. Once manually prodded, the device fired up and a pulsing hum reassured B‘Elanna. A sudden lurch made her cling to the ladder. "Back to Engineering," she directed Vorik, who clasped the ladder rungs below her with an entirely un-Vulcan desperation. He quickly complied and within minutes they were back in the engine room.
B‘Elanna hadn‘t closed the access panel behind her before she felt the ship flow smoothly and strongly into high warp. Unconsciously, she relaxed. Tom had succeeded. Voyager had run the gauntlet and was safely away from the Maleelian threat.
"Janeway to Torres. Report"
B‘Elanna answered the captain‘s call. "Torres here. Damage reports are minimal." As she spoke, she strode to a nearby terminal and scrolled through the data. "The worst damage was to the port nacelle, but that‘s been repaired. We also sustained minor damage to the main deflector. We should have that repaired in half an hour."
"Good work, Lieutenant!" The captain‘s warmly approving voice subtly changed tone. "Then I want you to go to holodeck. Commander Chakotay and Seven are already on the way. Top priority is to get Tom back on his feet and my navigational systems back to normal."
"Aye, captain," B‘Elanna fervently agreed. Her wide grin as she exited engineering was remarked by all. That grin faded as she entered the holodeck. Pale wisps of energy limply shifted in the room. Chakotay frowned grimly as his tricorder swept the room. Seven stood in the entrance arch, also taking readings. "What‘s the matter?" B‘Elanna asked.
Chakotay turned abruptly. "Energy readings are almost nil and we‘ve not been able to reestablish audio contact with Tom. The captain said he was quite visible when she was here earlier, but I‘m not picking up anything."
Seven nodded emphatically. "Perhaps the recent efforts have dispersed his pattern more widely in the computer network. I‘m reading no significant flow of energies through the channel you previously opened."
B‘Elanna‘s heart sank at their words. She stepped forward to examine the readings on Chakotay‘s instrument. As B‘Elanna read the data, Seven again spoke. "We should explore all possibilities. He might already have managed to restore his mind to his corporeal self. Perhaps we should contact the doctor?"
"Good idea," the first officer concurred. He hailed the EMH.
"I‘m sorry, commander," the holographic physician apologized, "but I‘ve detected no improvement in Mr. Paris‘s condition."
Thanking the doctor, Voyager‘s first officer suggested that they retire to the Astrometrics lab. "That‘s where we still have most of the equipment and monitors used for the prototypes and the final interface. Seven, I‘d like you and Lieutenant Torres to review all the energy flows that might result from those systems. Maybe there‘s something we haven‘t caught yet."
B‘Elanna frowned minutely, unhappy that Chakotay planned to leave her alone with the former Borg, but recognizing that the first officer probably had other calls on his time. "All right, commander," she acknowledged. Seven merely inclined her head in a stately nod. The two women exited the holodeck for Seven‘s scientific domain.
The taller woman preceded B‘Elanna into the main room. "All materials and records from the interface upgrade are stored in this workstation," Seven indicated. "I will begin by examining the data. As an engineer, you will obviously have a greater interest in the hardware." A sweep of her hand pointed out the shelf holding several a VISOR and a variety of smaller implements.
Steeling herself not to snap abruptly at the other woman‘s assumption of command, B‘Elanna picked up one of the smaller devices. She recognized it as a dermal patch. The spidery black mechanism integrated with the silvery Starfleet material sent a shiver through her. "What‘s this?" she demanded of Seven.
The blonde leaned over B‘Elanna‘s shoulder to examine the patch. "That is an adaptation of a Borg sensor relay, built into a Starfleet medical dermal patch. It was an unsuccessful prototype and never used."
B‘Elanna snorted angrily, "well, which ones were used?" Seven picked up several and laid them out on the dark surface of the table. "These three were all used by Lieutenant Paris. This last one," she delicately fingered the device at the far right, "is an identical copy of the one he wore last."
The dark-haired engineer tuned out the rest of the ex-Borg‘s words as she picked it up. Carefully rotating it in her grasp, she looked for clues, but found none in the sleek lines of the patch. Turning to the other woman, B‘Elanna asked, "What‘s different about this patch compared to the others, here?"
"As I already said, Lieutenant, this patch was the final version approved by Commander Chakotay and the doctor. Its major difference is the variable data flow rate they introduced to counteract the headaches Lieutenant Paris had been experiencing." Seven‘s brisk response indicated a great deal of indignation in having to repeat herself.
B‘Elanna ignored the other woman‘s irritation. A thought was forming. "If the flow rate is variable, that means it could increase as well as decrease, doesn‘t it?"
"Of course it does, Lieutenant. Otherwise, when more information needed to be transferred, the interface would have been unable to cope with the change in situation!"
Excitedly, B‘Elanna broke in, running over Seven‘s last words. "But is there a regulator, a cap on the data flow?" Seven‘s eyes widened as she began to follow the smaller woman‘s train of thought.
"No. This patch is based upon Borg models and that would have been counterproductive in the Collective. All data was to be fully integrated into the collective, and our systems were maximized for complete transfer of data in emergencies, such as death or injury."
B‘Elanna leaned against the counter, her mind racing. "What do you mean, a complete transfer?"
"In the event of death, all the memories and skills of a drone could be passed into the Collective through such devices integrated into our bodies."
"Then this patch might operate exactly as a Borg system. If there was no cap upon the data flow, Tom‘s consciousness, his memories and skills, was pulled through the interface into Voyager‘s computer system, just like a Borg‘s into the Collective. Perhaps if we recreate the parameters from Tom‘s accident, but with a reverse data flow, Tom might be able to re-link with his body."
"An interesting hypothesis," Seven responded. "But it is not yet certain. We have many more possibilities to eliminate before we can be sure of the solution." She made as if to bend back over the array of materials and information.
B‘Elanna wrenched away. "Well, I‘m going to check it out!" She exited the lab, walking with fierce strides to the turbolift.
In sickbay, the doctor looked up gravely from Tom‘s biobed. "If you‘ve come to ask about Mr. Paris, lieutenant, I‘m afraid I don‘t have much good news."
"Why? What‘s wrong with Tom?" B‘Elanna asked, coming to stand beside her lover‘s still form. She noticed that his skin had taken on an unhealthy, pallid tone. When she picked up his hand with one of her own, she was shocked at the chill feel of his flesh.
"Mr. Paris seems to be sinking deeper into his coma. His body is now being kept alive only by my medical equipment. If the systems here were shut down, he would not breathe for himself. I‘m afraid if you don‘t manage to realign his consciousness and his body, Mr. Paris will soon die." His eyebrows knit together in a puzzled frown, the doctor continued to adjust monitors and devices, but his frustrated words told B‘Elanna that the holographic physician sincerely doubted Tom‘s chances for survival.
She looked down at the small device in her hand. "Doctor, is Tom wearing the same dermal patch now as he wore before his collapse?"
The EMH tilted his head, regarding B‘Elanna with a curious frown. "I don‘t believe so, lieutenant. Commander Chakotay presumably removed the patch before initiated site-to-site transport. Mr. Paris was not wearing the patch when he came into my sickbay."
"After our discussion in the holodeck, you came back here to sickbay to put a new dermal patch and VISOR on his unconscious body, didn‘t you?"
"Yes, I did," the doctor confirmed, snorting. "For all the good it did. There was a slight rise in the lieutenant‘s brain activity, but at no time did he achieve full consciousness."
B‘Elanna grasped at a slim hope, looking down at the equipment in her hand. "Maybe you put on one of the older patches? One of the ones with the cap on the data flow?"
"What difference would that make? Mr. Paris is hardly in the condition to complain of head. . . . I see," the holograph eagerly turned to his prone patient, activating his medical scanner, "you‘re right, Lieutenant Torres, this is one of the earlier versions of the patch."
She proffered hers and the doctor slipped it on Tom‘s neck, beside the first, then deactivated the older device. B‘Elanna ordered the ship‘s computers to reopen channels between the VISOR and the main navigational computers. Quietly they waited. "I‘m detected a slight change in brain activity, lieutenant," the doctor informed B‘Elanna. His elated eyes caught hers. "I think we‘ve done it!"
"That‘s it?" B‘Elanna asked incredulously. Her hands clutched the edge of the bed, holding her exhausted body up by main force.
"Hardly," the doctor corrected, yet his pleasure shone through his irascible fa‡ade. "Mr. Paris appears to be on the road to recovery. But until he actually regains consciousness, we won‘t be sure. And I‘m afraid that I can‘t predict when he‘ll awaken. It could be minutes, hours or even days."
B‘Elanna reached again for Tom‘s limp hand. Cradling it between her two warm palms, she thought she detected more warmth in his limbs. Her eyes never leaving Tom‘s still features, B‘Elanna perched unsteadily on the biobed. "I‘ll wait," she informed the doctor.
"Wonderful," the EMH sniped sarcastically, as he cleaned up his scanners and instruments that littered the nearby cart. "While you clutter up my sickbay, I‘ll go inform the doctor that once again, I‘ve brought a patient back from the brink of death." Luckily for the holographic doctor, B‘Elanna never registered a single word he said.
After he‘d swept off, pushing the cart before him, B‘Elanna leant closer to her lover. "Tom," she whispered, "I‘m here."
There was no response, not that she expected it so soon. But the sight of the sheet over his chest rising and falling in a steadily strengthening rhythm heartened her.
The hours dragged on and B‘Elanna was finally persuaded to leave sickbay for enough time to shower, change and review the engineering reports. She noted that Voyager had exited Maleelian space three hours ago, with nothing more than a sense of relief. Within an hour, she was back at Tom‘s bedside, wolfing down, untasted, the special meal that Neelix had brought himself. The bustling Talaxian tried to engage her in conversation, but B‘Elanna‘s eyes rarely lifted from her inspection of Tom‘s figure. Colour had returned to his face, a rosy flush tinting his cheekbones. The doctor wheeled away more apparatus, informing her happily that Tom was now breathing on his own.
She was nodding, almost on the verge of sleep, when a slight squeeze startled her eyes wide. She looked down at the hand held in her own. Tom‘s fingers flexed slowly, deliberately around her smaller fingers. Fearfully, hopefully, B‘Elanna‘s gaze turned to Tom‘s face. His eyes, half-open, rested on her. A weary smile greeted her. "Hey, beautiful, what‘s a babe like you doing in a place like this?" The voice was gravelly with disuse and weak, but it was unmistakably Paris.
She couldn‘t help the answering grin that transformed her face. "Tom Paris, you utter pig!" B‘Elanna growled lovingly, leaning over to steal a brief kiss. Tom‘s eyes closed for a moment as her lips met his own, then opened to focus on his lover‘s face.
"Tell me that this isn‘t just another dream or fantasy," Tom pled. B‘Elanna laughed and squeezed his hand in reassurance.
"Not a dream, not a holodeck. You‘re back in the land of the living, Tom," she averred.
Alerted by his monitors to Tom‘s awakening, the holodoctor appeared beside the couple. "You most certainly are, Mr. Paris. Thanks as much to Lieutenant Torres‘s fine command of engineering as my own medical expertise." As he spoke, he ran a scanner over Tom‘s form. Nodding at the readings, the EMH flipped the instrument closed and lay it on a nearby shelf. "But you will not make a rapid recovery if you don‘t allow me to run a full medical scan! As for you, Lieutenant Torres, I expect you to be back in your quarters and asleep before I complete my report to Captain Janeway."
B‘Elanna looked ready to argue the point but looking down at Tom‘s quiet figure, she relented. For all his quick jokes, he was still a man just back from the edge of oblivion. She lifted his fingers to her mouth for a quick kiss, then slid off the biobed. "He‘s all yours, doctor," she said as she backed away from the alcove.
"You have no idea what that means to me," the doctor murmured sarcastically as he wheeled a larger scanning unit over to Tom‘s bedside. As B‘Elanna exited through the sickbay doors, she heard him addressing his patient. "Now lay back quietly, Mr. Paris, this won‘t hurt a bit. . . ."
B‘Elanna was tired enough that, when she reached her quarters, she almost fell asleep on the sofa. But she determinedly made her way into the sleeping alcove. As she sat on the side of the bed, shedding her uniform, B‘Elanna programmed her computer to alert her to any major changes in Tom‘s condition or to awaken her if any messages were logged on her personal account. From the slow response of her body to her mind, B‘Elanna estimated that she‘d sleep for a week, if she could, but she didn‘t want to miss a moment of Tom‘s recovery.
Two days later, B‘Elanna was almost kicking herself over that sentiment. Tom was proving himself to be a most difficult patient. The doctor released him from sickbay eight hours after he first regained consciousness, vowing that the pilot had to be the most ungrateful recipient of his medical talents. Tom protested that, by all he understood, he‘d essentially been asleep in sickbay for a week. Why did he have to stay there and sleep anymore?
With a gentle sigh and an iron glare, Captain Janeway released her prot‚g‚ from the doctor‘s gentle ministrations with stern orders he was to remain off duty and resting until certified fit for duty.
Tom nodded eager agreement to her proposal, only raising a finger at the end of her speech. "Agreed, captain, on one condition."
Kathryn Janeway arched one perfect eyebrow in inquiry. Standing beside her, B‘Elanna envied the older woman‘s ability to convey so much with one economical gesture. Tolerance, control, and affection all shone through the captain‘s patient response to Tom‘s prodding and teasing.
Leaning back on his forearms, the loose vee of his green pajama shirt gaping slightly at the sternum, Tom regarded his commanding officer as a plaintiff would a judge. "Please tell me that I‘ll never have to put on that VISOR again!"
She laughed despite herself. "Sure, Tom. Commander Chakotay was the first to consign that experiment to the dustbin. Seven was a bit more disturbed at our dismissal of the innovation, although she acknowledged that your injury was -how did she put it?- ‚an unfortunate result, not to be duplicated.‘" The captain patted Tom‘s shoulder reassuringly. "After what you went through, Mr. Paris, what the whole ship went through, I‘d never consider it again."
Tom heaved a sigh of relief. As the captain nodded her dismissal, stepping off to consult with the doctor, he sat up properly on the edge of the biobed. B‘Elanna moved forward to help him down. "Thanks, but no thanks," he responded, gingerly settling his feet on the floor. "After all that, it feels good to be standing on my own, although I might take up your offer if it includes getting me back to my quarters."
"Sure, Tom," B‘Elanna answered, settling her arm lightly against the back of his waist. Slowly, the pair exited sickbay, turning left to head for the turbolifts.
"So, B‘Elanna, want to meet me on holodeck two, tonight?"
"What?" Shocked, the half-Klingon stopped dead in her tracks,
swivelling slightly to meet Tom‘s inviting gaze.
"You know, the holodeck, the place where people go to run programs and. . . ." Tom explained with exaggerated patience.
"I know what you mean," B‘Elanna retorted with a bit of heat. "The doctor just released you from sickbay thirty seconds ago and you‘re planning another holodate?"
Tom bestowed a leering look upon his beloved, using her supporting arm around his waist to work his way into her embrace. "Well, I don‘t know if it can live up to our last experience there," he chuckled, "but have you ever been in the back seat of a ‚69 Camaro?"
B‘Elanna‘s reply was lost in a heated kiss.