ANGEL
By Morticia

58/60

Disclaimers: Part 1
 

HARRY

From the moment the great Jean-Luc Picard arrived on the HPTS, everything had had the weird quality of a dream. One minute I had been a desperate Maquis terrorist, stealing an Admiralís yacht, setting off on a hopeless quest to save my best friend from the wrath of Starfleet herself. The next minute I had become good old Ensign Kim once more.

It boggled my mind.

Captain Picard had immediately logged pre-dated orders authorising my Ďcrewí to commandeer the yacht. He had filed charges of mutiny against the HPTS crew who had resisted our Ďlegitimateí take-over and had transported them all directly from the Admiralís quarters into the brig of DS9. He had advised us all to change back into our Starfleet uniforms, and then he had sent a priority communiqué to Starfleet to advise them of the truth behind Captain Janewayís actions.

We had warped towards Dorvan, racing against time, and he had taken the opportunity of our journey to tell us EVERYTHING. I had suspended disbelief and listened. Actually, I think I was in too much of a state of shock at that point to question anything he said.

He was Tomís father.  I couldnít believe it, and yet I could. I clearly remembered a feeling of recognition when he had smiled at me in the DS9 Brig and suddenly the familiarity of his smile made sense. Besides, Tomís mother stood at Picardís side, her own expression such a mingling of embarrassment and pride at his announcement that I couldnít doubt the truth.

To be honest, for a moment, the news actually hurt me. I felt stupid. Here I had been charging off to save Tom like some holovid hero without a chance in hell of actually doing anything useful and all the time Jean-Luc Picard himself was in Tomís camp. Why had I been so arrogant as to think I was the only person that Tom could depend on?

Me, Harry Kim, who hadnít even been able to protect him on Voyager.

Then I threw away my feelings of self-pity and jealousy. So, okay, Picard was a tough kick-ass Captain who had skills and resources to help Tom that I couldnít even dream of matching. Even so, where the hell had he been for Tom in the last 30 years? I respected Picard and I would follow his orders BUT I was damned if I was going to blindly trust him.

Besides, even if Picard pulled off the impossible, Tom was going to need me. His whole life and identity would be shattered by Picardís announcement.

So okay, who wouldnít prefer to be the son of Jean-Luc Picard than Admiral Asshole Paris? Then again, discovering that Picard had chosen to ignore that fact for his whole life would surely reawaken Tomís own feelings of worthlessness and abandonment.

Tom might need Picardís power and connections but, most of all, he needed a friend.

So we had crewed the yacht to Dorvan and had obediently obeyed Captain Picardís orders, even as we grew more and more aware of Starfleetís failure to reply to our priority communiqué. Then I had become increasingly uneasy at the progression of the Captainís communication with the Heran Senior.

How dare he?

What made him think he could waltz into Tomís life like this and play god?  It was too damned late for him to do this Ďcaring fatherí routine. It was all very well, looking at the situation logically. Yes, anyone who didnít know Tom could imagine that Picardís deal with Plano was reasonable.

Captain Picard was known for his diplomacy. He had compromise honed to an art form. But he didnít know Tom. That was the crux of the matter. He may have found some belated sense of responsibility to his son, but he had absolutely no idea of what made Tom tick.

Otherwise, he would know that giving Chakotay to the Herans would be signing Tomís death warrant.

So I said nothing. I simply began to plan a new little mutiny. Hopefully it would never be necessary but, just in case, should all else fail then holovid Harry was going to don that Maquis leather once more.

~~~

JEAN Ė LUC

I could feel the waves of silent condemnation from my companions as I closed my connection to the "Milton." I had just made a pact with the devil in their eyes. Except Plano was no devil and his cooperation was crucial if I was going to extricate Tom from this unholy mess he had landed himself in.

I had no intention of Ďthrowing Chakotay to the wolves.í The idea of him being forcibly separated from Tom was anathema to me. Yet the possibility remained that it would be his only chance of survival. I had no doubt that Owen did not intend for him to live long enough for a court-martial to clear his name.

The Herans might yet be the only people who could protect him from Owenís long and wrathful arm. Surely Tom would understand and accept my bargain with Angelís father. Plano and I were in the same position here, both trying to gain for their only son his true desire in the knowledge that the gift might destroy him.

Of course, Plano held all the cards. Not only could he offer Chakotay a sanctuary I could not but he also had the love and trust of his son. Tom was hardly going to welcome my arrival in his life with open arms, regardless of whether my attempts to clear Chakotayís name were successful.

Which was another point that worried me greatly. The reply to my message to Starfleet should have arrived hours ago. The evidence of Janewayís deception, supported by Tuvokís suicide, was sitting on Admiral Necheyevís  desk. So where was my reply? Why hadnít the Ďfleet ships been called off their pursuit?

Harryís slightly panicked voice interrupted my reverie.

"The Enterprise has changed orbit, Captain. She has us in sensor range and is approaching on an intercept course."

Perfect. All I needed was ANOTHER father to deal with now.

"All stop, Harry. Open a channel." There was no point in avoiding the inevitable confrontation.

"Incoming transmission, Sir."

"On-screen," I snapped, turning to face my Nemesis.

Will Rikerís smiling face beamed back to me from the Enterprise Bridge.

"Good to see you, Captain. May I come aboard?"

I smiled and nodded, but my voice was all business when I spoke.

"Whereís the Admiral?"

"He took a shuttle and an away team and departed for the surface two hours ago. We waited until we were sure he had landed safely and was out of communications range and then we came looking for you."

"How did you know I was here?"

"Where else would you be?" Will laughed.

A few seconds later he materialised on the small bridge. He gave Deanna a friendly wink and then turned his whole attention to me.

"Why did he use a shuttle?" I asked and Will filled me in with the details of the electrical storm over Dorvan Central.

"He was forced to land over 12 kilometres from the settlement so we have probably still got about an hour to get there first," he finished.

"Why didnít he take you with him?"

"He apparently decided that my loyalty to him was questionable," Will replied with a feral grin.

"Is there no way to adjust the transporters to compensate for the disturbance?"

"No, Captain," Geordie piped up from the Enterprise. "Data and I have tried every known configuration but there is no safe way to beam through the storm."

"We have to get there before him," I stated and turned back to Harry.

"Open me a channel to the "Milton.""

~~~

CHAKOTAY

Everything took on the strange quality of a dream, or more strictly a nightmare.  The man I loved enough to defy the whole galaxy for, was preparing to face a physical and mental challenge that would inevitably kill him.  He was preparing to die in agony before my eyes and I would not allow it.  It was not a lack of faith in Tom that fed my panic.  Time and again, he had proven himself to be so much more than I or anyone believed or expected.

I admit that no one had been more surprised than I when he had dragged his emaciated body across Quarkís and felled Angel with a punch.  Yet, he had.  And, in so doing, he had proven that the spirit of Tom Paris was greater any physical weakness of his own body.

But this was the Wkangana, a ritual designed to test the purity of a Shaman.  Traditionally the combatants would spend weeks or months preparing themselves for the ordeal, fasting, purifying themselves, mediating, and finding their inner power.  No one could simply walk in and say, "Iím here, do it to me!"

We were desperate.  These were desperate times.   But these were MY people, MY beliefs and if anyone were going to suffer to satisfy my peopleís capricious and bloodthirsty Spirits, it would be ME.

I was physically in great shape.  I had spent years learning the meditative techniques necessary to survive the ceremony.  Unlike Tom, I actually truly understood what the Wkangana was.  It was inconceivable that the damned romantic fool really knew what he had agreed to.  Most of all, it had been MY choice to bring us here to this place of judgement and it had been my decision to choose Tom over Angel that had led us to this point.

"I accept the challenge of Wkangana myself," I announced loudly to the Elders.

"You cannot," Wabashaw replied.  "The Spirits have made their wishes known to us.  The son of our greatest enemy will face their judgement."  His face had lost its paternal expression.  His eyes had glazed with the unmistakable gleam of fanaticism.

I had to get out of there.  I had to grab Tom and the others and get us the hell off this planet.  Suddenly my people were alien to me, their Spirits were vicious and petty; their cruel traditions were more dangerous than any weapon the Federationís arsenal threatened.

In that moment, I realised that I no longer believed.

I charged between Wabashaw and Nayib, heading for the door at a run, my voice bellowing in a war cry that made most of the Elders freeze.  I pistoned my body through the shocked crowd, my outstretched fists bowling them out of my way with the force of my rage.

Yet, each Dorvanian I felled became a barrier to my goal.  My impetus was impeded each time my shoulder struck and heaved another of my people.  The force of each impact slowed my charge.  There were simply too many of them.  I was slowly surrounded and finally the sheer weight of their numbers bore me to the ground where I was held until my limbs were bound with leather thongs.

I howled my anguish and despair.  I cursed and screamed.  I denied their right to judge us.  I begged and pleaded to be allowed to simply take Tom and leave.  I offered to accept Angelís claim on me if only Tom were safely returned to his people.

No matter my curse, promise, or plea, my words fell on deaf ears.  Nayib was openly crying and pleading on my behalf, his former air of righteousness shattered by my distress.  Yet, still, Wabashaw was unmoved.

His voice was chillingly gentle as he told the Elders to carry me to the sweat lodge to witness the Wkangana.

~~~

THE DOCTOR

A new electrical current sparked through my mobile-emitter and I felt my holographic matrix flickering as my program desperately tried to compensate for the interference.

"Whatís happening to you?" Neelix squeaked in panic.

"The storm is playing havoc with my holo-matrix," I replied, my voice sharp with annoyance. Chakotay had provided me with the specs of this planet but they had obviously been woefully inadequate. The climate of Dorvan was supposed to be temperate. There had been no mention of storms that rose from nowhere with enough electromagnetic disturbance to make even the solid stone walls of our room shimmer.

No wonder Dorvan had no technology to speak of, nothing mechanical could survive this kind of electrical assault.

According to my internal sensors, the atmospheric disturbance over Dorvan Central was so great that the charged protons and neutrons were heating so rapidly that the quarks that held matter together were dematerialising.

Yet this was impossible. The heat required to annihilate material even the size of a human being would require 1000 billion degrees Ė or the energy equivalent of a hundred 1-megaton hydrogen bombs.

~~~

SENIOR PLANO

"Let me understand you correctly, Picard. You are asking me to provide you with one of MY shuttles so that you can get to the surface and help your son steal Chakotay from my son?" I asked incredulously.

"I have checked the shield modulations of your vessels. Your superior technology will enable me to penetrate the edge of the electrical disturbance and land within a kilometre of Dorvan Central. Unless I arrive before the Enterpriseís away team our sons will be merely haggling over Chakotayís body."

I pondered his words for a long time. If this Admiral was as dangerous as Picard suggested then who knew what violence might erupt on the surface. I couldnít take the risk of Angel being harmed in the crossfire.

"Very well, Picard, you may take one of our shuttles," I said eventually.

"Thank you, Senior," he said with such gratitude that I couldnít resist adding, "Therefore if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink: for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head."

But he merely smiled at my reference, seeing no true malice in my words for indeed there was none.

"However, there is a condition, Picard. I am entrusting the safety of my son to you. Whatever happens, you must give me your solemn oath that you will protect Angel above all else."

"I will do all in my power to protect your son, but in all honesty, I have to tell you that for me Tomís safety will come first," Picard replied.

I appreciated his honesty but still I stiffened with fresh indecision.

"I will protect your son, Senior, with my own life," came the authoritative voice of the tall man at his side. I searched my memory to remember his name. Riker, that was it. He had been on the Enterprise with Picard all those years ago. He was a Primal but his ancestors had been genetically enhanced. His youth, strength and superior genes would serve Angel well.

"I accept your promise, Will Riker," I replied solemnly and watched him blink in surprise that I had remembered him.

"May I ask a question, Senior?" he asked with appealing humility.

"Certainly," I replied expansively.

"WHY are you helping us, really?"

I decided that his honest question deserved an honest reply.

"George Bernard Shaw wrote ĎThere are two tragedies in life. One is not to get your heartís desire. The other is to get it.  I would prefer my son to suffer the disappointment of the former than the heartache of the latter. Hera is no place for one such as Chakotay."

 ~~~

 THE DOCTOR

The rumbling thunder that provided a steady bass rhythm to the wailing wind for the last few hours has finally registered in my head as a rolling drum beat.

"I want to know whatís going on, and I want to know NOW!"

Our Dorvanian host/jailor/whatever gave a nervous gulp at my angry words. The way my holo-emitter was violently flickering on and off had already made his bronze face pale and my angry words made his eyes dart in fear.

Intellectually he understood that I was a hologram, but between his inexperience with technology and the surging fury of the storm, his heart had seemingly decided that I was some form of demon.

"The Spirits are angry," he finally whispered and I rolled my eyes in exasperation. My program may have been unable to compute the scientific reason for the storm, but superstitious hocus-pocus was hardly a logical response. I sighed at the ceaseless capacity of humans to be stupid. It was at times like this that I was genuinely amazed that anyone had managed to create ME at all.

"And when Ďthe spirits are angry,í what usually happens?" I asked and was frustrated by his nervous shrug of ignorance.

It was imperative that I learnt the extent of damage that this storm would create. I was becoming seriously tempted to surrender myself to the Starfleet vessels in orbit. I had done what I had set out to do, and helped Tom and Chakotay escape. Was there really any point in remaining here and seeing my matrix collapse? Whatever future Starfleet offered me was surely better than annihilation.

Yet, Seven had once told me, "survival was not enough." She had faced the choice of returning three of her old Borg companions to a lifetime in the collective or to give them a few short weeks of life as individuals. I had argued that as a Doctor I had to protect life, that a full life as a drone was preferable to death as an individual.

I was wrong, she was right. I had finally conceded that I would myself rather die as an individual than return to my former non-sentient existence as a simple EMH. So perhaps, I would now Ďdieí on Dorvan and that decided, I realised it was time to stop worrying about the fact and concentrate instead on my flesh and blood companions.

"Where are Chakotay and Tom?"

"In the sweat lodge. The ceremony of Wkangana has begun. Tom and Angel have offered themselves in sacrifice to appease the Spirits."

~~~

JACQUELINE

"Iím going with you," I said firmly to the three men.

Jean-Luc, Will and Harry all gave me looks of complete disbelief and I could see the denial in their eyes.

"I understand you wanting to come, Jackie, but I canít allow it. The Heran shield modulations should hold against the storm but thereís no guarantee. I canít risk your life," Jean-Luc replied.

"I didnít ask for your permission, Jean-Luc. I AM coming with you."

"As am I," came the calm authoritative voice of TíPel.

Jean-Luc looked helplessly between us, seeing hopefully that there was no way we would be denied.

"Please, Jackie. Your presence will only hold us back and distract us."

"You think so?" I answered haughtily, "then in that case perhaps YOU need to pay more attention to your mission. My son, OUR son, is down there, Jean-Luc, and I AM going whether you wish me to or not."

"Make that FIVE to beam to the Milton shuttle bay," Jean-Luc told Sue in defeat.

~~~

THE DOCTOR

"Sacrifice?" Neelix screamed at the Dorvanian "They are being sacrificed? Youíre KILLING them?"

"It is the Wkangana. The spirits will choose which of them is pure of heart. The victor will survive. The loser will be taken to the other side and the Spirits will be appeased."

"Well thatís all right then. That slimy Angel is going to pay the price for his treachery at last," Neelix replied with a satisfied grin.

I looked at him in horror and decided that ALL organic life forms were stupid.

"What exactly IS the Wkangana? How is the victor chosen?" I demanded as panic made my already battered sub-routines flurry in renewed agitation.

~~~

ADMIRAL OWEN PARIS

"Where the HELL are we?" I screamed over the howling wind.

"The tricorder wonít work, Sir."

"I KNOW that, youíve been telling me that for the last two hours. We are, however, on a road and you SAID it was leading to the settlement."

I was exhausted. My uniform was in tatters from the violent whipping of sand and grit from the vicious wind. Myriads of cuts on my bare face had finally dulled from sharp stinging to a frightening numbness and the top of my head was bleeding. We were being forced to walk so bent over to protect our eyes from the sand storm that my sparse hair had given up on the effort to protect my scalp.

I had ignored the away teamís pleas to turn back. I was Admiral Owen Paris. No fucking storm was going to defeat me.

"It is, but we are making such slow progress against the wind that I have no idea how far weíve come, Sir. We could still be miles away or it could be 100 meters ahead."

Since the dust clouds were so thick, I had to concede that there could be a building 5 meters in front of my nose and I wouldnít see it until I walked into it.

Yet I knew, somewhere deep in my bones, that time was running out.

"Proceed," I ordered firmly and struggled back into the storm.

~~~

THE DOCTOR

"Thatís barbaric," I gasped in disgust. "I canít believe a so-called enlightened society would allow such disgusting cruelty."

"It is the way of the tribe. The Spirits have ordained the ritual," the Dorvanian replied with the serenity of that particularly sickening human trait - blind religious conviction.

I felt my program shudder under the impossible burden of processing the information I had received.

"Donít you people have any conscience? Tom Paris is an ill man. His body has suffered traumas I canít even begin to describe to you. He is dangerously underweight. He can barely walk. He is psychologically impaired by post-traumatic stress disorder. How in the name of sanity can you do this to him?"

The Dorvanian blinked in confusion.

"We have not done anything to him. He volunteered to perform the ritual. He can stop it at any time before the summoning of the spirits. He only has to ask and he will be released. We are not making him suffer. Both he and Angel have agreed to the ritual."

"And Chakotay agreed to this madness?" I shouted in fury. The Dorvan blushed a little at my question.

"No," he confessed reluctantly. "He attempted to stop it."

"And?" I demanded.

"The elders ordered him bound. He will be released after the ceremony is complete to join whichever mate the Spirits choose."

"Just a minute," Neelix interrupted. "You said ĎHe can stop it at any time before the summoning of the spirits.í What did you mean by that?"

"Until the participants have proven their ability to withstand the Wkangana, the elders will not summon the Spirits for their judgement. Either combatant can simply admit defeat until that time. The longer the challengers suffer the Wkangana, the more unbearable their physical torment becomes. There will come a point at which their spirits will be forced to leave their bodies and face each other in combat in the spirit realm."

"You mean they both DIE?" Neelix squealed.

"Not both of them. The victorious spirit will be able to re-enter his body again, if he is brave enough to return to the pain. The loser is unlikely to find the courage to do so and will remain on the other side. Besides, the spirits will not be satisfied unless a sacrifice is made."

"So both COULD survive," I asked, completely disinterested in whether the Ďspiritsí were satisfied or not.

"Our legends tell of such a happening, when both combatants returned to the mortal plain. But the Spirits were angry and cast fire and flood on the people until the blood debt was paid."

"I canít believe this. You say it is a test of spiritual purity? Thatís absurd. The ceremony you describe will inevitably be won by whoever is physically stronger. Angel is twice the size of Tom. He is in complete physical health. I can barely imagine him or anyone facing the Wkangana, but Tom is an invalid. He wonít last 10 minutes of your torture!" I shouted at the Dorvanian.

"Really?" The Dorvanian asked with a gentle smile. "The Wkangana began three hours ago. Do you hear the beating of the drums?"

I nodded.

"They tell us that the ceremony continues."

Three hours? Three HOURS? I didnít even stop to contemplate my action. Probably just as well. I reacted before my ethical subroutines had a chance to kick in and stop me.

The Dorvanian hit the floor with a resounding thud, his jaw already swelling from my holographically enhanced punch.

Neelix was gaping at me in amazement.

"Come on," I urged him. "You heard what he said. Chakotay is tied up. He canít help Tom. Itís up to us."

We sped for the door. I had a terrible feeling we were too late. Whatever was left of Tom Paris after three hours was probably past even my medical abilities to heal.

I grabbed the doorhandle and pushed it. For a moment I thought it was locked and then I realised that it was the weight of the storm winds that trapped us. I drew heavily on the power cells that feed my matrix and the additional strength enabled me to force the door wide.

The wind caught and crashed it open with splintering force.

"Come ON," I yelled at Neelix and burst out into the swirling dust cloud. It took a moment for my visual receptors to adapt sufficiently to pierce the red haze and then I spotted the outlines of the building from where the drumbeat was rolling.

I was impervious to any weapons the Dorvanians might have. My superior holographic strength would easily allow me to overcome any resistance to my rescue effort. I remembered the words of a dearly missed friend.

"Resistance is futile!" I yelled towards the building and charged.

~~~

NEELIX

I couldnít believe the Doctor had hit the Dorvanian, although after his description of this Wkangana idiocy I nearly jumped up and cheered.

I have to admit, however, that the thought of following him into the vicious storm was enough to make me pause at the door.

I swear, it wasnít just wind, it was a tornado out there. I could imagine myself being swept off my feet and flown away by the swirling air currents, never to be seen again.

I had never before in my life so regretted my choice to join Voyager, and given my reception at DS9 that was definitely saying something.

But Tom was suffering, dying perhaps, and Tom was my friend.

I charged out after the Doctor. Actually, I staggered after the Doctor, tripping and stumbling as I tried to keep the stinging sand out of my eyes.

I heard his battle cry of, "resistance is futile," and then he exploded.

Thereís no other way to describe it.

His holographic image flickered and blazed as the electrical currents surged through his matrix. Then his image expanded, blazed with the heat of a warp core, and then simply disappeared.

His mobile emitter hit the floor and then, even as I hurled myself after it, the tiny machine was caught in an eddying current and swept away.

The Doctor had gone.

~~~

JEAN-LUC

The tiny craft was battered by the storm. We were hurled like flotsam and jetsam in the atmosphere of Dorvan. I had taken a calculated risk, deciding that a vertical 40% trajectory would be shorter and easier to traverse than bypassing the storm and then trying to fly horizontally through it in such a mountainous region.

Despite the pounding the shuttle took, still the absence of solid rock in our path each time we were flung violently off course was somewhat comforting. The shields were holding, inertial dampers were still on line and we were making definite, if slow, progress towards our target.

Our main problem was going to be landing. The shuttleís navigation systems had gone haywire as soon as we hit the leading edge of the storm. The atmosphere was so full of blood-red dust clouds that visual perception was down to a few metres.

Somehow we were going to have to land on a spit and a prayer, literally guessing where the ground was and then hoping for the best. I had taken a few wild rides in my time, but this was the mother of them all.

Poor Harry was shaking like a leaf, Will looked decidedly green around the gills and my own stomach was lurching in a most unpleasant way. Yet both Jacqueline and TíPel were staring serenely out of the view port as though the mysteries of the universe were contained in those swirling eddies.

Again I checked the useless sensors. We HAD to be approaching Dorvan Central and my maps of the region had indicated a huge mountain in our path. Yet all I could see was red dust.

"We have to abort the mission," I said finally, my heart breaking with my words, but what use would Jacqueline and I be to Tom if we were smashed on a mountainside?

"No," Jacqueline and TíPel said simultaneously.

"We canít see, we have no sensors, we canít land," I explained and both Harry and Will nodded their reluctant agreement.

"There will be a way," TíPel said with a placid smile.

Then Jacqueline released her seat belt and glided across the cabin, her graceful walk unimpeded by the violent rocking of the ship. It was this anomaly more than anything that made me listen to her words.

"Trust," she whispered. "Believe, Jean-Luc."

~~~

ADMIRAL OWEN PARIS

"I saw something, Sir, something up ahead."

I swivelled to look at the Ensign. His name escaped me but what was left of his uniform indicated Security so I was inclined to believe him, even if the storm was now so thick that I couldnít see the officers behind him.

"WHAT did you see, Ensign?" I roared back over the howling wind.

"For a moment there was a gap in the storm, Sir. I saw what I could only assume to be a building."

"How far ahead?"

"Well, I canít rightly say. It would depend on the size of the building, wouldnít it?" he replied with the kind of logic that only a security officer was capable of.  I swear the only thing worse than a Vulcan was a human who Ďthoughtí like a Vulcan.

I turned my back on him in disgust. No matter. If it was in visual range at all then we were nearly there.

Chakotay was MINE!

~~~

DATA, Acting Captain, The Enterprise

"We have an incoming transmission from the HPTS, Sir," Crewman Jardine told me from Ops.

"On screen."

The viewscreen was filled with the excited face of Counsellor Troi.

"Weíve just received the reply from Starfleet Headquarters," she told me, her chest heaving so much with excitement that Ensign Collins nearly fell off the Helm.

"What do they say?" I asked.

"Itís encrypted for the Captainís eyes only," Deanna replied in frustration.

"There is no way to contact him," I reminded her sadly.

"I know. Thatís why Iím going to transfer the file over to you. Youíll have to decrypt it."

I nearly fell out of the command chair myself.

"That is a confidential file," I replied in shock. "Regulation 403.02 clearly states Ė"

"It is addressed to the Captain. YOU are the Captain. Open the damned file," Deanna shouted, stamping her feet in fury and making her chest wobble enticingly.

I probably shorted several circuits as I digested her words. Of course she was wrong, but she was right, too. The information in the file could be crucial to Captain Picard and the only way of knowing whether we had to get it to him was to open it ourselves.

"Transfer the file," I agreed and she gave a whoop of joy and bent to operate her console.

There was a thud as Jardine followed her cleavage downwards and struck his head on the ops console.

"When you have picked your mouth up off the floor, Crewman, perhaps you would transfer the file to my ready room?" I said and watched him blush furiously.

I smiled in satisfaction. My newly installed sarcasm routine seemed to be working perfectly.

~~~

ADMIRAL OWEN PARIS

The drumbeat drew me like a beacon. I left the rest of the away team quivering in the sanctuary of the building we had literally found by walking smack into it, and followed the summons.

I wanted to go alone. I wasnít sure why. Well actually I was. I wanted my first crack at that bastard Chakotay to be unwitnessed by Starfleet do-gooders.

It took me several minutes of fumbling around the edge of the building before I located the door. And then, heart in mouth, I stepped inside into darkness.

The air of the room was thick with a cloying sweet stench. The only light came from scattered flaming torches and the dull glow from a wide central stone-lined fire pit. Little light escaped now from the fire. It had obviously burned for several hours until its flames had died to dull red embers that had been banked with greenery. The hot heart of the fire chewed hungrily on the wet leaves, enveloping the room in a thick, choking fog.

It took several minutes for my eyes to adjust to the hazy gloom. It was only then that I saw the figures suspended over the fire pit.

Two men were impaled and dangling in an obscene crucifixion. Four thick hemp ropes had been fixed to the central roof beam and each man was suspended by means of two ropes. Each rope ended in a vicious metal hook that pieced through the menís pectoral muscles and then up into their shoulders.

Red streams of blood ran down their naked bodies and dripped slowly from their toes.

The victimsí faces were distorted by agony, the flickering shadows only helping to emphasize the harsh lines of suffering drawn on their faces.

All around the room, the gathered Elders chanted and swayed, their eyes glazed by the narcotic fog. Only one of the observers was silent. Chakotay. He was bound by similar thick rope to a stake near the doorway. Slowly he turned his grief-stricken visage to me. His bronze-skin was stained with soot and the ravages of tears.

When he spoke, his voice gave witness to countless hours of screaming fury. His raw throat rasped at me beseechingly.

"Tom, you have to save Tom."

And it was only then that my horrified brain finally accepted that one of the crucified men was my son.

I drew my phaser and aimed it at the crossbeam. Nothing. Just as the tricorders had failed to work, so did my weapon. I charged forward with a howl, but countless Dorvanians stepped into my path. Exhausted by the three-hour storm trek I found my blows did not even seem to penetrate the Dorvanians. Their drug-glazed eyes were impervious to my screams of protest and uncaring of my swinging fists.

For the first time I felt some kinship with the outlaw, Chakotay. I understood the helpless horror in his eyes.

Yet, it was his fault. It was all his fault. Unable to release my impotent rage in any other way I strode up to his bound figure and smashed my hand across his face.

"YOU BASTARD!" I screamed at him, as my sonís life dripped inexorably to the floor behind us. "Itís YOUR fault."

"I know," he whispered brokenly.

And I didnít care that he was tied, that he couldnít defend himself. I sent a flurry of punches into his stomach and chest.

It felt so good to finally strike someone who could feel pain that I didnít stop until my own knuckles screamed their protest.

Chakotay was sagging in his restraints, his body attempting to double-up in agony, his breath coming in tortured gasps. Yet it wasnít enough, he wasnít suffering as my son suffered, as I suffered. I fumbled for my phaser and saw a relieved glint in his eyes. The stupid bastard actually thought I was going to kill him and put him out of his misery.

Back when Tom had still lived in our home he had loved 20th century films. No matter what punishments I devised whenever I found him dreaming instead of studying, watching vidís instead of learning, he had incessantly begged, borrowed and stolen films to watch and escape into.

Sometimes, after confiscating them, I had watched them myself. And they were good, I grant you. Suitable recreation for an Admiral, I mean, not for a student who continually failed to reach the top of his class.

But the films I enjoyed most were the Westerns. They struck a chord in me. The good guys wore white hats; the bad guys wore black. There was no pussyfooting around. The law was the law and the bad guys all died.

What made me think of this? It was the idea of pistol-whipping.

Such a strange, soft phrase. Such a barbarically effective punishment.

And so thatís what I did to Chakotay.

Of course, a phaser is not QUITE the right shape, and it breaks too soon, but by the time I had finished I was sure that his agony was as great as my sonís.

And with that thought, I finally remembered my son.  What the hell had I been doing? I needed to fetch the away team; perhaps they could help me break through the crowd.

~ Perhaps Chakotay could have helped you. Perhaps you deliberately Ďforgotí the away team until you had had the chance to beat Chakotay to a bloody pulp? ~ an insidious voice whispered inside my head.

~ Damned nonsense, ~ I told myself, ~ any father would have done the same. This was Chakotayís fault and he had to pay the price. ~

Thus reassured of my own intentions, I headed for the door of the sweat lodge, only to see it burst open and Picard entered, followed by Jacqueline, Riker, Kim, my away team and some Vulcan woman.

"Whereís Tom?" Picard cried as though it had anything to do with him. I almost enjoyed raising my hand to Tomís body and seeing him almost collapse.

"Chakotay!" Kim cried and leapt past me to where the unconscious Maquis was hanging in his ropes, his face battered almost beyond recognition, and began frantically untying his restraints.

I turned away disinterestedly and instead watched Picard attempting to break through the immovable crowd.  I had forgotten the evidence of the bloodied broken phaser in my hand until I was unexpectedly spun around by the young oriental.

"How dare you?" I snarled as he manhandled me, and then his fist connected with my nose and I screamed in pain as it exploded in a fountain of blood.

~~~

JACQUELINE

I looked up at the dangling, blood-covered corpse of my son and a feeling of calm descended.

I heard Jean-Luc screaming at the others, "Cut him down, get through and cut them BOTH down." But his words were meaningless nonsense.

Across the hazy room my gaze met with the deep brown eyes of a middle-aged woman. Her face was lined with suffering, weathered like fine leather and yet it exuded serenity. She nodded at me and her lips out-lined the words "trust, believe."

And I blinked slowly in acknowledgement.

Whatever was to happen now would happen.

I felt TíPelís hand slip into mine and squeezed it gratefully as we waited.

All around us the men fought uselessly against the throng. They did not understand. Perhaps it was only a woman who could. Perhaps that special place inside a woman where the spark of new life could grow somehow linked her into the mysteries.

Something magical was going to happen here. I could feel it. My son, his life, his future, all our futures, would be decided here and now in this sacred place.

Just as, at the last minute, a clear channel had opened in front of the shuttle and guided us to land directly outside this place, so would the mystery of Tom finally be unfolded.

TBC