Looking Glass Milk -Part One
"Have you got him?" Chakotay barked into his com badge.
There was a long silence, pregnant with despair, then a choking sob of terrible admission.
"Keep trying," Chakotay yelled.
"It's not...he can't...I can't..." Harris wailed.
"Try again, damn you!"
The Captain surged to her feet, horror warring with sympathy on her face as she clutched at Chakotay's arm.
"It's too late, Chakotay. He's gone."
"NO!" Chakotay screamed at her. "Try it again," he ordered into his comm. badge.
Before Kathryn could belay the order, the entire bridge crew heard Harris's panicked breathing and the whine of the transporter mechanism.
A distorted howl of panicked agony immediately ripped through the comm. link. The voice was contorted almost beyond recognition, but there was no doubt in anyone's mind that it was Tom. The transporter chief's fingers flashed over his console dissolving and reforming Tom's atoms endlessly in a frantic hopeless effort to stabilize his matter stream into the pattern buffer, until the whole crew were almost retching at the sound of Tom's ululating wails.
"Chakotay...Chakotay...Chakotay...Cha..." Then Tom's fading voice was cut off mid-word, and he was gone.
In the sudden shocked silence, Chakotay staggered blindly and almost fell. He barely heard Harris tearfully admit that Tom's pattern had finally degraded past any hope of retrieval. He didn't even hear Harry's scream of agony as he finally accepted his best friend was dead. Chakotay wasn't even aware of the silent tears streaming down his own face or of the comforting hand Kathryn placed on his arm.
In that moment, he was drowned by the memory of Tom's face, Tom's smile, Tom's touch, and the emptiness inside him was so great that he felt hollow and insubstantial enough to disintegrate too.
"I'm so sorry, Chakotay," Kathryn whispered, her own eyes brimming with tears.
For a long moment, Chakotay merely stared blindly at the debris of the Delta Flyer as it cascaded down the viewscreen. Then he gently disengaged the Captain's fingers from his arm.
"Permission to leave the bridge," he asked, his voice surprisingly calm.
"Of course," Kathryn choked..
He staggered towards the turbolift, his gait stiff and unnatural to compensate for the weakness in his knees, his face impassive except for the tears that were streaming down his cheeks.
Only as the door closed behind him did he allow himself to give voice to his anguish. In the privacy of the lift, Chakotay collapsed to his knees, threw back his head and howled.
Tom woke with the mother of all headaches.
Wave after wave of pain throbbed through his temples and just the effort of opening his eyes made him roil with nausea as a blaze of light knifed through his retinas. He squinted carefully and tried to focus, but just that effort drove him to the floor with a howl of misery, as a series of flashing lights scalded his head like a shower of liquid fire.
"Oh fuck," he groaned painfully, his throat raw from his earlier screaming. He hugged his chest and swayed miserably on his knees. Whatever had hit the Flyer hadn't just decimated the shuttle, it had apparently scrambled his brains too.
He pressed his palms against his eye sockets, pushed desperately to repudiate the sickening pressure inside his skull, and he gave a small sob of self-pity. Where the hell was the Doc? Why hadn't he been transported straight to sick bay? Why the hell wasn't Harris running forward to help him? Where *was* Harris? More to the point, where the hell was his husband? Considering the way he had just played peek-a-boo with the transporter, Tom was surprised the whole crew hadn't come to witness him bouncing in and out of the transporter room like a rubber ball.
So where the fuck was Chakotay?
Where the fuck was everyone?
After searching the First Officer's quarters and finding nothing except an abandoned comm. badge, Kathryn had panicked slightly. Although she'd never seen Chakotay as the suicidal type, she knew that losing a husband only three months after the wedding was enough to drive anyone over the edge. More so if, like Tom and Chakotay, that marriage had been so obviously happy that the early bloom of their honeymoon had continued to blossom rather than fade.
The two men's relationship had left the whole crew awed, envious and completely mystified.
Perhaps it was simply because no-one had ever suspected that the lanky irreverent pilot and the stolid, down-to-earth Commander could even bear to be in each other's company until the day they had announced out of the blue that they wanted to get married. The revelation of their secret romance had been so unexpected that the ship's grapevine had erupted immediately with uncharitable bets over the probable date of their divorce. It was, however, to everyone's credit that they had all seemed ecstatic to lose their wagers. Ninety days into Tom and Chakotay's marriage, Harry Kim (the only person who had placed a bet on the marriage actually working out) had been declared the winner of the bet. He'd immediately spent his winnings by throwing Tom and Chakotay a long overdue wedding reception.
Now, just two days later, Tom Paris-Chakotay was dead.
By the time he figured out that no-one was coming to help him, Tom was pissed off enough to overcome the thudding pain in his skull and drag himself to his feet. He swayed precariously as the room spun around him and he closed his eyes in desperation. He took several deep breaths, then risked taking a cautious peek at the room again. With a choking gasp of horror he slammed his eyes shut again, counted to ten, then extremely slowly he edged just one eyelid upwards.
Nothing changed. The door was *still* left of the Transporter console.
He *knew* that the transporter console was on his left and the door was on his right. It was just his eyes that were fucked up, so he walked to the right, confident that the door *was* there. When he instead collided with the console he panicked, slammed his hand against his comm. badge, then froze.
No comm. badge.
Fighting his nausea long enough to look down at his chest, Tom frowned in confusion at the bare spot where his comm. badge belonged. He swallowed heavily and swayed a little as lights continued to flash at the edges of his vision. It took him a little while to identify the dull gleam on the right of his uniform. He closed one eye and concentrated on focusing the other until the blurring cleared and he could see what was on the right side of his chest.
When he finally identified the object, Tom sank back to his knees and threw up.
Kathryn found Chakotay in holodec one. The Sandrine's program was running, or at least what was left of it. Every bottle, table and chair in the program was lying in crushed ruin on the bare-wood floor. The few residual holocharacters were huddled in apparent terror on the far end of the bar, Chakotay was sitting on the floor amidst the carnage and Sandrine, Tom's 'friend' was hovering a few feet away from him, wringing her hands in agitation.
"Compute, delete holocharacters," Kathryn said quietly.
They winked out of existence and Chakotay's blank eyes flickered.
"They're gone," he whispered. He turned his haunted face to Kathryn's. "They thought they were real, Kathryn, but all you had to do was say three words and they're gone."
"They're just holocharacters," Kathryn murmured.
Chakotay didn't seem to hear her.
"Do you think that's how the Spirits see *us*?" he asked bleakly. "Is that why? Are we just amusements to them that they simply discard when they're bored?"
"It was an accident, Chakotay. Just a senseless, terrible accident. I am so sorry, Chakotay."
She reached out to comfort him but he jerked to his feet and back-pedaled away, as though even her touch would burn him.
"He materialized nine times, Kathryn. Each time his pattern disintegrated more. Did you hear him? He was screaming my name, Kathryn. He thought I'd save him...I should have saved him. The night I married Tom I promised that I'd look after him... I promised."
"There was nothing you...."
"He was screaming my name!" Chakotay howled.
"I'm so sorry, Chakotay. So sorry," Kathryn said helplessly.
He sobbed for a while, hugging himself as though his heart was threatening to explode out of his chest. Then, with a visible effort, he gulped for breath, straightened himself and stared Kathryn in the face.
"Why?" he demanded. "I know *what* happened, but I want to know *why*."
His eyes were so blank that Kathryn could see herself reflected in their darkness. She grimly decided she'd string Harris up by the balls for letting Chakotay hear Tom's death, but she pushed that anger aside to concentrate on the agony of the man before her.
"You did everything you could, Chakotay. We all did. Our sensors said the flares from the nebula were just harmless gas. There was no reason to suspect the gas would harm the Flyer. As soon as it permeated the hull and Tom said it made his skin tingle, we locked onto Tom's signal immediately. We were already beaming him out when the shuttle blew up but the gas was already inside him. The automatic safety systems rejected the alien material and the transporters couldn't isolate his pattern."
"He must have been so frightened," Chakotay whispered.
"It was over in seconds, Chakotay. He probably would have been too confused to know what was happening to him," Kathryn swore, and prayed that it was true.
Okay, Tom decided, trying to ignore the sweet pungent aroma of vomit. He'd thrown up until he felt like he'd ripped the lining out of his already raw throat, but at least he could think a little clearer now. He decided his brain was simply screwed up, either from the fucked-up transportation or simply because his head hurt so much that it felt like it was exploding. It was like being drunk, maybe. Only instead of seeing double, he was seeing in reverse.
He raised his left hand and slapped the comm. badge.
"Paris to Chakotay," he called out, then winced as his own voice reverberated painfully through his throbbing skull.
There was no response.
Great. Fucking great!
Then a horrifying thought struck him. What if the alien gas had penetrated the bridge? Maybe the reason no one had met him or answered his comm. badge was because everyone else was dead.
"CHAKOTAY," he screamed and passed out again.
"How is he?" B'Elanna asked, as the Captain emerged from Sickbay.
Kathryn smiled sadly at the young woman who had been hovering in the corridor in an increasing state of agitation ever since she had heard about the emergency medical transportation.
"He's sedated. The Doctor says he'd rather keep his eye on him for tonight."
B'Elanna nodded, then her face twisted into angry confusion.
"I want to know what happened," she demanded.
Kathryn gave a helpless shrug.
"We were just talking, Lieutenant. He'd trashed Sandrine's before I got there but he'd calmed down and was just crying a little. He seemed okay, or at least as okay as he could be under the circumstances but then..."
Kathryn pursed her lips and glanced up and down the corridor to make sure they were alone.
"He stiffened and went white as a ghost. then he started shouting at me. He said he'd heard Tom scream his name."
"Harris told me," B'Elanna whispered.
"No. I don't mean during the transport. Chakotay thought he heard Tom screaming for him when we were in the holodec. He started insisting that Tom was still alive, that he'd been trapped in the transporter somehow but that he was calling for help. He got so hysterical that I had to call the doctor."
"Maybe he was right," B'Elanna growled. "Perhaps Tom IS still alive but out of phase with the rest of us. It's happened to people before. "
Kathryn shook her head sadly.
"I wish you were right, B'Elanna. It's the first thing Tuvok checked for after Tom's pattern was lost. He used a modified Anyon emitter to run a spectral analysis over the whole ship and even the surrounding space in case the Doppler compensator had failed. If Tom was here but out of phase, we'd have found him. Besides which, the transporter records confirm that Tom didn't simply disappear, his whole molecular structure changed before he dissolved. According to the transporter logs, he...well...let's just say that by the last attempt to transport him, less than 30% of his pattern was still identifiable as Tom Paris. There wasn't enough of his body remaining for him to survive in *any* phase."
"Poor Tom," B'Elanna muttered. "Do you think he..he.."
"No," Kathryn interrupted. "He didn't really suffer, B'Elanna. It was over too quickly."
"It's never going to be over for Chakotay though, is it?" B'Elanna said sadly.
"No," Kathryn admitted. "But he'll deal with it and he'll move on, because he has to. We need him, and he knows it, so he'll force himself to cope."
"HARRY!" Tom shouted, too panicked to care about the damage his volume would inflict on his still over-sensitive head.
When he'd finally woken up he'd felt a little better. Enough that he could at least walk without every step he took making him think that a pair of cymbals were crashing around his ears. He'd staggered slowly down the corridor to the turbolift. Then he'd reversed direction until he found the lift on the *other* side of the corridor. When it had failed to open at his approach he'd been irritated but he'd just assumed that whatever was affecting the ship's communications was also affecting turbolift controls and so he'd used a Jeffries tubes to reach the bridge.
Exhausted by his climb, he'd been too weak to open the hatch that opened on the bridge. He'd screamed and banged and pushed against the metal for over an hour before giving up and crawling sideways to shinny through an open air-duct instead. Landing painfully on the bridge, he had paused in confusion at the sight of everyone just calmly going about their duties. Tuvok had the helm and the Captain and Chakotay were missing, but everyone else was at their stations.
"Well, I didn't expect a brass band, but a 'welcome back' would have been nice," he'd drawled sarcastically.
No one had answered.
Actually, no one had even acknowledged his presence.
Fighting a rising panic, Tom had looked disbelievingly around the Bridge. Harry was at Ops where he belonged, but Ops was now to the right of the command chair. Tom had been so disconcerted by that fact that he'd practically tip-toed over to where a red-eyed Harry was sniffling over his console.
And Harry hadn't acknowledged him either.
"HARRY!" Tom shouted.
Nothing. And that's when he knew.
Oh shit. I'm dead. I'm fucking dead. I'm a fucking ghost.
"HARRY" Tom screamed in panic, and slapped him across the face.
"Where's Harry?" Kathryn asked, noticing his absence the moment she re-entered the bridge.
"There was a disturbing incident," Tuvok replied calmly.
"What kind of disturbing incident?" she demanded.
"Ensign Kim had to be relieved of duty."
"As you know, despite his personal grief, he elected to remain at his station until the ship was clear of the nebula," Tuvok told her. "He controlled his emotions sufficiently to perform his duties with adequacy if not efficiency."
"So, what happened?" Kathryn asked.
"His grief emerged in a fashion that was inappropriate for a bridge officer."
"In what way?"
"He became hysterical, Captain. He insisted that the ghost of Tom Paris was on the bridge."
"He described feeling a cold sensation briefly touching his cheek, and he interpreted it as being the Lieutenant's hand."
I'm fucking dead.
I'm a fucking ghost!
The thoughts crashed like waves through Tom's head as he raced through the ship in terrified panic. Several times he collided with crewmembers in the corridors and although the impacts were painful to him, his victims barely hesitated in their tracks. They simply shivered slightly as though they had been struck by a chilly breeze.
After one particularly painful encounter, when a collision with the hefty frame of Ayala had knocked Tom onto his ass, he learned to be more careful although he was unable to stop himself from rushing head-long from deck to deck in the desperate hope that someone, somewhere, would finally be able to see him.
Chakotay. I've got to find Chakotay.
The need for his husband was like a physical ache, driving all his other fears into submission. Even the fact that he was dead seemed relatively unimportant compared with his need to see Chakotay's face. Maybe that *was* what he needed. Maybe he was here just to say goodbye. As terrible as that thought was, it wasn't a fraction as terrifying as the thought that he might have died and *not* had this last chance to see his lover.
Maybe Chakotay would even be able to see *him*. Chakotay had been scrupulously careful to keep his own spiritual beliefs out of their relationship. He hadn't even insisted on a traditional wedding. Still, it had been impossible to share Chakotay's life and bed without absorbing some knowledge of Chakotay's faith simply by osmosis.
Chakotay knew he was dead of course but maybe, if Tom's understanding was correct, he'd be looking for him on the Spirit plane. Perhaps that was even why he was here. Perhaps he was unconsciously answering a summons from Chakotay. Tom didn't know how these things worked but he was pretty damned sure he should be meeting Chakotay in some peaceful, spiritual forest instead of tumbling in panic through the corridors of Voyager like an invisible bowling ball.
Then again, he'd always been a complete fuck-up in life so he decided it was hardly surprising that he was fucking-up his death too.
A thought that he became more convinced of when he finally arrived outside their quarters and spent a futile half-hour silently pounding against the door until his knuckles were torn and he finally accepted that he had no way to get inside. He began shouting at the top of his voice, screaming Chakotay's name in the wild hope that he would somehow break through Chakotay's meditative trance. When he was too hoarse to shout anymore, he sagged against the door, resting his forehead on the cold metal, and he closed his eyes as he tried to visualize Chakotay inside.
The door opened abruptly and, off-balance, he staggered forwards into the empty quarters. He had barely straightened himself when a shoulder struck him so hard that he was knocked to his knees.
"Kahless, these quarters are freezing," B'Elanna complained. rubbing her chilled shoulder absently.
"The whole ship feels cold today," Ayala answered. "I nearly froze walking down the corridor on deck eight earlier."
"Let's just grab the picture and go," B'Elanna suggested, shivering uncomfortably.
"Are you sure it's a good idea? Maybe it will just upset him."
"The Doc's shot him full of sedatives," B'Elanna replied. "But when he does wake, I'm sure he'll want the picture. It will remind him of how happy they were together."
"Yeah, like I said. It'll upset him," Ayala grumbled.
They headed for the door, still arguing, leaving Tom so frozen with misery that he barely remembered that unless he dove out of the door after them he'd be trapped inside. He leapt through the door just as it was sliding closed and raced after B'Elanna and Ayala as they headed for the lift.
He was too late. The door closed in his face, leaving him stranded as they headed for the Sickbay without him. He ran to the Jeffries tube in an attempt to catch up but the hatch was firmly sealed and he couldn't prise it open. He sighed then shrugged. What was the point anyway? Chakotay was out for the count, and he was dead. There was no rush.
He waited by the turbolift door until it eventually opened again. This time the Captain stepped out. He saw her shiver slightly as she walked blindly past him and he almost followed her, but the empty lift was too tempting. He dove inside and waited for someone to summon it. He gave a sigh of relief when the lift began to move upwards and crossed his fingers as he prayed that he might finally luck out and find himself at the sickbay.
Instead it was the beginning of a two hour nightmare.
The lift halted, the doors opened and five people crowded inside. Tom found himself crushed against the back wall and then the back of someone's head impacted against his nose and Tom's skull smashed against unyielding metal. As blood began to pour down his face, his headache came back with a vengeance and then he screamed as someone's heel ground down on top of his left foot.
Get the fuck off me, you bastard! Tom wailed.
"The environmental controls must be off line," his assailant muttered. "It's freezing in here." He shivered violently and his elbow connected with Tom's gut.
The lift stopped and the occupants started to pile out. Tom hobbled after them in panic but was too slow. He was knocked back into the lift as a drunken Ensign Harris staggered inside, a Delaney Twin hanging on each of his arms.
"Jeez, it's fucking cold in here," Megan swore, tossing her head in irritation.
Tom jumped backwards to avoid being whipped by her pony-tail.
"Tom..." Harris slurred, his red-swollen eyes seeming to stare directly into Tom's face.
Can you see me? Harris, can you see me? Tom demanded excitedly.
"I killed Tom," Harris moaned, and now Tom realized Harris was simply looking *through* him.
"Hell, it's not your fault, Johnny. Nobody's blaming you except yourself," Jenny replied. "You did the best you could and I'm sure Tom barely felt a thing."
"He was screaming," Harris sobbed. "He was in agony, Jenny."
Yeah, you tell the stupid bitch. I felt the whole fucking thing like it was happening in slow motion and it STILL fucking hurts!
Jenny wailed and began to cry.
"Oh god, poor Tom. Nobody told me he *knew* what was happening to him. Oh shit!"
Oddly enough, Jenny's tears made Tom feel even worse.
It's okay, Jen. I'm here.
He tapped her on the shoulder and she jumped backwards in shock. Tom yelped as a stiletto heel scraped against his shin.
"It IS freezing in here," Jenny sniffled. "I could swear I just felt an icy draught down my back."
"Maybe some of the gas that blew up the Flyer got on board when Johnny tried to save Tom. It might have affected the environmental controls," Megan suggested.
"Yeah, that's probably it," Jenny replied.
"I killed Tom," Harris interrupted. "I need a drink."
"You've had enough, Johnny. What you need is a good fuck, honey," Megan replied. "At least that's what I need right now."
"Amen," Jenny agreed.
The turbolift doors opened and the three stumbled out, leaving Tom alone. He stared after them as they headed for Harris's quarters and vaguely contemplated following. He was tempted to go and watch the twins attempt to cheer Harris up. Since it was *his* death that had inspired their orgy it seemed only fair that he could watch. What was the point of being a ghost if he didn't take advantage of the fact? But the doors closed again before he'd made up his mind. He shrugged. It probably wasn't a good idea to tease himself that way, he decided, although he rubbed his crotch and wondered whether a ghost could get a hard-on.
The next time that the lift stopped only Sam Wildman entered and wary of being trodden on again Tom took the opportunity to slip past her and found himself on deck seven. Feeling increasingly lonely, he meandered slowly around the ship. The corridors were marginally safer than the lifts he discovered, but not much. As his ribs grew progressively sorer, he experimented with ways of sliding cautiously around the jostling elbows of anyone he passed.
He was beginning to really hate being dead.
Sick of being bowled off his feet, Tom decided the safest thing would be to find somewhere relatively quiet to sit down and wait for Chakotay to wake up. As far as he could work out from the number of people rushing back and forth down Voyager's corridors it was the shift change from Beta to Gamma, which meant that the Mess Hall would have enough people inside to drive away his aching loneliness with their idle chatter, but not so many that he couldn't find a quiet corner to hide in.
By the time he figured out that the Mess hall was now situated on Voyager's left side and found the entrance, he was exhausted. He waited for someone to enter, snuck in after them and crept into an empty corner. He sank carefully into one of the vacant chairs, half expecting to simply sink through the seat. To his considerable relief, the chair felt as solid under his ass as the floor did under his feet. He'd been cursing the fact that he couldn't just walk through walls (and people) like ghosts were supposed to be able to do but, now he thought about it, he decided it was just as well. Otherwise he might have simply sunk through the floors of the ship and found himself floating around outside. It wouldn't be much fun haunting empty space.
Then again, he wasn't having much fun haunting Voyager either. The only thing he'd achieved so far was to send Harry into a fit of near-hysterics and everyone else he touched running for a sweater. So he simply sat there in the Mess Hall, feeling sorry for himself and wondering whether he was going to spend eternity wandering around the ship being knocked onto his ass by every passing crewman.
He was too tired and miserable to even think about it. He shuffled uncomfortably on his bruised butt and sniffed appreciatively at the smells emerging from the galley to his right.
Neelix had waited until he was dead before finally making something that smelt edible.
Or maybe since everything else was back to front in this weird reality, maybe Neelix could actually cook here.
Tom's mouth watered and his stomach growled angrily. Maybe he'd just mozy on over and grab a plate. Just because he was dead, it didn't mean he had to starve, he decided.
Do dead people feel hungry? Do they throw up? Do they get headaches? Do they bruise?
Of course they fucking don't.
I'm not dead.
I'm invisible maybe, but I'm not fucking dead!
"I'M NOT DEAD YOU BASTARDS!" Tom yelled out to the oblivious diners.
He jumped to his feet and gave the chair an experimental shove, deciding that sending it spinning across the room would be a damned good way of alerting people to his presence. His LIVE presence.
Although he felt the painful impact of his hand against the chair, it didn't even move. He grunted and used all his strength to push against it. It rocked a tiny, almost imperceptible amount, but that was all.
Fucking great. Why the hell is everything so real to me? Why can I feel people but they can't feel me? Why can I touch things but not move them? And why the hell is everything back to front?
Dead or not, Tom concluded that being invisible sucked. And he was still hungry.
Can I eat? What if I can't? What if I starve to death before I figure out a way to let people know I'm still alive?
There was only one way to find out. He cautiously approached the galley, wary of the other crew now that he realized he was vulnerable to them, even if they weren't vulnerable to him. He tried to pick up a plate but although his fingers grasped it well enough, it felt too heavy for him to lift.
Great. I'm invisible AND a fucking weakling.
He gave up, decided no one could witness his bad manners anyway, and simply reached his hand into a bowl filled with a fluffy, blue gloop that smelled a hell of a lot better than it looked. He felt the warm mass compress fractionally under his fingers but not enough to even make a visible impression.
Panicking now, he leant down over the bowl and licked his tongue across the surface of the tantalizing food. A taste vaguely reminiscing of cheesy potato exploded against his tongue and his stomach growled with excitement. He thrust his mouth against the food and tried sucking a mouthful but he couldn't create enough suction. So he lapped ravenously, savoring the taste even if he couldn't absorb the substance of the food. The sensation soothed him momentarily but still it just made him feel hungrier than ever.
Then, while he was still puzzling over what to do next, someone reached a ladle into the bowl. The resultant smack on the back of Tom's head was painful enough for him to cry out and scramble away from the galley in panic.
He hovered in the gangway, tears of despair pooling in his eyes as all around him the sound of cheerful munching and slurping made the painful knot in his stomach twist and churn in envy. Then he had to dive for safety between a couple of tables as a bunch of new arrivals ploughed into the mess hall and charged towards the galley for their dinner.
There was an abandoned tray on one of the tables where someone had rushed off to answer a hail without disposing of their meal. Feeling too desperate for pride, Tom crept over and looked down hungrily at the half-empty plate. The chair had been pushed back under the table, so he couldn't sit down, he could only bend over and lick tentatively at the cold stew. Again, although he could *taste* the food, he couldn't *eat* it. He couldn't even manage to suck the thin gravy from the side of the plate. He lapped desperately at it but, when he pulled back his head to check his progress, he discovered that he hadn't even managed to ingest the liquid.
It seemed he was dead, after all.
Because although he might survive several uncomfortable weeks without food, dehydration would kill him within 72 hours. So he only had three days to not only convince people he was still on board and alive, but also for them to figure out a way to get him back.
And his only chance, the only person who might actually have had enough faith to believe in the impossible, was currently lying in sickbay sedated to the eyeballs.