The Shattering of the Mask 40
See part 1 for disclaimer
"You can't," Tom replied, as the Captain told him of her decision. "You said the Carskoni had demanded the presence of *all* Voyager's officers. So that means I need to be included in the away team too. You can't single me out like this. You don't have the right to make decisions for me any more."
Kathryn reined in her automatic anger at Tom's insubordination and forced herself to reply civilly to his protest. Despite Tom's angry words, it was obvious that he was deeply distressed by her decision and she was beginning to wonder whether it was possible to even make a right choice in the minefield of Tom's emotional reactions.
What was the point of protecting him from possible distress on the surface of Carskon if the decision to do so upset him so much anyway? Kathryn wondered glumly, feeling the first twinges of a headache starting to hammer behind her eye sockets. Even so, Chakotay's detailed description of what he had observed on the planet, when he'd returned from his trade negotiation on the surface bearing the 'invitation' of the Carskoni, was enough for Kathryn to be sure Carskon wasn't a place that Tom would enjoy visiting.
If there had been any polite way to decline the Carskoni invitation, none of the crew would be descending to the planet anyway. It was only the implication that a refusal of the invitation would be seen as a gross insult that had made Kathryn agree to attend at all. Since Voyager was completely outgunned by the surrounding Carskoni vessels, the risk of a possible trap was far outweighed by the chance to establish a friendly rapport with the aliens, but Kathryn had no illusions about the possible danger to them all.
It was a delicate situation in which a mere cultural misunderstanding could prove fatal to the whole crew. Which was why she couldn't take the risk that Tom might over-react to the conditions on the surface and create a diplomatic incident.
"As the Captain of this ship I have the right to decide the displacement of any of my officers, Mr. Paris, and as Tuvok pointed out, your position as Chief Helmsman makes you invaluable to the ship," she replied, appealing to Tom's ego in an attempt to soften the blow of his exclusion.
"More valuable than the Captain and First Officer, let alone all the other officers on board?" Tom scoffed, having little genuine ego to be stroked. "I know exactly why you've chosen to exclude me, Captain and I want to make a formal protest."
"A what?" Kathryn demanded in disbelief.
"For the last six months I've agreed to you treating me like I'm a liability, Captain, but the Doctor's given me a clean bill of health. Your decision to exclude me from the away team just proves that you still don't trust me and maybe never will. Come to think of it, maybe you never did," Tom said bitterly.
During the last few months, in the enforced loneliness of his existence between Saturday nights, Tom had found himself with a lot of time to think about things and try to put his experiences in perspective. The one fact that had begun to prey heaviest on his mind was that despite Chakotay's clever manipulation of people's perceptions, if anyone had ever really trusted him, no-one would have simply accepted the diagnosis of his so-called nervous breakdown.
The way Tom saw it, the general willingness to believe him so mentally unstable that he should simply be discarded into Chakotay's 'care' and forgotten about, proved that no one had ever truly seen him as more than a traitor and coward despite all the years he had spent trying to prove himself a reformed character.
The vengeful ghosts of Caldik Prime were still exacting their bitter revenge and he was beginning to believe that he would never escape the indelible stain of one tragic mistake that had set his feet on a spiraling pattern of self-destruction. It didn't matter what he did, no one would ever forgive him that error or ever truly believe that he was worthy of a genuine new start.
The Captain had given him a Lieutenant's rank and had pretended to have faith in him, but the moment someone accused him of being unstable it hadn't even occurred to her to doubt the fact. Tom was sure that the Captain would never have simply given up on Tuvok or Harry in the same circumstances. The obvious difference between his own perceived stability and that of the rest of the crew could only be explained by his own past.
Tom Paris, the Admiral's fuck-up son, the murderer and liar of Caldik Prime, the would-be Maquis who got caught on his very first mission and then sold out his own former comrades just to escape the hell of his life in Auckland. Yeah, with a pedigree like that, who the hell wouldn't believe that he was just as likely to have a nervous breakdown? His own history suggested that in times of crisis Tom Paris simply fell apart and it seemed that all his subsequent years of proving himself a good and valued officer, when weighed on the scale of probability, had failed to make any true impression against the crew's original impression of him as unreliable.
Of course, the fact that he had then *really* had a breakdown probably made the crew feel less guilty about falling for Chakotay's ruse. Tom suspected that a lot of their reaction was due to fear. Just like at Caldik Prime. Rather than accept that anyone could have an accident flying a shuttle and then tell a stupid lie out of fear, people had preferred to cast Tom as a villain. That way they didn't have to face the idea that it could have happened to themselves just as easily. In the same way, it was easier for people to believe that Tom was already mentally unstable than face the fact that any one of them could suffer a similar experience and be as adversely affected by it.
By labeling him as mad, and therefore different from them, it was easier for the rest of the crew to see his abuse at Chakotay's hands as an isolated incident. There was pity for him, sure, but the overwhelming feeling that Tom experienced was that everyone believed it had only happened to him *because* he was Tom Paris.
Even Harry and B'Elanna were guilty of treating him as though in some way the whole experience had been his own fault. As much as he appreciated their support over the last few months, there had still always been an unspoken censure behind their kind smiles. They gave him sympathy rather than empathy because they simply couldn't see themselves behaving as he had in the same situation. He avoided them now, except when he needed their chaperonage to prevent anyone questioning the fact that he and Chakotay were in the same room.
It made him feel a little guilty, as though he was using them, but the truth was that without the buffer of Chakotay between himself and his interaction with the other crew, Tom was still finding it almost impossible to maintain civil conversations off-duty. The truth, perhaps, was that he had found it in his heart to forgive Chakotay but he was finding it a hell of a lot harder to forgive everyone else. It wasn't so much the fact that they had abandoned him to the wolf, as much as that in doing so they had proven that none of them really liked or cared about him anyway. It made their current sympathy for his situation seem less like friendship and more like an overcompensating guilt because they had let something unpleasant happen to an unpopular crewmember. So now they were pretending to like him, simply to soothe their own consciences.
Tom had walked into rooms and caught the tail-end of enough hastily ended conversations to realise that the feeling of mild distaste towards him was general all over the ship. People weren't saying "Isn't it terrible what Chakotay did?" they were saying "Isn't it terrible what Tom let Chakotay do?" The general consensus seemed to be that any 'normal' person would rather have died than submit to the abuse Tom had suffered. Rather than face the reality that they would have been as terrified and helpless in the same situation, they preferred to see Tom's survival as proof that he was already unstable when Chakotay had taken him.
Tom didn't believe the Captain was among his detractors. For one thing she was aware of far more details of his captivity than were publicly known. He knew the Captain felt genuine guilt over what had happened and that her current decisions, even those pertaining to his relationship with Chakotay, were inspired by a sense of responsibility. As B'Elanna had said, the Captain 'cared' about him. The problem was that Tom didn't want to be 'cared for' as though he was no more than an awkward problem that wouldn't go away.
He wanted the respect of the Captain, he wanted her faith in his abilities, he wanted his rank to mean what he'd imagined it did when she originally offered it. At the time, he'd believed in Janeway. He'd truly thought she was giving him a fresh start. In retrospect he was beginning to believe it had been no more than a subtle bribery to keep him under control. Stuck in the Delta Quadrant, with the necessity to combine the Maquis and Starfleet Crews into one, Janeway had probably seen him as just one more problem to contend with. Given the choice between keeping him in the brig or putting him to work, she had offered the Lieutenant's rank simply to make him so grateful that when she said 'jump', he'd say 'how high?'
It seemed so obvious now, looking back, that she'd played him for a fool with her outrageous generosity. He'd have been content simply by the offer to be allowed to fly the ship as a crewman, or maybe an Ensign even, but to have been made the Chief Helmsman, put fourth in the line of command for the ship, should have rung warning bells in his head then and there. Tom was damned certain that if anything had ever happened to Janeway, Chakotay and Tuvok, the rest of the crew would have spaced him before accepting his orders.
Accepting that though, that his promotion had just been a bone offered him to keep him obedient, wasn't the problem. Janeway had done exactly the same when she had made the Maquis her crew. Both decisions had been classic Starfleet. Keep your enemies right under your nose, flatter them with your supposed trust and give them better treatment than they can rightfully expect just to keep them docile. No, the problem was that over the years the Maquis had managed to shed their criminal pasts and become respected members of the crew, while he, Tom Paris, was still just perceived as a fuck-up loser with a fancy title.
Tom was honest enough to know that his perception of the situation was probably tainted by his experiences over the last year. No matter that he had fooled the Doctor into giving him a clean bill of health, Tom knew in himself that there was still something seriously off-kilter in his own psyche. It was as though he'd managed to drag enough publicly respectable behaviour patterns onto his outward demeanor that he could play the role expected of him, but he felt like an actor playing a role. Under his calm exterior, fear still scuttled constantly like a frantic spider, burrowing deep enough in the recesses of his own mind to avoid detection but never truly leaving him, except when Chakotay was by his side.
Sometimes he worried that his dependence on Chakotay proved his detractors to be correct. Yet, his need for the Commander didn't *feel* unhealthy, it felt more right than anything in his previous experience. He'd spent his whole life trying to stand alone and all it had ever brought him was pain and heartache. He'd never loved before, never trusted before, and the fact that he felt incomplete and vulnerable without Chakotay didn't mean he was less of a person. Truth was, he'd always felt incomplete and vulnerable but had hidden it behind a veneer of cocky indifference. Surely the fact that he was finally facing the truth that he *needed* another person to ground him was actually a step forward. He was beginning to accept that it was his nature to need the love and approval of another person to make his own life seem worthwhile.
Maybe that was the real reason for his own fucked up life. Perhaps if his own family had given him just a tiny measure of the affection that Chakotay offered him, Caldik Prime would never have happened. If he had believed in himself, if he had believed himself worthy of love back then, he'd never have been tempted to try and win the approval of his peers by an act of reckless bravado.
His love for Chakotay wasn't a weakness, except in the fact that his own inexperience with the emotion left him ill-equipped to handle his feelings. Impossible to try to explain to the rest of the crew that he'd never been loved before and so was unfamiliar with the concept, without simply adding to the general consensus that he was a sad pitiable figure who should spend the rest of his life in a soft padded room.
He wanted people to see that his choice of Chakotay as his lover was the sane and rational choice of a man who finally knew his own mind, not the desperate act of a shell-shocked victim who was just clinging onto Chakotay's shirt-tail because he was too afraid to let go and face life on his own.
"You don't trust me," Tom repeated, and the fact that his words were the truth simply made them a sharper dagger into Kathryn's already beleaguered soul.
Kathryn bit back her automatic response that she was hardly likely to trust him given his subterfuge for the last five months. She wasn't prepared to open that particular can of worms yet. Chakotay's reaction to the conditions on the surface at least reassured her that Tom's insistence on being included in the away team wasn't an attempt to abscond from the ship.
Given that understanding, it was easier to look at it from Tom's point of view. With every other officer attending the Carskoni ceremony, it was painfully obvious to everyone that Tom's own exclusion was based upon concern over his emotional state. Kathryn knew Tom believed his absence on the away mission would be a public setback to the progress he was making in regaining the respect of the rest of the crew. Since the last six months hadn't yet convinced Tom that the whole crew were genuinely impressed with how well he had pulled himself back together, there was no point in assuring Tom that no one would think any less of him for not attending. All she could do was make sure that Tom accepted her decision and she wasn't above using a little emotional blackmail of her own.
"It's not a matter of trust. Even Chakotay agrees that it would be unwise for you to join tonight's festivities," she pointed out.
Tom blinked in confusion at her choice of argument. He hadn't spoken to Chakotay privately for nine days and unless some miracle occurred he wasn't expecting to get an opportunity to be alone with him before Saturday. His initial reaction to Kathryn's words, that if Chakotay didn't want him to go then he wouldn't, was quickly swept away by his overall feeling of resentment over his enforced separation from the older man. He had no illusions that he would get the opportunity to do more than exchange idle chat with Chakotay in front of the other officers and the alien hosts but, even so, the idea of spending the evening in the same room with his lover was better than sitting alone in his quarters and screaming his frustration at the walls.
"Why?" Tom demanded.
"Because it appears from what Chakotay observed that the Carskoni practice a wide-spread and public system of slavery, Tom. He says that each of the officials we are dining with will be attended by a personal slave. Under the circumstances we believe that the situation will be too reminiscent of your experiences during Chakotay's illness."
"I see," Tom said slowly, his face draining of colour.
"So you understand our decision?" Kathryn asked hopefully.
"No," Tom replied proudly. "I understand that you would be concerned about my reaction if you still believed me incapable of dealing with my own experiences. Since I have proven that I have come to terms with what happened to me, I find your decision to be a personal insult. You have decided that I will fail to act appropriately and that shows that you have no faith in me."
"Can't you simply see that it's a measure of how much we care about you that we want to save you from a potentially distressing situation?"
"No," Tom replied. "All I see is that every senior member of staff is being invited to this dinner except me. That doesn't tell me you care, it just says you don't trust me."
It was one thing winning the argument, quite another to put his success into action, Tom decided, as he gazed helplessly at the items in his wardrobe. He'd not cared about his appearance in over a year except for the need to hide his dramatic weight loss. The only public socializing he had done for months had been his 'Poker Nights' and all he had been interested in then was putting on clothes that could be removed in the shortest possible time.
So it was only now, with barely fifteen minutes before the away team were due to descend to Carskon, that he finally realised he had nothing suitable to wear.
He laughed a little hysterically at the thought. It reminded him too much of how B'Elanna used to spend hours trolling through her own wardrobe deciding on exactly what item of clothing she could don (and then pretending that she'd just thrown on the first thing she'd seen because she didn't think vanity suited her Klingon image.)
Nevertheless, it was true enough in his case. Other than his uniforms, a couple of pairs of jeans, t-shirts and the odd casual shirt, practically nothing in his wardrobe still fit him and he hadn't even realised before this moment. The shirt and pants he usually wore on a Saturday were still sprawled in a heap with his dirty uniforms and he hadn't got time to put them in the refresher. Seeing them, it finally occurred to him that Chakotay had never once mentioned the fact that he always wore the same outfit. Then again, the clothes never stayed on long enough for Chakotay to notice what he was wearing anyway.
"I guess Chak *still* prefers me without clothes," Tom muttered to himself, but there was less bitterness in the realisation than he would have anticipated. To tell the truth, these days he found clothing in Chakotay's presence to be no more than an encumbrance anyway. So his memories of the humiliation of being naked in Chakotay's presence were being gradually eroded and rendered harmless by the newer memories of delighting in Chakotay's obvious appreciation of his looks.
He found a half-decent pair of black trousers that were only a few inches too large around the waist and tried on a slightly rumpled but clean white shirt. He checked in the mirror. It wasn't the most stylish outfit in the world but it was respectable and definitely casual which was what the Carskoni had insisted upon. It was obvious to all of them that the demand that the away team wore casual clothing was simply an excuse to also forbid them bringing weapons down but, as the Captain had pointed out, since they were only accepting the 'invitation' to prevent the Carskoni simply disintegrating Voyager in orbit there was no point worrying about whether they could take hand weapons down to the surface.
The only problem with Tom's outfit was that the shirt sleeves were three-quarter length and any movement of his arms made the still vivid scar on his left arm too visible. Tom wasn't ashamed of the mark. To be honest, when he was alone of an evening he would spend hours tracing the letters with his fingers, finding comfort in the word which remained his only constant promise that Chakotay was always with him, in spirit if not in body. But it would probably shock the hell out of the rest of the Officers, let alone the Carskoni, and more importantly it might embarrass Chakotay if attention was drawn to the scar.
He couldn't see a solution to the problem though. It was too late to borrow something off Harry and even if he'd had credits to spare to replicate a new shirt, the replicators were off-line in preparation for the installation of a new power source they had acquired from the Carskoni. Because it clashed with the existing systems, B'Elanna had taken all 'non-essential' systems off-line while Engineering ran tests.
At that moment, the replicator seemed damned essential to Tom, but with just five minutes to go before he was left behind anyway, Tom had no choice except to put on the shirt. Maybe if he just kept his arms clamped to his sides, no-one would notice the scar.
Chakotay was furious with Kathryn. He understood her decision. Hell, he understood all the decisions she had made, but he didn't have to like them.
Standing in the transporter room, seeing Tom approach in clothes two sizes too large, as though he was still trying to hide his body from view, with his head ducked and his arms wrapped around himself as though he was hugging himself for comfort, Chakotay's concern for the younger man was so great that he completely disregarded whatever anyone might think and moved forward to intercept him.
"I don't want you to go down there," he hissed in Tom's ear.
Tom froze mid-step and raised his head to meet Chakotay's furious glare. His eyes were wide with consternation at Chakotay's angry tone, yet they sparked with determination as he tried to stare the Commander down.
"I have to," he explained quietly. "Either I'm an Officer on Voyager or I'm not and if I *am* an Officer, I belong on this away team, Chak. None of us know what's really waiting for us down there. We could be walking right into a trap. It's dangerous for all of us but that hasn't stopped anyone volunteering to go down. It's my duty too and I shouldn't be excused from it. I can't live the rest of my life with people making allowances for me. If I'm not up to this away mission, I shouldn't be wearing these pips."
Chakotay's face softened a little.
"I understand, Tom, but no one will think any the less of you if you don't come and I really think it would be better if you didn't."
"Are you telling me I can't come?" Tom asked timidly, a look of sad defeat descending over his features as his self-confidence faltered in the face of Chakotay's obvious disapproval. It was one thing to argue with the Captain, the worst he had risked was being put on charges, but the idea of arguing with Chakotay was more than he could bear. Without Chakotay's love and approval, it wouldn't matter how much pride he regained in front of the rest of the crew by doing his duty.
In that moment, Chakotay realised that Tom would back down if he forced the issue, that Tom would obey him, not as his junior officer, but as his lover, and despite his real concern for Tom's reaction to the Carskoni, he realised that he would be abusing his relationship with the pilot if he used it as a lever against him.
"Personally I'd rather you didn't go," Chakotay said quietly, "But if it's that important to you, then you should do whatever you feel is best and I'll accept your decision either way."
Tom's smile of complete relief was almost enough to still Chakotay's fear. Almost.
"But only if we have a link to your comm-badge at all times. I need to know you can get transported back up to Voyager immediately if you need to return."
"Okay," Tom agreed eagerly, willing to accept any condition that would allow him to both do what he knew was right *and* keep Chakotay happy.
Kathryn cleared her throat noisily and the two men spun towards her, both trying to look as though they had been merely discussing ship's business during their frantically whispered argument. Despite her irritation with them, she decided that their guilty expressions were almost comical so she made no comment when Chakotay further delayed the Away Team's decent by arranging for Tom's comm. badge to be constantly monitored by the Transporter operator.
When they materialised at the instructed co-ordinates, they found themselves standing in the middle of an ornate octagonal courtyard surrounding a central fountain. Four edges of the paved area led to the entrances of towering, opaque-glass buildings, and the other four edges were wide, tree-lined avenues that led between the buildings towards other octagonal courtyards, similarly lined by alternate avenues and towers. This vast honeycomb of roads and buildings spread out so far that it was impossible to see the edges of the city.
Despite the vastness of the metropolis, its uniform appearance and clean, ordered lines gave the impression of peace and harmony. The only sounds were those of trickling water through the fountains, the rustling of the trees as a mild wind whispered down the avenues and a faint music like wind chimes as the glass edifices swayed slightly in the breeze. It was the only relief from an overbearing heat that pervaded the city.
"It's beautiful," Sam said, turning in a circle as she watched the sunlight sparkling off the buildings in a series of tiny rainbows so that the opaque glass appeared as multi-hued as mother-of-pearl.
"The buildings have an aesthetically pleasing exterior," Seven agreed. "Yet the heat is oppressive and the glass structures capture the sunlight and simply increase the ambient temperature, which is illogical."
"Perhaps the Carskoni like the heat," B'Elanna argued.
"Where's all the people though?" Harry asked, looking around the deserted courtyard in confusion.
"They did the same when I came down earlier. They apparently believe it is bad manners to wait for visitors to arrive," Chakotay explained. "Since the obvious thing to do with strangers is to be cautious and check them for hidden weapons, they are attempting to show their friendliness by letting us meander freely towards the central quadrant. It's their way of making us welcome."
"I expect they are watching us from those buildings though," Kathryn said dryly. She could practically feel thousands of eyes peering at them from behind the concealing glass of the buildings.
"Undoubtedly," Tuvok agreed, regarding the buildings with obvious suspicion.
"We'll start to see people as we approach the centre of the city," Chakotay told them, "but if my earlier visit is any indication they will only be Osari and will avoid contact with us."
"So who are the Osari?" B'Elanna demanded.
"As far as I can tell, they're the slaves of the Carskoni," Chakotay answered. "The most obvious difference between the aliens is their clothing. The Carskoni are a military caste. They all wear black uniforms and are all heavily armed. The Osari wear little more than pastel coloured tunics and are unarmed."
"So maybe they are just normal citizens and the Carskoni are the military," Harry said reasonably. "What makes you think the Osari are slaves?"
"The fact that all the Carskoni I met with had an Osari chained by the neck and kneeling at their feet," Chakotay replied dryly.
"Fuck," Tom muttered miserably, beginning to wish he had listened to Chakotay's advice not to come down. It was one thing to intellectually accept the idea that the Osari were slaves, another completely to witness it. His stomach was beginning to churn at the thought of sitting through a three hour dinner trying to pretend that he was unaffected by the idea of people being kept as personal body slaves.
Chakotay casually shortened his pace until he was along side Tom and they both then slowed enough that they dropped behind the rest of the away team.
"You okay?" Chakotay asked.
"Yeah," Tom mumbled, but he refused to meet Chakotay's eyes.
"Don't say it," Tom warned. "Don't you dare say you told me so."
Chakotay checked that no-one was looking back and then threw his arm around Tom's waist and squeezed comfortingly. Tom leant his head down on Chakotay's shoulder and sighed.
"It's getting better, Chak, honest," he whispered. "Sometimes I'm even glad it happened because if it hadn't, maybe we'd never have got together and the idea of trying to live without you in my life is impossible."
"If I could take it back, Tom. If I could take back every blow, every moment of pain and fear, then I would," Chakotay replied, "but I'd never take back falling in love with you. You're my life, Tom, and somehow, someday, I'll make it right for us."
"I know," Tom sighed. "I know you will."
Chakotay saw Tuvok's head turning back and quickly detached his arm. He wasn't sure if he'd been fast enough, but the Vulcan merely gave him an inscrutable stare before looking away again.
"It's just three hours, Tom. Then we'll be back on Voyager," Chakotay promised.
"Yeah," Tom agreed, so miserably that it was obvious the prospect of returning to the ship was no more welcoming to Tom than the idea of meeting the aliens.
"I'm going to talk to the Captain," Chakotay said abruptly. Between Tuvok's peculiar expression and Tom's obvious unhappiness, Chakotay was beginning to feel that time was running out and he needed to take some decisive action.
"What?" Tom asked, clutching Chakotay's arm in terror.
"I know we agreed not to," Chakotay said, "but we can't go on like this. The supplies the Carskoni have given us mean that we won't have to stop again for months. I'm not prepared to keep sneaking around like this until we find another civilization and there's no guarantee that the next planet will be any more suitable. We could spend years looking for a place to get married at this rate. It was a good theory, but it's not practical, is it? We're simply going to have to bite the bullet on this one."
"But what if she separates us, Chak? What if she says I'm crazy?" Tom asked, his voice rising in panic.
"I'll work something out with her, Tom, I swear. All we need to do is convince her that it's what you really want. All she's ever tried to do is to protect you, Tom and it's hardly surprising that she finds it hard to believe you love me. I think it's little short of a miracle myself," Chakotay replied, his face twisting with a shadow of self-doubt.
Although his own love for Tom was so overwhelming that barely a second of his day passed without the mental image of Tom's face flickering across his mind's-eye like a comforting ghostly caress, Chakotay was still assailed by constant doubts over Tom's own feelings. He knew Tom loved him and needed him. Tom needed him and Chakotay was ready to take on Kathryn Janeway, the crew and the whole quadrant if necessary to be allowed to give Tom the love that he needed. Whether that meant marrying him or running away with him, Chakotay would do whatever it took to protect and care for the man who was now his own only reason for living. Chakotay didn't doubt that Tom's feelings for him were genuine. He did, however, sometimes wonder about their permanence. As he had told Harry, Tom was still far from well.
Maybe Tom would never be well and so would always need him but Chakotay's personal fear, deeply buried, was that the very act of giving Tom his unconditional love and support would allow Tom to recover to the point where he would no longer need it. One day Chakotay could turn around and see hate in Tom's eyes rather than adoration. The thought terrified him but not enough to try to protect himself against that possible fate.
"We just have to show her that you are safe and happy with me," Chakotay continued, "but if the worst comes to the worst, we just take a shuttle and leave the ship. Trust me, Tom. Somehow I'm going to make things right."
Tom nodded and gave Chakotay a weak smile, but his stomach churned with fear. It wasn't Chakotay he didn't trust, it was the Captain. She had already proven that her decisions were as changeable as the wind so it was impossible to judge how she would react. Some part of Tom exalted that Chakotay wanted to take a public stand. It was the part of him that whispered insidiously in his head during the lonely nights telling him that the real reason Chakotay hadn't claimed him was because Chakotay was still unwilling to commit himself. The more pessimistic side of Tom, however, saw Chakotay's promise to confront the Captain as the first blow that would bring their relationship crashing to destruction.
"I like the dark-haired warrior," Skani said, as she looked out of her office window onto the street below.
"He's the one who met earlier with your Master, isn't he?" her secretary asked speculatively.
Skani smiled gently at the young man to take away the bite of her reply.
"You know it's forbidden to gossip about the Carskoni unless you are Aktari," she chided.
"I'm not asking about your Master, I'm asking about the alien warrior," Kitona grinned unrepentantly. "All the Osari know there was no intention to allow any of the other off-worlders down here, yet after meeting the warrior, the Carskoni changed their minds. Gaskar must have told you why."
Skani pursed her lips.
"I do not repeat my Master's conversations," she said primly, but then relented a little.
"The aliens are no threat to us, Kitona. That is all I know and so now the Carskoni feel that we have been rude in our treatment of them. This gathering tonight is merely meant as an apology. We have become so used to seeing off-worlders as a threat that we have forgotten how to deal civilly with other people."
"Is it true that they are all Carskoni, though? They do not seem so to me. They are not even wearing uniforms," Kitona replied.
"Gaskar wanted the gathering to be as informal as possible to make them feel more relaxed," Skani explained. "It also made the 'request' that they left their weapons behind seem less antagonistic. Weapons are as anomalous on casual clothing as the lack of weapons are on a uniformed warrior."
"Then they are all warriors?"
"Gaskar said their ship is Carskoni, they are all warriors," Skani replied. "That is why they are being invited to Carskon, not to meet the people of Osar."
"The blond man looks like the dark warrior's Aktari to me," Kitona argued. "I saw the way they touched. Can a Carskoni be an Aktari?"
"They are aliens," Skani shrugged. "Who knows their customs? They are not a particularly advanced race, their technology is primitive by our standards, so it's to be expected that their culture is equally backward."
Her musing was distracted by the pulsing of the small crystal inset into her left forearm. She looked at it fondly, watching the winking light ripple over the Akton of her Master.
"I have to leave," she told Kitona. "My Master summons me. I've left the rotational variation for the southern hemisphere climatic amendment on my desk. Make sure it is implemented at sunset."
"Of course," Kitona replied, trying to look diligent in spite of his obvious disappointment that as a mere Osari he would not be invited to meet the off-worlders.
Skani patted the youngster on the cheek kindly.
"I'll tell you all about it," she promised.
As she stepped onto her personal transporter and shimmered out of Kitona's sight, the young man sighed and wished he was old enough to offer Aktar. He doubted another party of off-worlders would be invited to land in his lifetime.
As Chakotay had predicted, when they approached the vast dome that formed the hub of the sprawling honeycomb of the city, they started to see Osari at work on the streets. The aliens were humanoid in appearance and although they had the facial ridges that seemed to be an almost invariable characteristic of the natives of the Delta Quadrant, the ridges were more akin to B'Elanna's half-Klingon forehead than the more pronounced difference of the Kazon.
Most of the Osari paid them little attention, only glancing up shyly from where they were tending the trees or fountains. The braver Osari smiled at them tentatively and watched them avidly as though they were fascinatingly exotic in their bright clothes and multi-hued skin-tones. All of the Osari were ebony-skinned and were dressed simply in skimpy pastel tunics. The plain, short costumes may have been simply designed to combat the heat of the planet but they still gave the Osari a vulnerable and underdressed air in the eyes of the away team.
"They don't seem unhappy," Harry commented. Despite their poor clothing and the menial tasks that the Osari were performing, the general aura of the aliens was as harmonious as the surrounding buildings.
"Well I was only down here earlier for a couple of hours myself," Chakotay replied, "but I didn't see any evidence of discontent either. As far as I can tell, the society here is surprisingly peaceful considering the military capacity of the Carskoni. Either the Osari are content with their servitude or are, at least, resigned to it."
"The Osari are hardly likely to rebel if the Carskoni are the only ones with weapons," Tom pointed out. "They're probably just making the most of a bad situation."
"Yeah, well you'd know all about that, wouldn't you?" Ensign Harrison replied cuttingly. "Since you make a habit of taking the easy option."
In the appalled silence that followed his comment, Tom flushed scarlet and ducked his head to avoid the looks of concerned embarrassment thrown in his direction and only Tuvok's restraining hand on Chakotay's arm prevented the Commander from wiping the smirk of Harrison's face. It was Kathryn whose response surprised them all the most. She slapped her comm. badge and instructed Voyager to transport Harrison back to the ship.
"You're confined to quarters until I have time to deal with you," she told the surprised Ensign.
"But what about the Carskoni?" Harrison protested desperately. "They insisted on meeting all the Officers."
"No Starfleet Officer would make cheap, snide comments at the expense of a colleague," Kathryn replied coldly. "Consider yourself demoted." Then she turned to the rest of the Away Team. "Would anyone else like to join him? No? Then I assume I'll never hear another word mentioned on the subject."
She strode back to the front of the group without so much as a glance at Tom and Chakotay's faces but she was certain that her message had not only come across to the crew, but also to the pair in question. Whatever they might think of her decisions in regard to their relationship, the one thing she was determined to always be consistent in was her defense of them as individuals.
It was only when the away team entered the final quadrant and approached the huge dome-shaped heart of the city that one of the Carskoni emerged to greet them. Except for his severe black uniform and the obvious weapons at his waist, the Carskoni was almost identical in appearance to the Osari. He had the same ebony skin and sleek black hair but had a pronounced symmetrical pattern carved onto the ridges on his forehead. Other than the fact that it was white on black, it was oddly similar to Chakotay's tattoo.
"Welcome again, Chakotay, and welcome to your fellow warriors" the Carskoni said, with a wide smile.
"Warriors?" Kathryn asked Chakotay under her breath. She was discomforted by the Carskoni's uniform. The invitation had been to come to an informal dinner. In view of their own instructions to leave their uniforms and weapons behind, the Carskoni's own choice of dress seemed rude and threatening.
"The Carskoni are a military culture and identify Starfleet Officers as being warriors," Chakotay explained. "It's a term of respect."
"Thank you, Gaskar," Chakotay replied to the alien. "This is my Captain whom I told you about."
Gaskar gave a courteous bow and when Kathryn extended her arm to offer a handshake, he instead took her hand and pressed it to his lips in an elegant gesture.
"Your warrior told me that you were a fierce leader, Captain," he said smoothly. "He failed to advise me that you had such exotic beauty to match your courage."
Kathryn flushed and detached her hand hurriedly. The alien's courtesy, so anomalous with his fierce appearance, had caught her completely by surprise.
"These are the officers of my ship, " she said, quickly regaining her poise. "This is Lieutenant Commander Tuvok, Lieutenant Wildman, Lieutenant…"
"Forgive me interrupting," Gaskar said with an apologetic smile, "but except for your warrior Tuvok, I fear that your pale skin means you are all suffering from the effects of our climate. Perhaps we should adjourn inside where it is cooler. We have arranged for a banquet to be held in honor of your courageous journey to return to your homeworld. Many of the Carskoni are fascinated by the little Chakotay has already told us of your adventures. We hope that you will accept our hospitality and tell us more about yourselves this evening."
He gestured grandly towards what appeared to be a form of moving staircase that led inside the dome. The away team stepped gingerly onto the structure. It appeared to be made of the same multi-hued glass of the buildings and seemed too fragile and insubstantial to bear their weight, yet it moved with a slow rippling effect so that it almost seemed that they were walking on water.
"Weird," Baytart commented as they began to glide effortlessly into the building. "The technology that runs this city must be incredible, but all you experience is the effect. You don't see any of the machinery, just the results."
"Exactly," Sam agreed. "Everything practical item seems designed primarily to be beautiful but it doesn't affect its operation."
"I'd rather see the machinery," B'Elanna griped.
Gaskar turned in her direction.
"You are the Chief Engineer, are you not?"
"Yes," B'Elanna agreed, giving a suspicious look at Chakotay. He gave her a small nod, confirming that he'd described her to Gaskar rather than the alien having discerned the information by telepathic means.
"If you would find the experience preferable, I could arrange for you to tour our facilities while your companions eat," he offered.
"Captain?" B'Elanna asked excitedly.
"I think both you and Lieutenant Carrey would enjoy the opportunity," Kathryn replied, equally intrigued to learn more about the Carskoni but reinforcing away team protocol.
"Of course," Gaskar replied with a gracious smile. He realised the Captain was letting him know she wouldn't allow just a single member of her crew to leave the main party and he approved of her caution. He had been surprised that the Captain had agreed to their original demand that only one member of the crew could land to negotiate the trade. Now he realised it had only been agreed because the warrior Chakotay was such a high-ranking officer. Gaskar was pleased the Captain was more cautious with her lower ranks, it suggested that the rules of this "Starfleet" were not as alien to their own codes of practice as he had originally feared.
The meeting of alien cultures was always a fragile and delicate thing. Gaskar had convinced his peers to extend this invitation in the hope of learning a little from the aliens. The potential benefits of finding out what was happening in the space beyond their own jealously guarded borders far outweighed the risk of inviting such a technologically inferior people to witness the wealth of their planet. This 'Starfleet 'that Voyager came from was so distant that the Carskoni didn't need to fear that the crew of Voyager would return with an attempted invasion force in the immediate future.
Many of the Carskoni had felt that this very fact that made Voyager so unthreatening was sufficient reason to ignore her. They had argued that there was little point befriending people that they would never see again and that their agreement to trade (when there was nothing of value that Voyager could offer) had been sufficient generosity on their own part to the stranded aliens.
Gaskar, however, belonged to those Carskoni whose vision was far more forward-thinking. Although it would be several more centuries before these Alpha Quadrant aliens gained the technology to create their own stable trans-warp conduits, there *would* come a time when distance was no longer a barrier between them. For the sake of future generations, a small show of friendliness now might prevent 'Starfleet' becoming an enemy of the future.
"It's difficult to believe that a civilization could be this advanced and yet be built upon slavery," Kathryn murmured to Tuvok, as they were led through into the opulent high dome that formed the centre of the vast Carskoni metropolis.
Although Chakotay had told her that the Carskoni were surprisingly civilized, she was still confused by the anomaly between Gaskar's manner and Chakotay's insistence that the Carskoni practiced slavery. Gaskar was unfailingly courteous and polite, took obvious pleasure and pride in escorting them into the facilities of his city and although she saw many Osari rushing through the corridors with laden trays of food there seemed nothing particularly servile about their behaviour in her opinion.
She decided that Chakotay was possibly mistaken. Perhaps his own personal demons had caused him to misinterpret the situation here. The Osari were obviously an underclass of workers, but slavery seemed far too harsh a term to describe their condition.
It was only when they were led into a large banquet room filled with several dozen Carskoni seated at tables laden with food and Kathryn saw that each Carskoni did indeed have an Osari literally chained at their feet that her perception of the charming alien changed completely.