The Shattering of the Mask 41
See part 1 for disclaimer
The entire away team froze in the doorway to the huge, domed dining room, their brains desperately trying to process the bizarrely contrasting images that assaulted their eyes. Firstly, although their passage through the building had seemed to be virtually horizontal, they had somehow ascended several hundred feet on the moving stairway and were now so high above ground level that they were level with the top floors of many of the surrounding towers.
Rather than walls and a ceiling, the room was simply capped by a vast clear dome of a glass-like material and the passage they were entering from took them directly into the center of the room. The dome was so transparent that, except for where it caught and reflected the sunlight in intricate rainbow patterns, it appeared that if they walked to an edge of the room they could simply step out into space. It created both an uncomfortable feeling of vertigo and yet strangely also a mood that the Carskon valued, and were at home with, the elements of their planet. Standing there, with the odd wispy white cloud wafting over their heads, yet protected invisibly from both the heat of the planet's sun and the inevitable wind that would be prevalent at such a height, the Voyagers were a little stunned and awestruck.
As they turned slowly around, their eyes hungrily devouring the sight of hundreds of gathered Carskoni, most of whom had exchanged their severe black uniforms for less formal, though equally black, costumes, they were struck repeatedly by the dramatic contrasts of the room.
The tables at which the aliens sat were all formed of the same almost invisible glass material, so that the bounteous plates of celebratory food appeared to be floating in mid-air, yet the chairs in which they sat were solidly visible and more reminiscent of loungers than functional seats. The chairs were draped with silks and velveteen fabrics that were so vibrantly multi-hued that they assaulted the eyes, which had the effect of making the Carskoni's own black clothing become a restful place for a viewers eyes. In this way, despite or perhaps because of the opulent surroundings, all attention was drawn to the Carskoni themselves.
In the same way, each Osari who knelt at the feet of his or her 'owner' was dressed in a simple tunic of pure white. Unlike the pastel tunics of the workers that the Away Team had already observed, these white garments were far more revealing. They appeared to be little more than two small oblongs of white cloth, fastened to the Osari's bodies by means of gold clasps on either shoulder and a further clasp at either side of the Osari's waist, leaving most of their flesh exposed. Around each Osari's neck there was an intricate filigree collar of gold. An equally delicate chain connected each collar to a hook upon each Carskoni's belt.
Tom gave a low keening mewl of distress, but before Chakotay could turn to comfort him, a tiny Osari woman with lustrous black hair, who had rushed over to kneel submissively at Gaskar's feet as soon as they entered, jerked her head in surprise at Tom's obvious discomfort and, gliding sensuously to her feet, she whispered something in Gaskar's ear and he nodded at her fondly before addressing the Away Team.
"Captain, your officers and yourself must come, be seated and partake of this feast which we have prepared in your honor. We are all eager to hear the details of your adventures and we will be happy to answer the questions that I am sure you yourselves wish to ask. This should be seen as a free and open exchange of our mutual cultures so that, despite the short time you will stay with us, we will all be jointly enriched by this experience. Several of my colleagues own personal Aktari are so excited by your arrival that they have requested the honor of serving you this evening, so you must forgive their masters' probable jealousy," he said, although he smiled to convey the fact that he was joking. "I was feeling sorry for them, but now my own Aktari has demanded that she serves one of you too."
He grinned with amusement as the small woman made her way to Tom's side and dropped gracefully to her knees in front of him. His grin merely widened as he saw Tom panic at her action and attempt to haul her desperately to her feet again.
"Skani has never seen a Carskoni with such coloring," Gaskar told them jovially, "He has hair the color of gold, which is an adornment that only an Aktari may wear. Then his clothing is equally fascinating to her. He is dressed half-white, half-black, as though he is either both Carskoni and Aktari or neither."
"I don't understand what you're saying," Chakotay said tightly.
Gaskar looked at him curiously.
"No? You do surprise me, Chakotay," he said mildly, then turned to the Captain. "Come, eat with us. It is a tradition of our people that we only eat with friends. Cement our friendship with your participation in our feast."
"Please," Tom whispered frantically to the slave woman, as the sumptuous seat drowned him. "Don't kneel. I can't bear it."
Skani looked at him in concern but then smiled.
"Normally I would be forced to disobey you for the sake of propriety. Yet, you are so tall that even when you are seated and I am standing, I believe my head is still sufficiently lower than yours to be respectful," she agreed. "My name is Skani and it is my honor tonight to take care of you. Allow me to feed you now, Master.
"I'm nobody's master," Tom insisted, "and I can feed myself. Please, Skani. Don't do this to me."
"Have I offended you by my presumption? Would you prefer another attendant tonight?" Skani asked tremulously..
Tom recognized the waver in her tone, he'd heard it too often in his own voice not to understand what it meant. Without thinking, his left hand shot out to grasp hers comfortingly.
"I'm sorry. I don't want you to get into trouble," he assured her, remembering his promise to the Captain not to make a scene. "Do whatever you have to do but I'd prefer you just called me Tom, at least."
Skani was too astounded by the depth of his misunderstanding to answer immediately. This pretty alien seemed to believe her fear was because she might be chastised for failing to serve him rather than the blow his rejection had struck to her own ego. Skani prided herself on her skills as an Aktari and although all of the aliens seemed uncomfortable with being served, this 'Tom' was definitely more skittish than all the rest put together. It had hurt the souls of all the Aktari to imagine all these brave Carskoni stranded so far away from home, facing so many dangers without Osari to protect or Aktari to offer them comfort. They had pleaded with their Masters to offer the travelers a little temporary comfort and had so looked forward to offering them temporary care that it had never occurred to any of them that the Voyagers might not want it.
Then her train of thought was de-railed as she first noticed the crude and barbaric looking Akton on Tom's forearm. Although the scar was unlike the Carskon on the warrior Chakotay's forehead, from the earlier interaction she had witnessed in the square she quickly deduced that the two were bonded in some fashion. Perhaps that was the reason for Tom's discomfort, she decided. Although it was difficult to imagine a Carskoni also being an Aktari, she reminded herself that she was dealing with an alien from a completely different culture.
"Have we offended you, Tom?" Skani asked carefully. " I realize that some bondings are closer than others and you may not feel comfortable watching another Aktari serving your own Master."
Tom paled at the implication of Skani's words. It was immediately obvious to him that Skani was referring to Chakotay and it made him feel decidedly ill that his feelings for the older man were not only so obvious to this slave woman but that she saw in himself some form of kindred spirit.
"He's not my master," he snarled. "I'm not a slave."
Skani bit her lip worriedly. There was no way she had misinterpreted the needful glances that this Tom was constantly throwing towards the dark warrior. Perhaps a Carskoni would not notice Tom's hunger but to an Aktari like herself it was too painfully obvious. She didn't know what 'slave' meant but, from Tom's tone, it was obviously a term of derision which suggested that this blond alien was either struggling with a sense of self-denial or, perhaps, was even one of those rare unfortunates whose offer of Aktar had been rejected. Skani herself could think of no more tragic a scenario than that one and it would explain Tom's wounded eyes and the way he listlessly picked at his food despite his worrying thinness.
Still, there was no way to broach such a delicate and humiliating matter without possibly distressing the alien more. Trying to talk to these aliens was like walking through a mine field. No wonder the Carskoni usually dealt with matters of diplomacy, she decided. Her own skills were obviously lax in that direction. Skani had always been far more comfortable with quantum physics than other people. She gave Tom a profuse apology while backing away so that she could rejoin her Master. She would hope to capture Gaskar's attention for a small while so that he might advise her how to deal with the strange Tom; a Carskoni who obviously wished to be an Aktari..
Skani had never before heard of such a thing. Still, neither had she met an alien before and, besides, there was absolutely no reason why tradition had to stand in the way of love.
"We live in a dangerous part of space," Gaskar explained to Kathryn and Chakotay who were seated on either side of him.. "Our resources are constantly strained by the necessity to keep our aggressive neighbors from stealing the technology that we have taken millennia to create. This is why we were initially so unwelcoming to yourselves. It was only prudent to make sure of your intentions before offering our friendship. We do regret any misunderstandings that our hesitancy may have created."
"Your planetary defenses are impressive," Kathryn agreed. "They don't seem to affect the quality of life here on Carskon though." She gestured to the opulent surroundings and the laden plates of food.
"It is both our fortune and our burden that we live on a planet so rich in natural resources as Osar. It means that we have the energy to defend ourselves, yet it also is the very reason that we need to do so. Our strength as a people is that we do not allow the burden to affect our lifestyle. Life on Osar is harmonious. We eradicated crime centuries ago. Our civilians are content, well-fed and safe. They appreciate the sacrifices that we military personnel make on their behalf ."
"Osar?" Chakotay asked, although he was still staring down the table rather than looking at Gaskar.. Tom had been seated several places further down and it was bothering Chakotay immensely that he was unable to talk to Tom without raising his voice loud enough for half the room to hear. He'd seen the discomfiture that Tom had felt at being attended to by the slave woman and had been worried sick that Tom might over-react. Fortunately, the woman had seemingly given up trying to help Tom eat and had returned to Gaskar's own feet. "I thought this planet was known as Carskon," he continued.
Gaskar smiled apologetically, although his eyes narrowed a little at Chakotay's distraction and he stared down the table to see what was of such interest to the alien that his previously perfect manners were now so poor. It was the blond alien. The one who had spurned his Skani. Gaskar racked his memory. It was the pilot, he reminded himself. Lieutenant Tom Paris. He thought it odd that two Carskoni looked at each other with such obvious heat, but then he was finding these aliens to be delightfully entertaining in many ways.
He heard the Captain clear her throat and his mind returned quickly to the question that Chakotay had asked.
"Forgive us if we confused you with our earlier evasiveness. It is our nature to be suspicious and give little information to strangers. Now, however, since you are our guests and therefore strangers no longer, I will try to answer your questions. Our planet is known as Osar, it is only this city which is known Carskon, since it is the place where the Carskoni live."
"And evidently thousands of Osari," Tuvok pointed out, from Kathryn's left..
"I believe there are over seven hundred thousand Osari living in Carskon," Gaskar agreed. "Two hundred thousand are Aktari though."
"What are Aktari?" Kathryn asked, completely confused.
"The Osari who belong to the Carskoni," he replied, "such as my Skani. All of the Osari in this room are Aktari."
"I see," Kathryn replied coldly, regarding the barely clad woman who was again kneeling submissively at Gaskar's feet, a fine chain leashing her to Gaskar's belt from the ornate collar that adorned her neck. Aktari was obviously the Carskoni term for slave, she decided.
Gaskar either failed to notice Kathryn's disgust or chose to ignore it. He ruffled Skani's long black hair fondly as he continued.
"It has been almost five centuries since one of the Osari has been at physical risk from alien invasion. They greatly appreciate the care that we take over them and serve us accordingly."
Tuvok narrowed his eyes thoughtfully as he looked around the room. Apart from the obvious difference in dress and station between the Carskoni and the Osari, there was no discernible physical difference between the two castes.
"You are all one race," he said to Gaskar.
"Then how is it decided whether a person is Osari or Carskoni, and why are only a small proportion of the Osari known as Aktari? Is it simply a matter of birth that assigns the slavery?"
Gaskar frowned in confusion. "I do not understand this word 'slavery'. Explain."
"It refers to the ownership of one person by another," Chakotay interrupted.
"Ah," Gaskar said, his brow clearing, then furrowing again. "Then your term is perhaps correct, but your understanding is not.. We are all born into the Osari caste, irrelevant of our parentage. All children are automatically awarded that right of protected citizenship and may choose to remain Osari forever. Some of us feel called to service, however. It is a personal decision. At the time of adolescence an Osari may train to become a Carskoni. It is a hard life, doubly so after our sheltered childhoods, so many decide that the Military caste is not for them and return to their previous lives as Osari; those who the Carskoni protect. Some Osari decide that they wish to join the caste of Osari workers rather than return home. They are the citizens who live within the boundaries of Carskon. Most Osari choose to live away from the city, however. They understand that the military caste is necessary for their protection and that the worker caste provide their food and well-being, but they prefer to simply live their own uncomplicated lives beyond Carskon's walls."
"But the Aktari here are your slaves. You own them," Kathryn pointed out.
"Of course," Gaskar replied. "Why else would they chose to be Aktari?"
"They choose?" Tom asked quietly.
Chakotay looked at him in concern. Tom had gone white and a thin bead of perspiration was visible on his forehead.
It was Skani who answered with a peal of genuine laughter.
"Only the Osari have the right to offer, the Carskoni cannot take," she said, her delicate face a little contemptuous of their ignorance. "The ceremony of Aktar is always at the choice of the Osari."
"What is Aktar?" Chakotay asked.
"The bonding of two people," she replied. "Do you not have such a practice?"
"We call it marriage," Kathryn answered, "but it is the bonding of two equals, not a form of slavery."
Skani tossed her head back in disbelief. " For each Carskoni there must be an Aktari. It is the natural way to bond a protector with a carer. The Aktari cares for the Carskoni and the Carskoni protects the Aktari. It is an honor for an Osari to give themselves in bondage to the Carskoni. It is a fair exchange for the protection that they offer us by sacrificing their lives on our behalf. When I asked my Master for Aktar and was accepted, it brought pride upon my whole family."
"And a little too much pride to Skani," Gaskar chided, cuffing the woman lightly.
Skani blushed and dipped her head in pretended shame but a smirk of satisfaction still played over her features as she looked sideward with knowing eyes at Tom's look of confused fascination.
Within an hour, the formal dinner began to relax into a far more friendly and liberal atmosphere, with the Carskoni regularly changing seats with each other so that everyone had an opportunity to converse with the fascinating aliens. Although the arrival of each new Carskoni meant the arrival of a new Osari also, Kathryn was surprised to discover that each 'slave' was formally introduced to her; usually with a proud recitation of the Osari's achievements as though they were prized pets that the Carskoni took immense personal pride in owning. Then even that interpretation faltered in the face of the genuine mutual affection that she kept witnessing between 'Slave' and 'Master'.
"You designed the matrix for conversion of anti-matter into a safe self-renewing power source?" Kathryn asked, in genuine admiration.
The young Osari blushed and nodded. His 'master' rubbed his neck fondly and beamed at Kathryn with pride.
"He's a genius," Baltzar crowed. "Chanti also was heavily involved in the creation of our new isolinear drive."
Kathryn looked at the young man in confusion. Two hours ago she had thought the Carskoni were a barbaric race of slave owners, yet the longer she spoke to them all the more convinced she was becoming that the Osari were the true brains behind the Carskoni civilization and that although they wore the slave collars, the military caste were the ones truly enslaved by the enchanting geniuses at their feet. Despite the outward appearance, the civilization was a symbiosis of brain and brawn, where the Carskoni offered their physical protection and the Osari offered devotion in return.
Even the collars and chains were misleading. Whenever an Osari wanted to go talk to someone else they simply apologized to their masters, unhooked themselves and wandered off. It seemed that the apparent slavery was just a form of ritual dance that the aliens played.
"Forgive me for being rude, but I was wondering about the collars and chains," she said to Baltzar. "It is obvious to me that you love and respect Chanti very much."
Baltzar grinned his agreement and ruffled Chanti's hair with unmistakable affection.
"So, please don't be offended, but why do you keep him collared and leashed like a pet?"
Baltzar frowned in puzzlement. He looked helplessly at his 'slave' and it was Chanti who rescued him by answering Kathryn's question with a question of his own..
"Do your people not offer tokens that signify a bonding?" Chanti asked.
"Some people exchange rings to signify marriage," Kathryn replied. "It's an old custom that has persisted over the years although it's more of a ritual than having any specific purpose. It's just a way of showing other people visibly that two people have made a commitment.".
Baltzar smiled now that he understood the nature of the alien's misunderstanding. "You see a difference between your "rings" and our collars? There seems no difference to me. You call it 'marriage' and signify it with a ring. We call it Aktar and mark it with a collar," he explained.
"The difference is that you believe the Aktar makes the Osari your property and the collar and chain is obviously a mark of ownership. I find it hard to understand why someone as obviously intelligent as Chanti would chose to become another man's property," Kathryn replied. "Why did you 'choose' to become an Aktari?" she asked Chanti.
This time it was Chanti who struggled to find an answer. His decision to become Aktari was an answer to a noble calling. He'd never dreamt of being anything else. All his other achievements meant nothing to him next to the pride he had felt when Baltzar accepted of his offer of Aktar. He'd never even once in his life questioned *why* it was good to be an Aktari. That to him seemed like asking why the sun rose in the morning or why winter followed summer. Some things were simply the way things were. Chanti was happy. Baltzar was happy. It had never occurred to either of them to question *why* they were happy. Chanti looked helplessly at his Master, his dark eyes begging his Master to rescue him from the alien's questions.
"Tell me, why do you feel personally responsible for the safety of your Crew?" Baltzar finally asked, in response to Chanti's mute plea.
Kathryn narrowed her eyes at the apparent change of subject but answered anyway.
"I am the Captain of Voyager; the crew are my responsibility."
"Because they gave themselves into your protection by the swearing of their oath to your Starfleet and you are their senior officer?" Baltzar asked.
"And that gives you the right to make decisions regarding their fate, does it not? You have complete autonomy over their lives within the structure of your Starfleet regulations," Baltzar asked, assuming that all military organizations presumably followed similar practices to his own.
"Yes," Kathryn confirmed.
"Then there is no difference here except in degree of scale. Chanti has sworn a solemn oath that I am his *personal* Captain, if you like. I have become fully responsible for his life, happiness and welfare and in exchange, to ensure that I am able to fulfill that responsibility, he agrees to my decisions on his life. The chains and collar are as symbolic as your uniform ranks, Captain, but no less important. My ownership of Chanti is no more constraining to his ability to perform his job than your authority as a Captain prevents the individual members of your crew from functioning as individuals. The symbols of Aktar are admittedly just throwbacks to a far more barbaric time in our own history but the sentiment that they symbolize is one that signifies the change of our society from a time of strife to one of harmony and joy."
Kathryn frowned uncertainly, her preconceptions threatened by Baltzar's reasonable explanation, and seeing the first signs of understanding on her face, the alien hastened to explain further.
"Our planet was once torn by wars and petty disputes, Captain. Our people were dying, not at the hands of aliens but through our own internal strife. There were boundaries of political discontent, each region ruled by their own Governments who were constantly at war with each other and each Government had its own army of Carskoni. Countless millions of Carskoni slaughtered each other under the orders of their individual masters until a day came when the Carskoni themselves grew tired of fighting and dying for nothing more than the pride of their governments.
"The Carskoni themselves decided enough was enough. They joined together and overthrew their masters. That was when Carskon was first created as a place for all the Carskoni to live together. This military coup was greatly resisted by the Osari population at first. They were terrified that the Carskoni would abuse their power but all the Carskoni wanted was peace for everyone after the centuries of war. Some citizens were taken from all the provinces and kept as hostages to the behavior of their families and friends. They were the first Aktari. As time passed, however, and the citizens realized that the Carskoni only wanted everyone to live in peace, the resistance towards Carskon faded. The Carskoni became little more than a policing force of the population and the Aktari were finally unchained and allowed to go home.."
"Only most of them refused to leave," Chanti interrupted, giving Baltzar a loving smile. "They had grown to love their peaceful captors and greatly enjoyed their servitude, seeing it as a small price to pay for the peace and harmony that the Carskoni had gifted the whole planet with. *This* is the tradition that the Aktari maintain. It is especially important now, when so many of our brave Carskoni fail to return from the battles in the skies above our heads, that we Osari keep faith with the Carskoni. Our behavior is perhaps steeped heavily in the traditions of a bygone age, but it is a good tradition because it reminds us all that our society depends purely on the mutual symbiosis of the Carskoni with the Osari."
"Forgive me, I made a judgment out of ignorance. I see that now," Kathryn confessed. "Sometimes it's hard to see things from such an alien point of view."
"We are not so alien, Captain Janeway. Our society developed from within a military framework. A lot of our personal behavior is still governed by the rigidity of that military frame of mind. The Osari who live outside the cities perhaps find our way of life as strange and abhorrent as you yourselves do, but for us it works and that is all that counts."
"You certainly do all seem happy, " Kathryn admitted, "but what happens if an Osari makes the wrong choice and regrets the Aktar? Can the Aktar be dissolved the way that married people can divorce each other?"
"Divorce is the ending of the marriage?"
"Then yes. The Aktar is always at the discretion of the Osari. Should a Carskoni be foolish enough to abuse the faith that their Osari places in them, then the Aktar will be dissolved and it is unlikely that another Osari will take the risk of offering themselves as a replacement. It makes us extremely solicitous of the Osari who choose us. It is considered a great personal disgrace for a Master to be rejected by his or her Aktari, and leads to great unhappiness and loneliness. The few Carskoni foolish enough to bring such a fate upon their heads have invariably then volunteered to be stationed on the satellites that form the frontal defense grid, which is the only honorable form of suicide open to a Carskoni."
"Yet I saw Gaskar strike Skani," Kathryn pointed out.
"Discipline within the Aktar is expected. That discipline sometimes takes a physical form. It's something that the couple agree on before the Aktar ceremony is performed. Inappropriate discipline would cause the Osari to leave. It is a delicate balance sometimes but something that bonded couples usually agree on between themselves. If Gaskar struck Skani, then Skani's behavior was inappropriate and she would have been aware of that fact and also must have agreed that physical chastisement is appropriate within the relationship that she and Gaskar share."
"What about you and Chanti?" Kathryn asked.
Baltzar flushed enough for it to be visible despite his dark complexion.
"If I raise my hand to Chanti, it is rarely because I am angry with him," Baltzar finally muttered.
Overhearing, Chanti giggled, blushed and dropped his face towards the floor.
"I see," Kathryn replied eventually, unable to look either alien in the face now that she had caught the implication of Baltzar's statement.
Skani watched the blond alien pushing his food awkwardly around his plate and pretending to look interested in the conversations around him, although it was patently obvious to her that all he wanted to do was move further down the table to join the group of people talking to the warrior Chakotay.
She waited patiently until Gaskar's attention turned to her and then discretely signaled for permission to leave his side. He raised an eyebrow in query.
"I wish to speak to the quiet one again," she murmured.
"Ah," Gaskar replied. "The one who watches Chakotay constantly with Aktari eyes."
Skani grinned, then bit her lip.
"Is he truly Carskoni, Master?" she asked cautiously.
"He is the Pilot of their ship," Gaskar confirmed, "and a high-ranking officer within their military hierarchy. There is no doubt that he is Carskoni. Then again, their Chief Engineer B'Elanna Torres is also Carskoni despite the fact that she is obviously an advanced technician. I find their culture mystifying, Skani. They do not have the same clear caste distinctions as we do. It is confusing and inefficient, yet perhaps their culture has developed that way out of necessity. Alone as they are, so far from home, perhaps they have evolved in this fashion simply to survive. From what I gather, the crew was merged from two opposing ships. Perhaps just as they merged their crew, they also merged their individual roles."
"Yes. I can see how that might be true and it would explain why Tom bears an Akton," Skani told Gaskar.
"He does? Is it that of Chakotay?" Gaskar asked with interest.
"It is too crude to identify, but since Chakotay is the only alien who also wears an Akton, and considering the way this Tom constantly watches him, I believe it is the only explanation. When I asked him, however, he denied that Chakotay was his Master."
"Perhaps the discussion of sexual relationships is taboo within their culture," Gaskar suggested, "or perhaps the aliens' culture is not comparable with ours after all."
"I would like to discuss the matter further with him, with your permission," Skani asked.
"Go then," Gaskar told her. "He intrigues me too."
Tom didn't notice the woman approach until she slipped gracefully to the floor at his feet with a murmured, "May I talk with you ,Master?"
"I told you to call me Tom," Tom growled, his eyes flaring in horror as Skani knelt once more at his feet..
"May I speak with you anyway?" Skani asked, an amused smile flitting over her face.
"Only if you get off the floor," Tom said, reaching down to help her to her feet.
"I have been considering our earlier conversation where you denied that Chakotay is your Master. I do not wish to be presumptuous or rude, but since your visit is supposed to be a free exchange of our cultures, I wondered whether you would at least explain why you wear an Akton if you are not Aktari."
"What?" Tom asked in confusion.
Skani traced his scarred left arm with her fingers then turned her arm to reveal an intricate pattern carved into the flesh around an embedded jewel.
Tom flushed and shook his head furiously, darting a frantic look at Chakotay just in case he had overheard.
"It's not what you think," he told her. "It's just a scar. I did it myself."
A look of genuine sympathy crossed Skani's face.
"So that is why it is such a crude mark. The warrior refused your offer of Aktar and you were so heart-broken that you chose to wear his mark anyway?" she asked. "I sorrow for your shame. No Carskoni would be so cruel to an Osari."
Tom swallowed uncomfortably at the undeniable compassion in Skani's voice. Mistaken or not, her interpretation of his scar was far more understanding and sympathetic than the horrified reaction of the rest of Voyager's crew to a scar that Tom himself bore with personal pride. Perhaps it was that difference that finally allowed him to lower his defensive shields a little. While he saw no true comparison between his relationship with Chakotay and that between Skani and Gaskar, he recognized that Skani's concern was genuine and so he was gentle as he replied to her.
"No," Tom whispered. "Chakotay didn't refuse me. We love each other, but it's different. Our people do not believe in Aktons. They see it as wrong for someone to love one another as much as we do. As much as your people do." He gestured at the countless of Aktari who had finished eating and were currently leaning into the comfort of their Master's legs with obvious contentment.
Although his inclusion of the Aktari was more of a kindness than a true comparison, there was an element of truth in his words. He *was* jealous of the easy way in which the aliens interrelated with each other. It wasn't that he wanted to be an Aktari. He simply wished that the crew of Voyager could adapt to his feelings for Chakotay with the apparent ease with which they were accepting the far more outrageous relationships between these aliens. He had watched the Captain laughing and joking with numerous Carskoni and their Aktari. She seemed completely accepting now of the strange culture of the aliens, yet if he rose now, sank to his knees in front of Chakotay and lay his head on Chakotay's thigh , the Captain would undoubtedly declare him insane again.
"But you wish to belong to your special warrior, do you not?" Skani asked.
"In my heart. In his heart. But our relationship is secret," Tom admitted. "If you repeat what I've told you, I will be forbidden to see him again."
"That is cruel and barbaric," Skani replied. "Your people have small minds and smaller hearts. The love of two people cannot be judged by a third."
Tom looked around the room and shuddered at the sight of the various Osari who were each knelt at their Master's feet. It frightened him how little difference there was between their positions and his favorite habit of curling on the floor in Harry and B'Elanna's quarters and resting his cheek on Chakotay's thigh. He could almost feel the ghostly presence of Chakotay's fingers stroking his hair.
He shook himself furiously.
"I'm not like you," he insisted to Skani. "I'm a Lieutenant. I'm Voyager's pilot. I'm not Chakotay's sex toy."
Skani's laughter was so loud that Gaskar broke off his conversation with Tuvok and gave her a fond smile before turning his scrutiny towards Tom. His eyes narrowed in speculation and Tom dropped his flaming face from the alien's regard. It seemed that all the fucking aliens could see right through him.
"Is that how you see me?" Skani asked, more amused than offended. "Do you know *how* I met my Master? Why I had the opportunity to know him well enough to offer him Aktar?"
Tom shook his head helplessly.
"Because I came to the city to be trained as a technician. Most of the Osari who live in the city are trained scientists, technicians, engineers or administrators. There are some, of course, who work as gardeners or servants, but there is no division between us based on the jobs we do. The decision of any Osari to live in Carskon is a noble choice. We work here so that the other Osari may simply play. We produce their food, their energy, their defenses and they live in a resultant utopia of carefree existence. They are like children, perhaps. They have no responsibilities, no jobs. In this city we produce their needs and house the Carskoni who protect their lives. Some of we city dwellers choose to offer Aktar to the Carskoni, others prefer to form relationships with other Osari. It is a matter of personal choice."
"So you work?" Tom asked in confusion.
Skani laughed again.
"See that tower?" she asked, pointing at one of the huge edifices that encircled the dome. "I manage that tower. I have over one thousand technicians working under me. Do you think Gaskar would have accepted Aktar from just *anyone*? A warrior such as Gaskar would only offer his personal protection to an Aktari who is an equally high ranking Osari."
"I'm sorry. I didn't understand," Tom apologized.
"Do your people always condemn that which is different?" Skani asked, smiling to take away the bite of her words.
"No, but sometimes things are hard to understand, difficult to fit in with our own moral preconceptions."
"You find my lifestyle morally abhorrent?" Skani asked.
"No, now you've explained, I find it strangely seductive to tell the truth," Tom admitted. "It's how I feel about Chakotay, how he feels about me, but it's not something that would ever be allowed by our own people.."
"What business is it of anyone else's?" Skani asked in confusion. "Had we realized that our way of life would cause your people offence, we would have concealed our personal relationships out of respect. It would not have changed anything though, simply because you did not know of our lifestyle. Surely you and your warrior could keep your relationship private too."
"It's not as simple as that," Tom confessed. "Chakotay was very ill once and he hurt me unintentionally. Now, although he's better, no one trusts him not to hurt me again."
"Yet you are prepared to offer him your Aktar, so *you* trust him," Skani pointed out.
"I love him," Tom replied simply. "I'd rather risk his abuse than live without him, but the truth is that I trust him with my life. "
"That *is* the Aktar," Skani agreed, "the placing of your life in another's hands and believing they will honor and value your trust in them."
"Is the Aktar a legal ceremony?" Tom asked suddenly.
"Our laws hold that the Aktar is the most sacred and unbreakable bond between two people," Skani answered. "The attempted breaking of the Aktar is the most heinous crime that still stands on our world."
Tom jumped to his feet. The movement drew most of the eyes in the room upon him.
"Tom?" Chakotay queried in concern, worried by Tom's flushed cheeks and overbright eyes.
"I need to go back to Voyager," Tom gasped. He didn't wait for permission to leave, he just slapped his comm. badge in the prearranged signal for transport.
As Tom shimmered out of sight, Gaskar looked curiously at the warrior Chakotay. Perhaps he had been mistaken in his earlier assessment of Tom and Chakotay's relationship, he decided, because no Carskoni would sit still while his obviously distressed Aktari fled a room. It was only when Skani rejoined him and whispered in his ear that Gaskar's eyes took on a different type of cool speculation.
He patted Skani gently in agreement and waited for the entertainment to unfold.
"Permission to return to Voyager, Captain," Chakotay hissed at Kathryn.
"No, Commander," Kathryn replied gently. "We only have another hour to go and Tom's departure was already rude enough. We can't risk offending anyone with your absence too."
"He looked upset," Chakotay pointed out.
"He did," Kathryn agreed, "but to be honest I think he behaved remarkably well under the circumstances. Following him now will just draw attention to his panic. I think we should leave him alone and on our return to the ship, we should simply compliment him on how well he did up to the point he left. It was you yourself who gave him the ability to simply transport out like that. Perhaps if you hadn't, he would have managed to cope with the whole dinner"
"That's a little harsh, don't you think?" Chakotay growled.
Kathryn shrugged. "Just calling it as I see it, Chakotay. Sometimes it's best to let people stand or fall on their own two feet. Tom's been doing extremely well on his own over the last few months."
"He hasn't been," Chakotay replied firmly. He decided it was time to take the bull by its horns. At least in the presence of the aliens, Kathryn would have to keep her voice down. Besides, the worst she could do was have him arrested and at least that way he'd be back on Voyager and able to check that Tom was alright.
"Hasn't been doing well?" Kathryn asked with studied innocence.
"Hasn't been on his own," Chakotay admitted, then waited for the axe to fall.
"I know," Kathryn replied coolly. "Of course, now you've finally admitted it, I'm sure we'll enjoy discussing it later."
She decided the look of complete shock on Chakotay's face was priceless.
"So can I go back to Voyager now?" Chakotay finally asked, when he recovered from his shock..
"No," Kathryn replied firmly, but she couldn't resist offering him a small smile of understanding for his concern. To be honest, had he *not* wanted to follow Tom she would have had far more serious doubts about their relationship.
"There's got to be *something* in the regulations," Tom insisted. "Look under Prime Directive or something."
"That is merely a rule that we cannot interfere in alien cultures, not an instruction that we must abide by them ourselves," the Doctor replied caustically.
"But it was you who told me about the various sexual and cultural variations on the aligned worlds," Tom argued. "There has to be a specific regulation that states that any legally binding ceremony of marriage is to be honored."
"It won't cover slavery, Tom," the Doctor pointed out.
"God, you're just as narrow-minded as the rest of them," Tom pronounced in disgust. "Forget the word 'slave', the Carskoni don't even understand the term. It's not slavery, it's just a publicly sanctioned form of D/s and you were the one who told me all about that being perfectly legitimate."
"It is a widely practiced form of relationship on Gandia Prime," the Doctor agreed. "The practice of Dominant/Submissive relationships there is widespread."
"So check to see if the computer has records of anyone from there joining Starfleet. All I need is an example of a Starfleet sanctioned couple who practice D/s and the Aktar ceremony will be binding, whatever the Captain says."
"You are, of course, assuming that Chakotay will agree," the Doctor pointed out, "and since the formal dinner will be over in fifty-seven minutes you hardly have time to convince him."
"You just concentrate on finding me a solution, Doc. I'll worry about Chakotay. I guess it's simply time for me to find out whether he trusts me as much as I trust him."
"What do you think of them?" Kathryn asked Tuvok.
"I find their society fascinating," he replied honestly. "They appear to have successfully eradicated all of the problems that develop within large societies and although their solution seems strange, it is equally obvious that it works for them."
"I agree," Kathryn replied, surprising even herself. "It just goes to prove that you can't judge situations by their appearance."
"As is the case with the relationship between the Commander and Mr. Paris," Tuvok interjected slyly.
"It's not the same, Tuvok. You can't compare their relationship with an alien culture."
"Why not?" Tuvok asked. "Starfleet Regulations state that all forms of religious, cultural and sexual practices are legal as long as they are between consenting adults and do not cause harm or hardship to anyone else."
"It's the consenting bit that still concerns me, " Kathryn admitted. "I hardly believe it but I actually accept that all of these Aktari are sane and consenting adults simply partaking in a ritualistic form of marriage, yet I still struggle to believe that Tom Paris truly loves Chakotay."
"Perhaps the difference is simply that you are responsible for his welfare and not for theirs," Tuvok replied.
Tom arrived back on the surface of Osar with little more than ten minutes to spare. To his surprise, although he landed back in the original square since it was the only location that would accept an inwards transportation, he was met immediately by a tall Osari man, whose white tunic declared him an Aktari.
"Skani sent me to collect you," the Aktari said, giving Tom a welcoming smile. "My name's Chanti."
"What do you mean Skani sent you?" Tom demanded.
"You wish to declare Aktar, do you not?" Chanti asked nervously.
Tom looked at him in disbelief and then laughed.
"Are you people psychic?" he asked.
"Never mind. Am I too late?"
"No, I'm here to transport you directly to the outer chamber of the dining hall," Chanti told him. "Then, while I help you get ready for the ceremony, Skani's Master will ensure that the feast continues long enough for you to enter and make your offer."
"What if he refuses me? In front of everyone?" Tom gasped, assailed by doubt now the Aktar was becoming a reality. "Maybe he'll hate me for embarrassing him. Oh shit, what am I doing?"
"You are offering Aktar, which is the most noble and honorable ceremony on our world. If your warrior refuses you, there will be a thousand other Carskoni who will beg for the privilege of your offer. With your exotic beauty and your skills as a pilot, you would be a welcome addition on Osar. Skani told me that Gaskar has already told her that he will offer you sanctuary here if the ceremony is not honored by your own people."
"Just me, or Chakotay too?"
"Another warrior to protect the Osari is a gift of the gods, Tom. You could both stay here and make a life together if your people will not accept your choice."
"Assuming Chakotay accepts me first," Tom pointed out fearfully.
"Perhaps this is the solution you both are looking for. Here you would both be valued and honored. To be Carskoni is to be a hero of the Osari, and to be the Aktari of a Carskoni is the greatest honor that an Osari can aspire to. You, as an Aktari *and* a Carskoni would be perhaps unusual, but we would not throw away the benefits of your Carskoni training simply to make you fit within our normal culture. You will be perhaps the beginning of a new caste within our civilization. Perhaps many Osari will follow in your footsteps and become both Carskoni and Aktari too."
"And that's okay? It doesn't worry you?"
"Why would it? Strength lies in embracing new ideas and practices. Although our civilization is still deeply immersed in traditional values, we also welcome change. Without change our world would stagnate, our inspiration would die and our people would stop striving for new breakthroughs in technology. Then, one day, our enemies would advance beyond our own abilities and defeat us. The safety of Osar depends upon our ability to continually change and adapt to the universe around us. So we do not see your strangeness as a threat, we see it as an opportunity."
"Yeah, well in that case you're more advanced than humans. We still see difference as a threat," Tom replied bitterly.
"Perhaps you give too little credit to your crewmates," Chanti suggested. "You could not have survived your journey if you were unable to adapt to change. Surely they will see your decision as an act of bravery."
"Or desperation," Tom pointed out.
"Perhaps that too," Chanti agreed
Chanti gestured over the jewel within his Akton. It blinked twice and then, without even a tingle of warning, Tom found himself instantly transported.
"Everything you people do is so much smoother than our technology," he commented to Chanti.
"Our transportation devices are designed on a different principle than yours," Chanti replied as he began to help Tom strip his clothes off in preparation for the ritual tunic of a would-be Aktari. "Your transporters use phase transmitters to dematerialize your atomic structure and move it to a new location. Our transporters simply create a small trans-warp conduit and move you so quickly that you do not see yourself being moved."
"You moved my whole body intact?" Tom asked in disbelief.
"Yes," Chanti replied.
"Why didn't I explode under the acceleration of gravity?"
Chanti laughed. "It would take me two years to explain and we have only got about five minutes."
"No, seriously, Chanti," Tom interrupted. "Forget the Aktar for a moment. This technology you have. This ability to create small trans-warp conduits. Could it be used to move a starship? "
"We frequently use a similar technology on our ships," Chanti confirmed.
"So you could send us home. Voyager I mean. You could send us all home, couldn't you?"
Chanti bit his lip uncertainly.
"TELL ME," Tom yelled.
"We could," Chanti agreed slowly, "but we probably won't."
"Because even to operate the equipment we would have to share knowledge with you that is sacred to the caste. The Carskoni would never agree."
"Because we aren't Carskoni?"
"No, because you aren't Aktari.".
"I don't understand."
"The balance of Osar depends on the fact that the Aktari alone possess the knowledge of the technology we have and the Carskoni alone have the ability to use it. It makes us mutually dependant upon each other. If your Chakotay accepts you as his Aktari, then we could offer our knowledge to you ,Tom, and the Carskoni could offer the ability to Chakotay."
"So if Chakotay refuses me, we also lose any chance of getting home?"
"Yes," Chanti admitted. "Except, if you look at it from the other way, it's a damned good reason why your fellow crewmembers would be forced to accept your decision."
Tom's eyes narrowed in suspicion.
"This is all bullshit, isn't it?"
"The conduit is not 'bullshit'," Chanti said quietly, "and no Aktari nor Carskoni will tell you anything otherwise about the necessity to pass the knowledge on to a pair bonded by Aktar."
"You're trying to force the crew into accepting Chakotay and me," Tom concluded.
"The decision was Gaskar's. He says that if your people are unable to bend their rules for the sake of love, then he is not willing to allow our technology to fall into your hands."
"We don't want it, we just want to use it," Tom argued.
"It's the same thing. You will have scientists on your world who will eventually work out how the device worked. Then Osar will be at threat. Whether we are prepared to risk that threat depends upon what happens when you offer your Aktar."
"What's the delay?" Kathryn asked Gaskar suspiciously, although she was careful to keep her tone polite. "You said that we could return to our ship at 2300."
"An occasion of great import that you are to be honored in witnessing," Gaskar replied.
Kathryn raised her eyebrows questioningly.
"A ceremony of Aktar," Gaskar announced. "It is an unusual one, in that the one who would be Aktari is a Carskoni."
"Is that allowed?" Kathryn asked.
"Why not? It is, I admit, the first time that we have encountered the situation yet none of our people are arrogant enough to believe that true love can be denied merely because of tradition. If a person finds themselves called to offer Aktar, it is a sacred and special calling that cannot and should not be interfered with. Aktari is a ritual between two spirits who cannot bear to be parted from each other and we believe that the witnessing of it is an almost holy occasion."
"Then I accept your gracious offer," Kathryn agreed, since to refuse would seem insufferably rude under the circumstances.
To be concluded in part 42