Tom started speaking before the turbolift doors were fully open. "Sorry I'm late, but I have a very good excuse."
Everyone on the bridge looked over at him. Everyone, except Chakotay.
Tom walked demonstratively across the upper deck to Ops. "Picture this: I'm just getting ready to leave the mess hall when Ensign Wildman goes into labour." He chuckled loud enough to carry across the room and leaned over the Ops console. "What else could I do but deliver the baby? Oh, you should have been there, Harry. There is nothing like bringing a new life into the world. I think I missed my calling."
Harry used his eyes to point in the commander's direction. Someone had been checking up on him. "What if I told you the turbolift got stuck on Deck 6?"
"This is the third time you've been late this week, Mr. Paris."
The glacial tone of Chakotay's voice said more than the actual words. The man was near his limit with Tom's antics. Tom scurried down to the navigation console. "It won't happen again."
He got a skeptical glance from the first officer before he sat down.
Tuvok's station beeped merrily. "Commander, I am picking up a distress call on one of the upper subspace bands."
Chakotay finally took his eyes off Tom. "What's the source?"
"A small space craft. No weapons systems. One life form aboard, extremely weak life signs."
Tom heard the captain enter the bridge and only just realized that he hadn't seen her before now. He toyed with the idea that she was talking to that 'someone' who would be accepting a new passenger soon. He wouldn't know, though, until he had an opportunity to speak to her privately. He almost didn't hear Chakotay order half impulse speed.
"According to the bioscanner it's a Vidiian female," Harry said.
Tom's hair prickled. What would a Vidiian woman be doing out here, alone and near death?
At the very least the captain was curious. "Open a channel," she ordered.
Harry complied, but the signal acknowledgement timed out.
"She may be too sick," Chakotay offered as an explanation.
Tom's memories of the Vidiian labour camp were vivid. The mine caverns, thick with the stench of sweat and festering flesh. Pete Durst butchered for spare body parts. A de-Klingonized B'Elanna Torres trembling with fear. "Or maybe it's some kind of trick." The Vidiians had sacrificed their code of ethics in their crusade to end the centuries long epidemic of the phage. Could they really trust what they were seeing?
"Preliminary scans show no other Vidiian ships in this sector," Tuvok reported. "It is unlikely that this is a trap."
The captain started making preparations to transport the woman to sickbay. Tom noted the annoyance on Chakotay's face as he gave the pilot one final glance before patching a comm line to the EMH but he would make no apologies for questioning the woman's presence.
Tom leaned against a stand of seedling plants and stared blankly as Kes nurtured a nearby shelf of maturing vegetables. "Let me see if I've got this straight. This woman I saw with the Doctor last night is a holographic replica of that Vidiian we picked up the other day, and her brain has been downloaded into it?"
She nodded. "Something like that, yes. Denara has a cortical regulator implanted into her parietal lobe which enabled the Doctor to transfer her neural patterns into the holobuffer. It may have prolonged her life for a few more days: the connecting tissue has been almost completely destroyed by the phage."
That at least solved one mystery, although Tom had somehow suspected it when Neelix first pointed her out in Sandrine's. "And he figured that while he was at it he'd create a new friend?"
"By creating her matrix we've been able to learn more about her condition, the phage and the Vidiian culture in general. She also happens to be a doctor, so she's been able to assist with her own treatment." Kes turned around to look at Tom, her expression both reproachful and concerned. "Tom, I know you've had an unpleasant experience with the Vidiians, but that's no reason to resent Denara's presence here. You don't even know her."
Tom frowned. "And you do, just because you've been interacting with a hologram?"
"Her body may be a simulation but her personality is still genuine," Kes said hotly. "Denara is a deeply caring and sensitive individual. She was already giving herself up for dead when we revived her. She didn't believe us when we told her of a possible treatment, she didn't know about the experiment performed at the Vidiian prison camp."
"B'Elanna," Tom said, understanding. "There's no way she'd have given the Doctor any help."
"Once Denara learned of what Sulan did, she felt very much the same you do now. She accepted the possibility that B'Elanna would refuse to help. She even expressed her regret to B'Elanna for what happened."
Tom could hear the 'but' coming. It was impossible to accept, though. "You want me to believe that B'Elanna had a sudden change of heart just because she said she was sorry?"
Kes' anger was gone. Her eyes were profoundly soulful. "The Vidiians have been fighting a losing battle against the phage for a very long time. They've become a desperate people, and desperation often leads to the sacrifice of nobler principles - some people more easily than others.
"Denara is a good person with gentle heart and strong will. B'Elanna was able to see that and agreed to undergo the procedure."
Tom stood there quietly, trying to come to grips with this outcome. B'Elanna had had her identity violated against her will, and she made her hatred of the Vidiians widely known. Yet despite that, she was volunteering to help save the life of one of them. This woman, Denara, must be someone truly remarkable to make B'Elanna feel anything but contempt for her plight. "I guess I need to rethink my position on her too. Thanks, Kes."
The Ocampan smiled humbly and nodded. "You're welcome."
As he ate Tom surveyed the other diners, talking, laughing. Was the spy amid them, had he taken the captain's bait and relayed Tom's recent streak of rebellion? The people came and went, some expressions neutral, others wary and others more disdainful as they passed him. Faces once warm and friendly, now many etched with doubt.
He decided to stare at his dinner instead. He couldn't handle the looks anymore.
"Mind if I join you?"
Tom looked up at Chakotay, not particularly surprised to see him. Crew discipline was part of the first officer's responsibilities. With his mouth full Tom gestured to a vacant seat.
Chakotay made himself comfortable. "So how are things, Tom?"
Tom wiped his mouth clean with a napkin, completely stymied by the innocuous question. He expected something a bit brusquer from the first officer, not a water cooler chat. "Excuse me?"
"How've you been feeling lately? Something bothering you?"
Tom couldn't stop himself from laughing out loud at Chakotay's 'touchy-feely' routine. "No offense, Commander, but why the sudden concern for my feelings?"
"Well, you've been moody lately, indifferent to your duties." Chakotay became more serious, finally adopting an attitude that Tom had anticipated earlier. "To be honest you don't seem to be taking your job very seriously. If you've got a problem, I'd like to know what it is."
This is what the captain wanted, an opportunity to show everyone his displeasure with the current regime. He tossed the napkin aside and leaned back in his chair, looking disdainfully at the first officer. "Yeah, I've got a problem. My problem is you."
Chakotay was silent for a moment, not expecting that he was the source of Tom's problems. "You care to elaborate?"
"You tell me I don't take my job seriously, but half the time you don't let me do my job."
The first officer shook his head, confused. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"It means that you don't trust my judgement. You don't allow me to take initiative. Remember last week? I suggested that we might save time by travelling through that emissions nebula, but what did you say?" Tom's voice adopted a mocking tone, stifled with derision. "'Oh, no, that's not the way we do things on this ship.'"
"Look, sometimes I'm not going to agree with your suggestions, but making decisions is part of being a leader. Maybe someday you'll understand that."
"Being a leader also means knowing when to give your people a little leeway and let them be creative," Tom shot back, his agitation increasing. Chakotay wasn't doing a very good job at reacting to his accusations. "We might as well put this ship on autopilot for all the freedom you give me to do my job."
Irritation seeped into Chakotay's staid demeanour. "I didn't come her for a lecture from you on how to do my job."
Tom sensed the change and pursued. His voice got louder as he stood up. "Yeah, well, I know you don't put much stock in my opinion, so maybe you should talk to some of these people because I'm not the only one around here who's got a problem with you." He took another good look around the room that now had grown silent. "Now if there's nothing else, sir, I'd like to be excused."
They stared at each other, both sizing up their rival. Tom could see it in Chakotay's unyielding gaze: the line had just been drawn.
The first officer squared his jaw, then nodded curtly. "Sure, Paris. You're excused."
Still fuelled by emotion, Tom trudged away, angry but revitalized. It had felt good to vent his frustrations, albeit misdirected, on Chakotay. The insistent, muted rumblings of conversation sprang up as he left the mess hall. They were talking about him yet again. He sought the isolation of his cabin, fuming.
The morning brought nothing except a foul mood and a stiff neck. Tom had slept poorly, unable to pry his thoughts away from the mission. He couldn't wait to get it over with, yet he dreaded dealing with the aftermath upon his return. Underneath it all, though, he was more determined than ever to expose the Judas working for Seska. He couldn't allow his self-assassination of character go for nought.
The sight at the mess hall further aggravated him, as a half dozen or so people strolled in just ahead of him. He did not want to stand and wait for breakfast while Neelix served and chatted with everyone in line. Without preamble he cut past the queue and snatched the just-prepared tray from Neelix's grasp, mere inches away from the hands of the intended recipient.
"Hey! That's mine!"
Tom kept walking. "Cry me a river. Neelix will fix you another one."
But the voice he heard next stopped him. "Why don't you give back the crewman's breakfast and go stand in line like everyone else?"
He turned around at looked at Leena, standing at a table in the middle of the room. "Why don't you kiss my ass, Calloway, or is that duty reserved only for Lieutenant Tuvok?"
The room nearly erupted. Everyone knew about their falling out - from what Tom had heard over the last several days, it was the explanation for his sudden downward spiral of destructive behaviour. Today would appear to be the flashpoint event of the breakup.
Ensign McCormick was at Leena's side, desperately clutching the larger woman's waist in restraint. Shouts of excitement and panic flew out from every angle of the room. Then Neelix suddenly appeared in the center of the room, his arms held out in a supplicant posture. Tom didn't think the Talaxian could move so quickly. "People, people! Let's all of us calm down for a minute. Tom, you just go sit down and enjoy your meal while it's still hot." He waved his hands urgently at the rising sounds of protest. "Now, hold on. There's no worry, I have plenty of food for everyone this morning."
Neelix looked between Tom and Leena. He was genuinely afraid, and worried. "Please, there's no need to get all riled up over such nonsense."
Leena stopped her struggle and very slowly returned to her chair, all the while glaring at Tom with utter contempt. Tom had to concentrate on moving his feet forward. He hadn't been thinking and now he began to regret the implications of opening his mouth.
"Yes, that's it!" Neelix said with exaggerated cheerfulness, getting louder as the normal chatter began to resume. "Come on, everyone! Let's all enjoy our breakfast now, shall we? It's the most important meal of the day, you know."
Tom had laid out in his mind exactly how he wanted to spend this evening, what he knew would probably be his last visit to Sandrine's. No pool or parlour games, no dancing, no socializing, not even any flirting with Ricki or Sandrine. All he wanted to do tonight was savour the ambiance and, with drink in hand, reminisce the better moments spent here.
Talking to the Doctor, however, did not fit into that plan. Yet here it was, looking about as exasperated as Tom had ever seen, asking for his counsel. Tom felt at a loss for options except to offer a seat.
"Mr. Paris, I assume you've had a great deal of experience being rejected by women."
Tom winced. He couldn't tell if the EMH was taking a shot at his recent failing with Leena or not. "Thanks a lot, Doc."
"What I'd like to know is, what does one do to recover from the unpleasant symptoms of romantic rejection?"
He scrutinized the Doctor more carefully. It had completely ignored his retort. Whatever the problem was, it was genuinely concerned. "Why the sudden interest in romance?"
The Doctor shifted uneasily in the chair. "I can't tell you. It's a matter of doctor-patient confidentiality."
Tom held back a smile, starting to figure it out. Someone had gone to the EMH for some answers to a personal problem they didn't feel comfortable talking about with an actual person. Tom wasn't about to question the identity of that person or why they thought the EMH would be capable candidate for counselling, but he felt rather flattered that the Doctor would choose him as a reliable font of knowledge. "Ah. All right. Well, let's see. Sometimes there's not a lot you can do to get over a woman you really care about. I remember when Suzy Crabtree dumped me back in my first year at the academy. I broke out in hives, couldn't get out of bed for a week - I almost failed stellar cartography. I walked around in a daze for the rest of that year. Of course, the first one is always the hardest to get over."
The Doctor nodded gravely. "I see."
"But eventually you start thinking about her less and less, until finally you realize she's not on your mind any more."
"So the symptoms do subside over time?" the Doctor asked, eagerly hopeful.
"For the most part," Tom replied, growing wistful as he conjured up a faded image of his academy sweetheart. "But every now and then - even years later - something reminds you of her. A certain smell, a few notes of a song, and suddenly you feel just as bad as the day she told you she never wanted to see you again." He leaned forward slightly, once again focussing on the present. "If you want to know the honest truth, Doc, you never completely get over a woman you really cared about."
The Doctor hung his head, completely devastated. Tom realized that his initial hypothesis had been off the mark. The situation in front of him, though, caught him completely by surprise. "Wait a minute, Doc. We're not talking about you, are we?"
The Doctor grimaced. "I told you it was confidential."
Tom shook his head, amazed. The EMH had set many precedents here in the Delta Quadrant, but this had them all beat. "Boy, you've got it bad."
The Doctor fidgeted but said nothing. Tom never would have guessed that a hologram could develop emotions, and it didn't look very comfortable dealing with them either. He could sympathize; Tom felt just as awkward the first time he fell in love with a girl. Even recently with Leena the path to romance had been quite rocky.
Maybe it was sentimentality or nostalgia that provoked him. The situation with Leena may have turned sour, but at least someone should have a chance at love. "Look, Doc, I don't mean to intrude but if you tell me what's going on, maybe I can help."
Tom stepped into the turbolift and smiled, recalling his conversation with Kes this morning. Apparently 'Make-out Point' had gone over well; Kes commented on the Doctor's giddiness as he worked alongside Denara to chart the progress of the graft. They were both very much smitten.
Tom shook his head, still finding that difficult to imagine. A hologram in love? At any rate, he felt genuinely glad for the Doctor and being able to play a role in his happiness.
But Tom had other duties that required service today. "Sorry I'm late."
Chakotay was standing at the centre of the bridge when Tom strode on to the bridge. He didn't bother to look up. "That's okay, Mr. Paris, we don't need you. Mr. Grimes has taken your place at Conn."
Tom looked at the conn and his legs almost gave out underneath him. He knew retaliation from Chakotay would eventually come, but seeing Grimes working away at the conn seemed a bit extreme. "But it's my shift."
"Not today it isn't."
"What, because I was ten minutes late?"
The first officer's refusal to address him annoyed Tom, breaking the spell of shock he was under. He stepped around Chakotay and appealed to a higher authority. "Captain."
"Don't look at me, Mr. Paris," she replied impassively. "Commander Chakotay has complete discretion in this matter."
Rebuffed, Tom turned back to the first officer. Ire filled his voice. "So when should I report back for duty?"
Chakotay finally looked up from the PADD. He stared hard at Tom. "When you decide to start taking your job seriously, we'll discuss it. But right now you're dismissed."
Everything happened in a blur. The moment Chakotay put his hand on his shoulder, Tom snapped. With a burst of adrenaline he threw his hands against the first officer's chest and pushed. "Get your hands off me!" Not expecting the outburst, Chakotay lost his balance and crashed to the deck floor.
Janeway was immediately on her feet. No one made a sound.
Chakotay rolled over and eased himself back up. He glared at Tom, his anger seething. Tom returned the expression.
The captain broke the pregnant silence. "Mr. Tuvok."
"Please escort Mr. Paris to the brig."
Tom didn't take his eyes off of Chakotay until he felt the Vulcan's grip on his arm. Without a word he allowed Tuvok to escort him into the turbolift. When the doors closed he let out a relieved sigh. "For a moment I thought he might come at me. Good thing he controls his temper so well."
"If not for his responsibilities as a Starfleet officer, I believe he would have," Tuvok replied. "I must commend your courage for undertaking such a strategy, Lieutenant. I doubt there will be many people left on board who will question your upcoming decision to be put off the ship."
The turbolift doors opened. "Yeah, well, that was the plan. Has the captain given you any hints as to when that will be?"
"Not as yet. I would not be concerned; the captain or I will apprise you of any information when it becomes available."
Tuvok ushered him into the holding area of the brig. The room was stark and bright, the air smelling faintly of ozone. Although currently unmanned and unoccupied, this place had seen too much activity recently. Tom had to guess which cell Suder had called home before he was guided into one. Tuvok activated the security field and ordered one of his men to report to the brig for assignment.
After a few minutes Dezago checked in and received instructions from Tuvok. "So, when do I get out of here?" Tom asked as the Vulcan turned to leave.
"That will be at the captain's discretion, Lieutenant," Tuvok answered. The entrance to the holding area closed behind him.
Tom looked at Dezago, who had settled into the seat behind the security console. "So, heard any good jokes lately?"
The guard stared back at him, unblinking.
"Um, okay. Maybe I'll just sit down over here and listen to my hair grow," Tom said, pointing to the hard bunk mattress. He sat down. Dezago's emotionally void eyes still peeked over the top of the console at him. Tom sighed. This was going to be an extremely long wait.
On to Chapter 8...
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