Tom shifted back to full consciousness when he heard the captain's coarse voice break the brig's austere silence. He rolled over and inhaled sharply to revitalize his tired blood; he'd fallen asleep without realizing it.
"I hope he's been behaving himself," he heard her say.
"A model prisoner, captain," Julie answered. "He's been asleep for most of the afternoon."
Tom stepped into view. "You can stop talking behind my back now. I'm awake."
The captain looked over her shoulder at him for a moment and then turned to face him. "Well, Mr. Paris, it seems you owe me an explanation for what happened on the bridge this morning."
He folded his arms across his chest. "I finally had enough of Chakotay pushing me around, so I pushed back. Besides, he started it; he was making a fool out of me in front of the entire bridge."
Janeway stepped forward and put her hands on her hips, a pose she often adopted when attempting to impose her authority over others. "I will not tolerate my senior officers behaving like spoiled children, lieutenant, and from what I've witnessed over the last several weeks you've been exactly that. I thought maybe a little time down here would help drill some sense back into you. Apparently I was mistaken."
He waved a finger at her. "Careful, captain. You might hurt my feelings."
Julie stepped out from behind the security console. "Captain..."
The captain held up a hand. "No, that's all right, ensign. I can handle this myself."
Tom laughed. "Really? How do you intend to do that, keep me locked up in here or confine me to quarters?" He crossed the tiny cell and sat down, arrogantly propping his legs up, crosswise, against the edge of the bunk. "There's no one else on this ship that's even half as good a pilot as I am. As I see it, you need me more than I need you."
The captain frowned. "Is that some kind of threat, Mr. Paris?"
He sat up. "Actually it's more of a promise. From the moment I set foot on this ship I've been regarded as an outsider. I busted my ass for a year and a half in order to fit in, and all I have to show for it is a lack of respect. Well I'm tired of being stepped on, and I'm tired of living by your rules. I want out."
The captain's arms fell to her sides. Both women appeared surprised by his declaration, although Tom knew that only one of them knew different. "Tom, I realize that you're upset right now, but think about what you're saying. Resigning your commission seems a little extreme. Commander Chakotay and I would be more than willing to mete out your grievances in a professional setting."
"I'm sorry, captain. I've had all day to think about this and I've had enough."
She began to pace, folding her arms across her midsection as she considered her options. Tom watched her walk back and forth, impressed with ability to sell her performance; Julie appeared convinced that the entire scene unfolding in front of her had not been prearranged.
"Is there nothing I can say that will make you reconsider, Mr. Paris?" the captain finally asked. Tom shook his head.
She stopped in front of the cell again. "If that's how you really feel, then I have no choice but to allow your request. However, it's not a request I can easily grant. Our top priority right now is returning Dr. Pel to her people; we can't afford any delays looking for a suitable place to drop you off, and there's no way I'll let you off at a Vidiian colony, even if we have made a new friend there.
"That means you'll be staying with us for at least two more weeks. I could keep you confined in the brig or your quarters, but I'd prefer not to do that. As you said, you'd be more valuable to me as an active contributor in this ship's operation. I'm open to suggestions."
Tom stood and walked up as close to her as he could. "If I have your word that you'll do everything you can to get me off this ship as soon as possible, I promise to be an upstanding member of your crew until then."
The captain squared her jaw and then nodded curtly. "All right. I'll talk to Commander Chakotay and make him aware of the situation." She turned back to the security console. "Ensign, a word with you please."
Julie nodded smartly. "Of course, captain."
They moved off to the side, but Tom overheard every single word. "I don't want it getting out that Tom has asked to leave. There's no telling how long it might actually take finding another ship or port."
"I understand, captain."
"Very good. Please release Mr. Paris and escort him to his quarters." She watched as Julie carried out her orders. The soft light of the forcefield went out and Tom stepped over the threshold of freedom. "I would recommend that you stay in quarters for the duration of the evening, Mr. Paris. I'll have the commander contact you regarding your next duty shift."
Tom held her stare for a moment. "Yes, ma'am." Then he led the way out to his cabin.
As they neared the turbolift Tom began to relax. What seemed to be the hardest part of the mission was almost concluded. Granted, he had some fences to mend when he returned - assuming he survived his engagement with the Kazon - but he felt confident that the truth would help heal the wounds.
"I guess that explains why you've been so confrontational with Leena lately," Julie said once he had instructed the turbolift to their destination. "You thought it would be easier to sever all ties here on Voyager before leaving?"
"No, you've got it backwards," he said, looking down at her. "Our fighting is one of the contributing factors for my decision to leave."
She nodded. "Uh-uh, I don't buy it."
The unease returned. Tom tried hard not to let it show. "What do you mean?"
She was almost painfully careful in her response. "It's just a little too convenient if you ask me. You two had the signs of being a serious couple not that long ago - weeks, by my count. Then all of a sudden it goes sour and you're packing up your bags. It's almost like you planned it to happen."
Tom tapped his foot impatiently on the floor. "Do you know how stupid that sounds?" The turbolift finally stopped on Deck 4. "Leena made me feel emotions I haven't been familiar with for quite a time. Why would I purposely want that to fail?"
Julie was on his heels all the way up to the door of his cabin. "It's because you want to protect her."
Tom laughed as the door opened, mostly to cover his nerves. "Protect her from what?"
"Tell me something, Tom. Do you still have those feelings for Leena, despite everything that's happened? Do you love her?"
Tom felt immobilized by Julie's brown-eyed stare. The words failed him but his answer could be seen easily in his face. Julie nodded. "Thought so." She stepped inside. Tom dumbly followed.
"Up until a few days ago Leena would have done just about anything to keep your relationship together. I know she would have gone with you to wherever it is you're going, in a heartbeat. It wouldn't have mattered where. That's why you forced the breakup; you're headed somewhere dangerous, and as much as you love Leena you'd never risk putting her in danger."
A trickle of perspiration ran down Tom's temple. "I have no reason to care. It's over between us," he said with little conviction.
Julie sighed. "Leena wanted so much to make a bond that wouldn't self-destruct like so many have before. She was devastated when she found you drunk. I hope you know that."
Tom closed his eyes, valiantly attempting to bear the shame. "You can't tell her. You can't tell anyone."
"Don't worry, your secret's safe. You've obviously put a lot of effort into concealing whatever it is you're doing." The door opened as she stepped through the entrance, but she poked her head back through. "But if I can say just one thing. Good luck with your mission." She then disappeared. A moment later the door closed and locked with squiggling noise.
On shaky legs, Tom went over to his lounge chair and sat down. It took him twenty minutes to catch his breath.
The rendezvous with the Voxol was hours away now. Tom could scarcely believe how quickly they'd encountered the Talaxian convoy, barely a week after leaving Fena Prime and Dr. Pel behind. It seemed like he was finally getting a break in this assignment, and he took it as a sign of good things to come. The past three weeks had been possibly the hardest to get through.
Captain Janeway had imposed a kind of 'house arrest' on him since his release from the brig: when not working his shifts Tom had been restricted in his movement about the ship. Except for meals in the mess hall, he'd rarely left his quarters. It was a clever front for the many secret meetings with Lieutenant Tuvok, trying to absorb the information about Kazon warships and communications 'ghosting' techniques that the Vulcan heaped upon him. Tom felt nervous but prepared.
He hoisted his duffel bag and slipped the strap over his shoulder and grabbed a PADD off of a nearby desktop as he left his quarters. Packing his things had taken little effort. He possessed very few personal effects, mostly owing to his transient past with the Maquis and his following stint as a guest of the Federation penal system. Ironically, the only keepsake worth taking was his collection of holoprograms, but the Talaxians did not have holographic technology on their ships.
He smiled wistfully, thinking about yesterday's visit from Neelix. The self-proclaimed moral officer was heartbroken to hear of Tom's departure, even going so far as to make a last minute plea for reconsideration. It was a touching gesture of friendship that Tom welcomed; few others on Voyager felt much of anything besides disdain for him. He would need support from as many people as possible when he returned.
He stopped by the mess hall to wait for the call and get something to eat. A last meal, of sorts, he thought darkly. The room was empty and quiet, a stark contrast from the bustle and clatter created during the normal meal times. He sighed. The parties and receptions, trading stories and jokes with friends from newly discovered worlds. The daily rounds of scuttlebutt traded over lunch. The late, late nights spent working on technical problems with Harry, trying to guess what Neelix put in the coffee substitute. So many good times. He was going to miss this place.
Depositing his gear by a nearby table, Tom went to the replicator. He smiled as he thought of his selection. "Tom Paris Special." A running joke since his first day aboard Voyager, Harry and Samantha Wildman had conspired together to program the replicator to produce plain tomato soup just the way he liked it - and then named it after him. The recipe still had to be adjusted three times before he found it palatable. He couldn't think of a more fitting farewell meal.
As he ate Tom thumbed on the PADD's power switch and replayed the most recent file in its memory cell.
"Good morning, Voyager. I want to tell you about a friend of mine.Tom stopped the recording, the biggest irony of all. The most endearing qualities of a man can be found only when his influence on another's life is removed. Even though Tom had played up the brash arrogance in recent times Neelix had been willing to look past them, seeing them as a cry of distress. He wondered if Neelix's call to reason would stir any feelings of doubt or regret among the other crewmen - and one in particular. Realistically he didn't think so but his sentiment held more optimism. He had to believe in the best outcome or there would be no point to succeed his mission.
"I first met this man almost a year ago, and to tell you the truth I didn't like him much. He seemed a little too cocky, a little too sure of himself. A lot of people had questions about him; he'd proven that he pretty much sell himself out to the highest bidder, go wherever the wind blew him. So people wondered: could you trust this person when things got tough? Would he stand side by side with you or would he let down when you needed him most?
"But the fact of the matter is he proved himself right from the very beginning. I wouldn't be alive today if it weren't for him, and the same goes for many of you.
"It took me a while to realize it; like a lot of people I was too caught up in first impressions to see the truth that was right in front of me. I overlooked his bravery because I was focusing on his brashness. I ignored his courage because I saw it as arrogance. And I resented his friendliness because I mistook it for licentiousness. So while this man was giving us his best every minute of every day, I was busy judging him.
"And now he's leaving."
"And finally, this will be your sleeping chamber," said the Talaxian, ushering Tom into a room hardly larger than a utility storage locker.
Tom ducked to avoid hitting his head against the doorway. "Cozy."
"Er, yes, well it may seem a little cramped at first but after a couple of weeks you won't even notice."
Tom smiled politely. "I'm sure I can manage."
The Talaxian bounced on his heels, a fountain of nervous energy needing an outlet. "Is there anything else I can do to settle you in?"
Tom chuckled. "Frithek, you've just taken me on a tour of the entire ship and introduced me to every single person aboard. I already feel like I'm home. Thanks for the offer, though."
Frithek clapped his hands together exuberantly. "Well, I guess I've done my job then, haven't I? I'll leave you to unpack, then. Remember, if you need anything for your room, just call me on the ship intercom."
Tom waved as the Talaxian departed. "Thanks, I will." He let out a tired sigh of relief once the door cycled shut. He wouldn't have believed anyone to be more a garrulous busybody than Neelix, but Frithek had him beat hands down. He couldn't really fault Frithek, though. He was only fulfilling his responsibility as steward, and he'd done an excellent job getting Tom familiar with the people and operations of the Talaxian ship. Tom had every confidence that he'd effortlessly assimilate into his position on the Voxol until Seska inevitably came for him.
He took about ten minutes to quickly inspect his surveillance devices and make sure they were properly concealed. Hopefully Seska wouldn't think to search him. Then he finished unpacking the rest of his personal items, although it didn't take much to use up the available space. The room was strictly utilitarian in design: a bunk on one side and a desk on the other, adjoined with an armoire-type locker for storage. Lavatory and showering facilities were communal on all residential decks (senior command officers all had private facilities, of course).
With everything finally put away, Tom wasn't quite sure what to do next. He plopped down on the bed and stretched out, willing the tension out of his limbs as he tried to displace the sound of Frithek's voice from his mind. He let out a resigned sigh, feeling the end of the mattress dig into the back of his heels. If he thought he'd be around long enough, he might ask Frithek about adjusting the length of the bunk.
He was just about to entertain the idea of visiting the galley for a late evening snack when the bunk heaved and rolled underneath him. The bulkheads rumbled; the ship was clearly under attack, and Tom had a fairly good idea who was behind it. He steadied himself as another salvo hit, nearly throwing him against the desk. "Seska isn't wasting any time," he muttered to himself. The alarm sirens began to wail in the corridor as the assault continued.
Tom wasn't quite sure in which direction to run. He knew the Kazon were coming for him, but they didn't know he was expecting them; they might suspect something was up if they found him calmly waiting in his cabin. Picking a direction at random, he took off in a sprint. Silently he cursed himself for not paying more attention to Frithek during the ship tour.
He reached the second corridor when the attack abruptly halted. Tom slowed his pace, momentarily puzzled, then continued his sprint down the hall. The Kazon would be boarding soon. Even though his capture was assured, Tom still planned to make them earn it.
His heels skidded across the carpeted floor as he rounded a corner and met the eyes of a startled crewman five meters away. The Talaxian fumbled with a communication device from his pocket as Tom broke stride and trotted over to the smaller man. He tried but failed to remember the Talaxian's name. "What's going on? It felt like we were under attack just a moment ago."
The Talaxian held up a silencing hand. "Yes, sir. I understand, sir."
"So, what's going on?" Tom asked impatiently.
His question was answered as the Talaxian pulled out a hand weapon and leveled it at Tom's chest. "I'm very sorry, Mr. Paris, but you'll have to come with me."
It took a couple of moments for Tom's anger to work past his shock. "The captain is just giving me to the Kazon?"
"We're just a freight vessel," the Talaxian responded apologetically, providing Tom with all the explanation he required. The Voxol was no match for the Kazon in a fight. "They promised to leave us with our cargo and our lives in exchange for our cooperation. The captain had no choice."
"And do you really think the Kazon will keep their word?"
The Talaxian was distinctly uncomfortable wielding the sidearm. "Please, just come with me."
Tom sighed as he capitulated, frustrated by the Kazon's bullying tactics. His only thought while being escorted to the shuttle bay was that if the Kazon had any pride at all, they'd keep their word.
The transfer was quick but hardly painless. The Kazon soldier assigned to retrieve Tom found great pleasure in prodding him every step of the way into their shuttle, kicking him in the side every time he tripped and fell. Tom made sure it happened only once.
"Sit down," the thug rumbled, forcibly pushing him into a passenger seat.
Tom rubbed his side, feeling the first signs of bruising. "Such hospitality. Remind me to leave a tip when we get off."
The Kazon sneered before taking a seat at the front, while the pilot powered up the engines.
Within moments the shuttle entered open space. As they changed course Tom could just barely see the Voxol, its engines impaired but still functioning. "I have to give you guys a lot of credit. There aren't many people who could browbeat an unarmed vessel so effortlessly. This must be a real feather in your caps."
The pilot appeared to ignore him, but the other Kazon threw a glare in his direction. Tom buried a satisfied grin. "Did Seska offer you a bonus if you delivered me unharmed, or do you threaten defenceless people just out of pleasure?"
"Be silent!" the Kazon growled. "You Federations talk too much."
"And that's another thing. I hate it when you call me that. The Federation is a political organization, not a species. I'm a Terran from the planet Earth. Think you have enough brain power to learn that?"
The warrior rose to his feet and stomped into the passenger area. He hauled Tom up by the neck of his shirt and pinned his against the bulkhead. His voice filled with venom. "Insolent cur. Quiet your tongue now or I will do it for you."
Tom grinned smugly. "I dare you to lay a finger on me. You see, I know the only reason you guys nabbed me is because of my knowledge about Voyager. I'd hate to think what Seska would do to you if I was incapable of sharing that information."
The Kazon flinched in reaction to the implied insult, just as Tom expected. The Nistrom, if not all Kazon clans, viewed women as incompetent in leadership roles, a fallacy which Captain Janeway frequently and painfully served to remind them. To his credit the warrior reigned in his temper and backed off. Insults aside, Tom had driven home his point. The warrior pushed Tom back into the chair and skulked back to his own.
"Yeah, I thought so," Tom sniped. "Not so tough when your enemies can fight back, huh?"
The warrior's back stiffened. He whirled about with a snarl of rage. He would have advanced on Tom if the Kazon pilot had not chosen that moment to intervene. "Darkin, take the helm."
"But he has offended our honour as warriors," the warrior lashed out, unsuccessfully struggling to break free of his restraint. "I will not stand for it!"
"You will do as you're told, fool!" the pilot snapped back. "Now sit and cool your temper."
The warrior almost appeared to sulk as he obeyed, taking control of the shuttle. The pilot approached Tom wearing a grin of guile and intelligence. His face bore the markings of an experienced man of battle. "You are clever, Federation, but your efforts are transparent. You seek to provoke us into a mindless fury in the hopes that we will kill you, and spare you the humiliation of being captured." He nodded his head toward the cockpit. "Darkin is proud but inexperienced as a warrior. He would have given no thought to fulfilling your desire."
Tom shrugged his shoulders. "You can't blame a guy for trying."
"As tempting the thought of squeezing the life out of you with my bare hands may be, our mission is to deliver you to Maj Cullah's ship alive." The pilot's smile faded as he stepped closer, looming menacingly over Tom. "I will see to it that you do not further jeopardize that mission."
The pilot's fist was a blur of motion, and blackness swiftly followed.
On to Chapter 9...
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