Leena squirmed in her seat a little. Tom's comment clearly
suggested a situation she still wasn't quite sure she was ready for. By
his expression he realized the connotation of his words, but a bit late. He'd as good as stated that he was prepared for the direction their
relationship could go. Now she found herself in a difficult spot. Where exactly did she stand? She felt obligated to give him some kind
of answer, but she needed time to think about it.
Leena chewed her feelings in pace with her sandwich. It was true, she didn't revile the lieutenant's existence anymore, and he had demonstrated some redeeming qualities of late. However, she didn't know if they were all that compatible. Some aspects of his personality still worried her. The cockiness, the impatience, the juvenility, the machismo; parts that were incontrovertibly true from the day she'd first read his profile report. Under the right circumstances they could be viewed as positive traits, but they had so much more potential as destructive qualities. A serious relationship with Tom Paris might be fated to end badly regardless of compatibility. On the other hand, there was always the possibility it could work, despite the odds. He offered plenty of benefits if the risk paid off: sincerity, courteousness, vivacity, whimsicality and, of course, animal magnetism.
The shuttle bay was now inauspiciously quiet. Tom had retreated into his own lunch, trying not to let his anxiety surface while she reached a decision. It was evident by the way he kept his eyes trained on her that he was concerned with her answer. "Tom, look...." she began hesitantly.
He dropped his head in defeat, muttering curses at himself. "Here it comes, the big kiss-off speech. Me and my big mouth...."
"Tom, I'm not saying no." She smiled at his stunned look. "Not yet, anyway. You have to realize, though, that I'm still on some emotionally shaky ground. I need to take things slow until I can trust my instincts again. Does that make any sense?"
He raised a hand in conciliation. "Hey, enough said. From now on it's your show; I won't make a move unless you tell me it's okay. I don't want to push you into an uncomfortable spot."
She sighed with relief. "Thank you, Tom. That means a lot."
He opened his mouth to speak but the captain's voice resounding through the hangar cut him off. "Lieutenant Paris, please return to the bridge immediately."
He looked apologetically at the glass of elsaja in her hand and the dirty dishes he'd be leaving behind. "Sorry, duty calls." He drained the rest of his glass in one swallow and set it on the pallet, breaking for the exit. "I'll see you later, okay?"
"Not if I see you first," she called after him. He looked over his shoulder and smiled, then jogged out the shuttle bay.
As Tom entered the bridge he caught the tail end of a conversation
between Torres and the captain. "- at least another ten minutes? I'd
like to have enough of a reserve to perform a few tests on it," he heard
Torres ask over the comm link.
"I'm sorry, Lieutenant. Once they spot us they'll be here in five. Have your teams finish what they're doing and return to Voyager immediately."
"Aye, Captain." B'Elanna sounded quite despondent.
"So, what'd I miss?" he asked, relieving his stand-in at the conn.
"It looks like we're about to get a visit from the Kazon," Chakotay said.
"And you said I wouldn't be needed anytime soon," he said grimly over his shoulder to the captain.
"Long range sensors just picked them up, Tom," Harry added. "They're not exactly on an intercept course, though; they're only travelling at Warp 2. My guess is that they're just coming to the asteroid field." Something beeped rather urgently at him. "Correction, they've just changed their heading to a direct intercept course and increased speed to Warp 6. Estimated time of arrival is five minutes and twelve seconds."
Nerves began to fray as the seconds ticked away and the shuttlecraft hadn't made a move to return to the ship. Tom knew that it was important to get as much dilithium as they could, but B'Elanna was cutting it close. At two minutes to intercept she finally called in to report that they were headed back to the shuttle. It wouldn't be enough to get away before the Kazon arrived. The bridge watched on the view screen as the shuttle finally darted away from the meteor and banked back toward the ship. Twenty seconds to go, give or take a few. Tom ran a quick mental calculation. Enough time for the shuttle to get inside Voyager's shield perimeter, but not much else. They'd be a sitting duck for a few moments.
Just then the Kazon ship appeared in normal space. The warship dwarfed Voyager in size, but its armaments were comparable and it didn't have nearly as much manoeuvrability. That would change as soon as its smaller fighters emerged, though. A stream of directed energy lanced out from the giant, pounding against Voyager's shields.
"Shields are holding," Tuvok reported.
Janeway scowled. "Lock phasers and return fire," she solemnly commanded. Tom could tell she didn't want to give the order, but the Kazon hadn't given her any alternative.
"The shuttle's almost home, Captain," Harry announced, just before the bridge rocked against from another blast.
"Firing phasers, Captain. No damage."
"Keep firing. Tom, set an evasive pattern and get us the hell out of here as soon as the shuttle has docked."
"Yes, ma'am." The navigational display danced with activity. "I'm picking up four...no, five scouts emerging from the warship. Looks like we're in for a serious firefight."
Another urgent beep came from Ops. "Shuttle's docked."
The small ships buzzed by, strafing Voyager as they passed. Tuvok tried to return fire, but the scouts were too quick to obtain an accurate lock. Tom watched on his console as an orange-red beam cut a path a fraction of a second behind one of them. The miss was then rewarded with another volley of phased energy from the warship. "Shields down to 70%," Tuvok said.
Tom input a series of instructions. "Executing evasive pattern Delta-Five." Voyager immediately dove hard left, avoiding another direct hit from the warship. The fighters moved to box the ship between them and the larger vessel. They peppered the forward shields with more fire. The warship then managed a half hit. Tom cursed under his breath. "I can't shake them, Captain. We don't have enough room to go to warp."
"Tom, steer us back into the asteroid field. The smaller craft won't be able to follow us in there or they'll risk destroying themselves. That ought to buy us enough time to go to warp before they catch us again."
"You got it, but we'll have to pass in front of the warship to do it."
"I'm sure you can avoid them, Tom. Tuvok, target the warship's weapons arrays and try to disable as many as you can."
"All right, here we go."
Voyager cut as tight a turn as it could and made a run back to Anre Kiol. The Kazon scout ships stayed with it for the most part and continued their assault. Tuvok ignored them, instead bombarding the warship's shields with phaser power. The shields flared brightly, then buckled and distorted until at last a beam of energy punched its way through. The warship's forward phaser cannon was completely inoperative by the time Voyager streaked by their nose. Once by them, Voyager reached the asteroid field without a problem. The scouts tried to follow but bailed out 100,000 kilometres through the perimeter. With a few daring twists and turns Tom managed to clear the rocky debris far enough away from the regrouping Kazon to beat a hasty exit.
Captain Janeway loped up behind him, resting a hand on the back of his chair. She heaved a tired sigh of relief. "Well done, Tom."
Tom echoed her. "I aim to please."
On to Chapter 3...
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