BCWYWF… Part 1: Priorities

NOTE: A plain-text version of this story is available by request. Just email me.


They were in the new Delta Flyer. He was kneeling on the jump seat facing her; she sat on the panel alongside. He ran his hand gently down her arm and leaned up to meet her eye to eye, so close she could feel his breath on her lips as he spoke. They had been discussing the relative merits of ‘the mushy stuff,’ and so far they had reached agreement on ‘the kissy stuff’ and the ‘you’re the most important person in the world to me’ stuff. While she loved making up after a fight, this had been bigger than their standard-issue argument. This one was for keeps. And he wasn’t done.

“Then there’s the ‘happily ever after’…”

“How does that one work?” she wondered.

“Traditionally it requires a proposal…”

B’Elanna had been smiling to herself as she slept, just before being jolted awake, as she always seemed to be at this point in the dream. It was a recurring one she had dreamed at least once a week for the last ten months. She always had the same reaction, too: to reach out her right hand and feel for the warm body lying next to her. If her hand felt the confirmation that this had been more than just the wishful thinking of her subconscious, she could usually drift back to sleep in a few seconds.

Some nights, like tonight, her hand found only an empty space, and her mind would bring her to consciousness until she could remember why. ‘He was there when I fell asleep,’ she knew. Her sore muscles and lack of sleepwear were proof enough that she hadn’t gone to bed alone. ‘It’s–what time is it–0520. Ugh. Think…It’s Tuesday. Okay, he’s in sickbay.’ Only when her mind had found her husband could she relax and try to go back to sleep.

Torres stretched and rolled onto her belly–or tried to before her momentum was blocked by the reminder of why that was a bad idea. Over seven months pregnant, there was only so far she could roll onto her stomach. Her hand reflexively stroked her child as she changed her strategy and rolled once more onto her back. Nope. She wouldn’t be stretching out face down for a while. It didn’t matter anymore. There was no getting around it; she was awake.

She swung her feet to the floor and sat there for a moment before standing. She knew the Doctor wouldn’t approve of her getting so little rest in her condition. But, since he was offline for at least another three days, it wasn’t likely he would ever find out. Besides, the ship’s chief medic, on duty in the doctor’s place, wasn’t around to tell on her. And his absence was the reason she couldn’t sleep in the first place. Tom had sickbay duty every other morning now that the power rationing limited their access to the EMH. And, without Tom there when she drifted awake, B’Elanna found that she just couldn’t relax enough to drift back out.

All for the best, she thought. With Voyager in this condition, it was better if the chief engineer were awake and working. The last three months had been brutal. The most direct route to the Alpha Quadrant was taking them through a kind of dead zone. Not a void–thank goodness–there were stars and planets. But their scans had shown an unsettling lack of life in this area. No alien cultures, no space-faring species. While it was nice not to worry about being attacked by a hostile alien ship, they also found themselves without trading partners with whom they could barter for supplies. Scans of the habitable planets had also revealed a disappointing lack of edible plant life or valuable mineral deposits. All this after almost seven years without a thorough refit, on top of accumulated stresses and damage that would have kept three engineering teams busy for six months had they been anywhere but the Delta Quadrant. Voyager was aging prematurely. And the pregnant chief engineer had no choice but to be concerned about her first baby, her ship.

Finally shaking off the last cobwebs of sleep, B’Elanna stood up and headed for the shower. Her day would be starting a little early.

Torres wasn’t the only one having trouble sleeping. Captain Janeway had been out of bed for almost thirty minutes before her chief engineer’s dream had even begun. Sitting on her couch, staring out into the darkness and nursing a cup of coffee, she reflected on her crew’s changing fortunes. It never seemed to fail that, as soon as life had settled into some semblance of normalcy on Voyager, the rug would be pulled out from under them. The delusion that her crew had only to point themselves in the direction of home and start flying was crumbling around them. This ship’s technology had saved their lives hundreds of times over, yet it was never designed to go without a refit this long. Actually, it had been a testament to their good fortune that things had held together as well as they had. It was also a testament to her crew and the Herculean job they had done maintaining the ship under such difficult conditions.

How long that crew could keep themselves going was another worry. While they had been putting up with replicator rations and leola root inspired cuisine for years now, it had only recently become necessary to start rationing their total energy use. The holodecks were off limits except for training and emergency simulations. No more resorts, no vacations, no fights with imaginary beasts to clear the mind and let the crew forget. Even the EMH had volunteered to deactivate himself unless he was needed. This added yet another strain, as she had to assign crew to cover the basic medical needs in his absence.

The best and worst of times: Starfleet’s monthly datastream kept them in touch with their goal of reaching home, but it couldn’t help but remind them of how far away they were from achieving it. News from home added a kind of urgency to their quest. Parents could see evidence of their children’s growth, and got letters full of stories of the milestones they couldn’t share. Friends and families told tales of joy and pain, but to a crew that could be nothing more than third-party observers in the events of their lives. Births and deaths, graduations and marriages all continued without them there. With no quick way home, she wondered sometimes if it hadn’t been easier to accept the potential length of their journey before the letters started arriving.

Kathryn took the last swig of her coffee and set the empty cup on the table. While she longed for another, her rations allowed her only two cups a day, and she needed to spread them out to keep herself going. ‘Must set an example for the crew,’ she thought. She pushed herself to stand, stretched, and headed for the shower.

She stepped onto her bridge a full two hours before the start of the alpha shift, startling Harry enough that he almost jumped out of her chair. “As you were, Mr. Kim,” she said gently. “I’ll be in my ready room.”

“Aye, Captain. Good morning.” She smiled back at him before she stepped down and through the doors to her office. Harry eased back into the chair, secretly happy that she wasn’t coming to claim it early. He enjoyed the command experience he was getting on these occasional gamma shift assignments. It was no secret to his friends or to his captain that he wanted to be sitting in the “big chair” one day. The last few months had taught him some important lessons about how much he still needed to learn, however. Lessons that had stuck with him. He’d be ready when the time came.

His daydreams were interrupted again, a few moments later when the first officer stepped out of the turbolift. Harry stood to yield the bridge, but Chakotay waived him back down. “Relax, Harry. I’m not here to relieve you.” The commander moved to the captain’s ready room door and signaled. It swished open seconds later, and he stepped inside.

Harry settled back into his seat, glancing only briefly at the ensign now looking up at him from the con. “As you were,” he said, smiling to himself. He could get used to this.

Chakotay greeted the sleepy woman at the desk in front of him. One cup of coffee was clearly not enough, he noted to himself, but he respected her sacrifice and the desire to set an example that inspired it. “Good morning, Captain,” he smiled at her. “Sleep well?” That it was 0558 and they were both on duty was answer enough to that question.

“Very funny,” she joked back at him, smiling. “Someone else I see looks less than ‘bright-eyed and bushy-tailed’ this morning.”

He grinned. “You know,” he offered, “I’d lend you some of my rations if I thought one more cup would make a difference.”

She was smiling broadly at him now. “Not a dent, and you know it.” They held each other’s glance for a moment, enjoying as they always did their morning banter. It felt like several minutes before she noticed the PADD in his hand and asked, “Did you find something?”

Chakotay sat in his customary chair across from her and leaned forward. “Nothing too exciting. Scans indicate that there are a few Class M planets on the far reaches of our sensors, but lifesigns have been inconclusive at best.”

The captain sighed at the all-too-familiar news. “Let me guess: no signs of warp signatures, no mineral deposits, and no food.” His eyes darted down before coming back to meet hers.

“A few pre-warp civilizations, but the Prime Directive precludes us from making first contact.” He was talking to the Queen of the Prime Directive, he knew, at least in her heart. Funny how even Kathryn Janeway had found reasons to rationalize bending General Order One on some occasions. He knew this wasn’t going to be one of them.

“What’s our status, Commander?” she asked. “How long can we go before this becomes critical?”

Her first officer punched the display on his PADD and read out the report. “With energy rationing in place, we have reduced dependency on the replicators by fifty-six percent. Food stores should hold up for at least another ten weeks, but airponics isn’t able to keep ahead of our needs. We’ll need to find mature, edible plant life within the next six weeks to maintain any sort of safety margin. Power reserves are equally critical. We’ve got to find some raw deuterium and dilithium within the next eight weeks if we’re going to refine it ourselves before our reserves are drained. If there were a source of refined minerals, we could last another twelve weeks, but nothing we’ve seen indicates any civilizations with that kind of technology in this region.” He was quiet for a moment and let her absorb it all. It was crunch time and they both knew it.

“I can’t believe we have made it this far only to be stopped by supply shortages. We’ve never gone this long without encountering some kind of opportunity to replenish our stocks. There has to be something we haven’t considered.” She moved to the couch by the window. Staring out at the stars always seemed to free her mind for the next burst of inspiration. One had never failed to come. Almost never. Chakotay moved to stand near her, wondering if she would come to the realization on her own. It was clear when she spoke again that the thought hadn’t entered her mind. Or if it had, she wouldn’t give it voice.

“Send Harry and Tom out in the Flyer. Have Tom plot a route that covers the most territory in the shortest time–and ask Neelix to go with them. Have them scout for anything they think we might be able to make use of. We’ve got a creative bunch here–an idea has got to come.” She shifted slightly as the next thought came, “And divert some of the power reserves to Astrometrics. Maybe Seven can help point us in the most productive direction. The captain glanced back at her first officer, and could tell from the look on his face that he was going to make a suggestion she wouldn’t like. “What is it?”

“I’d like to recommend that you add something to their checklist.” Here it came. “I think they should make an evaluation of possible sites for colonization in case we run out of ways to keep the ship functioning.”

She was going to surprise him, she knew. “Fine.” He straightened as she continued. “You’re right. We’re running out of alternatives. We have to be prepared for all contingencies.” She cut him off as he started to reply, “But you should know that I consider that option a worst-case scenario, and I have no expectation of settling down anywhere but Bloomington, Indiana. Do I make myself clear?”

She wasn’t scolding him; her smile would have told him if he didn’t already know. She was just reviving one of their favorite games, arguing over when or if they might ever have to concede the trip home. “Understood,” he said smiling back at her. “I’ll make the arrangements right away.” He excused himself and left for his office.

She stared for a moment at the door after it closed behind him. For the first time in almost seven years, she had to consider the possibility that they were coming to the end of their journey.

~*~*~*~*~

Tom was half way through the pre-flight checklist and Harry still hadn’t joined him on the Delta Flyer. Tom knew his best friend had worked the gamma shift last night, which meant Harry had no chance to sleep before they were to leave on this mission. Normally, Tom would have wanted his copilot at his sharpest when riding shotgun for him, but there were no signs of hostile aliens in this neck of the woods, and he was sure he could cover any lapses Harry’s tired mind might make.

Not that Tom was feeling that well rested. He went on duty in sickbay at 0500 trying to catch up on reports the Doc would normally have filed, and he had been due on the bridge at 0800. Stupidly, he hadn’t gone to bed early considering the day he had ahead of him. Well, he had gone to bed early, but B’Elanna’s back was killing her and she asked Tom to massage it for her. There was no way, after ten minutes of skin-to-skin contact with her body that he was going to be able to calm down enough to go right to sleep. His checklist was routine enough that he could let his mind review their late-night gymnastics as he worked. He laughed to himself that B’Elanna wondered how he could still find her so attractive with her distended belly, swollen ankles, and a chronic backache. His joke, reminding her of some of the more appealing changes to a pregnant woman’s body, fell flat, as he would have expected. But his desire was sincere nonetheless, and she knew it. She really did seem especially beautiful to him in her condition, even if she didn’t feel it herself. He must have been smiling at the thought, when Harry finally showed up.

“Wipe that smirk off your face, Paris, I’m in no mood to spend the day with a cheerful pilot.” Well, if that wasn’t throwing down the gauntlet.

“Really, Harry? I thought you got all pumped up by the thrill of command,” Tom kidded. “Don’t tell me you’re feeling the burden instead?”

Harry was happy to play along, despite the annoyed tone in his voice. “I’m feeling the burden of sleep-deprivation, and you know it. Some of us lose sleep for less enjoyable reasons than others, you know.” Caught. Tom knew too well the sorry state of Harry’s love life, and conceded this battle, happily.

“I’m almost through the checklist,” Tom changed the subject, but continued to smirk. “Did Chakotay brief you?”

“Yeah,” Harry answered, his brow beginning to furrow. “What do you make of this ‘scout for colonization sites’ plan? The captain isn’t seriously considering setting down some place, is she?”

Tom took a deep breath before he answered. He knew Harry wouldn’t want to hear what he was going to say next. “If she’s smart, she is. Look Harry, we’ve been through the briefings–if we don’t find some mineral deposits and some food soon, we’re going to have to think about stopping while we still can. That or risk running adrift too far from any reasonable camp site.” Tom couldn’t stop himself from saying what he was thinking. They knew each other too well for that kind of pretense. “Frankly, it wouldn’t bug me all that much.”

“Well, it would bug the hell out of me!” Harry retorted. “I have never planned to spend the rest of my life stuck here in the middle of nowhere with no chance of getting home. I’m for continuing no matter what.”

Yep, Tom thought, they really were going to fight about this. “Well,” Paris said more harshly than he meant it, “I’m glad it’s not up to you, then.”

“You can’t tell me that you don’t care if we never get back to Earth,” Harry interjected. “You don’t care if you never see your family again?”

Tom’s answer was less vehement. “My family is here, Harry. All the family I’ll ever need is on this ship.”

“Well mine is on Earth and I have every intention of seeing them again,” Harry snapped. “Besides, if you think I’m going to be stuck playing Ensign Eager for the rest of my life, you’re crazy.”

“Face it, Harry,” Tom couldn’t seem to stop himself. “It’s the curse of the baby brother. Trust me, I have three older sisters. They’ll never see me as anything other than the annoying little kid they used to push around.” He didn’t mean to imply anything, but Harry made the inference anyway.

“And you’ll never see me as anything other than Buster Kincaid, your trusty sidekick. I’m not a wet-behind-the-ears ensign anymore, Tom, though that’s probably the only way you’ll ever treat me.” Ouch. Where did that come from, Tom wondered. Harry wasn’t finished his target practice. “Besides, not everyone is as lucky as you are to have your family stranded with you.” Bull’s-eye. Harry had learned a lot of things from Tom in their years as best friends. Unfortunately, knowing the most pointed way to lash out at someone you care about had been one of them.

They were quiet for a long moment as Tom finished the checklist and Harry began to download their course from Seven’s Astrometrics data. The ensign was calming down just enough to realize he had said some things he regreted. Tom did have family back home, Harry knew, and his complicated relationship with them was an ongoing source of pain for his friend. He quickly realized he’d been unfair. Having such a bad relationship with your father that you don’t mind being stuck on the other side of the galaxy couldn’t be considered lucky by anyone’s standards.

And Harry knew there was more to Tom’s reluctance than his unmended fences with his dad. They both knew there was a very real chance Tom’s commission could be revoked and he’d be kicked out of Starfleet–for the second time–if they ever made it home. And Paris was married to a Maquis. B’Elanna, Chakotay and the others might even face jail time by some of the crew’s estimation. Harry didn’t believe that, of course. He had too much faith in Starfleet and Federation compassion to think his friends would be treated as anything other than returning heroes. Still, if he were in Tom’s shoes…

“Hey, I’m sorry okay.” Harry said, breaking the silence. “I’m just tired, you know.”

“Me, too,” Tom answered softly. “Besides, you could be worrying about nothing. Maybe today we’ll find the motherload of ore and a fly-through grocery store and our troubles will be behind us.” Tom didn’t believe that for a moment, but he really hadn’t intended to pick a fight. Changing the subject seemed like a good idea.

“Sure,” was all Harry could say. They finished the rest of their preparations in silence.

~*~*~*~*~

Word of their mission had been passed to the rest of the senior staff. Seven had to give the captain credit for considering colonization as an option, though she suspected Commander Chakotay had been behind the idea. Still, she wasn’t sure how she felt about the prospect. Part of her had gotten caught up in this crew’s enthusiasm for returning to the Alpha Quadrant. She had even spent considerable time reviewing Earth’s geographical and cultural database to prepare herself for the possibility that it might become her new home. Still, she knew enough about the Federation’s encounters with the Borg to worry that she might be an unpleasant reminder of lost loved-ones to too many of Earth’s residents. She had a firm philosophy, however, about not worrying over that which she could not control. No matter what course the captain chose, Seven was sure she would ultimately adapt.

She was less sure about Icheb. He had a real gift for astrometrics and had just begun his training as a Starfleet cadet. Icheb had his whole life ahead of him, and Seven wasn’t sure he would be happy trapped on an isolated planet in a deserted region of space. She knew the crew would look after him. Everyone had grown to respect the young man’s intelligence and intellect. And his bravery. He had almost sacrificed himself to save Seven’s life, and it was a debt the whole crew seemed to want to repay.

‘Speak of the devil,’ she thought as her pupil appeared behind her. Her next thought was that she must be spending too much time with Lieutenant Paris these days if his annoying Earth idioms were coming so easily into her mind. “I have blocked off two hours this evening to review your preparations for the quantum theory examination,” she offered, her fingers quickly moving to change the search specifics on her display screen. She wouldn’t mention the away mission to Icheb. It would be inappropriate, and she wanted to avoid causing him unnecessary alarm.

“Ensign Kim says I should ‘ace’ the test, if his tutoring has been any indication.” Icheb was incapable of bragging, she knew. He was only being honest.

“I have no doubt you will,” she assured him.

He moved to stand in front of her, an idea obviously forming in his mind. “I have been considering my career options in light of my progress,” he offered. “Barring any unforeseen opportunities or technological developments, it is possible that this ship might take half a generation to reach the Alpha Quadrant. It seems prudent for the captain to prepare for a transfer of command at such time as she reaches an advanced age. I believe I should begin preparing myself for that eventuality.”

Seven almost grinned at his presumptuousness, even though he had a point. “I see,” she said thoughtfully. “Perhaps you should complete your Academy training before you make plans to take command of the ship.”

Properly chastened, Icheb nodded. “Of course,” he said, his fair cheeks reddening. “I’ll see you at 1800 hours, then.”

In addition to her amusement at Icheb’s grand dreams for his future, Seven felt a tinge of sympathy for her student. He had no idea that he might have to change his career plans before he’d even get a chance to graduate. She turned her attention back to the star map in front of her and began scanning once again.

~*~*~*~*~

B’Elanna was taking her first break of the morning, giving her tired feet a rest. She knew she really ought to trade in her uniform boots for something with more support, but that would be a concession to her condition and she would never give up without a fight. To his credit, Tom never mentioned it, volunteering to rub her sore feet each night before she could even ask. She was getting impatient with her body these days, and looked forward to reclaiming it for herself once the baby came. Well, she might loan it out for recreational uses to a certain pilot she had come to love. But no more long-term boarders–not for a while anyway.

Knowing the impulsive nature of the couple, everyone assumed the pregnancy had been accidental, and that was partially true. While they both knew they wanted children at some point, they assumed the natural incompatibilities in human/Klingon DNA might make conception difficult, and used a genetic ‘roll-of-the-dice’ as their only method of contraception. It was ironic, then–when they discovered B’Elanna’s pregnancy–that it was genetics that almost undid them. Unexpectedly, seeing a holographic projection of their daughter had triggered a series of emotional reactions B’Elanna had been unprepared to face. Memories of her own childhood began to surface, and revived feelings she had thought she had resolved. Feelings of being an outcast–ugly. She felt that her appearance, her temper, and the uncivilized people it symbolized had driven her cherished father away from the family. When she feared a child with a Klingon face and disposition would ultimately find the same rejection and loneliness that had been handed to her, B’Elanna had gone so far as to alter the Doctor’s program to convince him to resequence the baby’s DNA to factor out the quarter of her heritage that was Klingon.

Tom had stopped her in the knick of time. But the experience had cost them both dearly. Tom had been appalled at what B’Elanna had considered, and horribly wounded that she might think he would ever abandon her and their daughter. Tom was the only person B’Elanna had ever told of her agonizing childhood, of her hatred of her ancestry–and of her belief that she had driven her father away. Since that first conversation–a lifetime ago when they had been trapped in a Vidiian prison (B’Elanna having been cruelly split into her human and Klingon selves, and long before either had any idea of how their relationship would progress)–Tom had begun studying Klingon culture and ritual. He found himself fascinated by the code of honor and passion of this maligned people, and by his new half-Klingon friend who rejected that part of herself.

Only recently, a few days after convincing her that they would never repeat her parents’ fate, Tom told her the truth: that the day so long ago, when he found himself comforting the human B’Elanna and marveling at the Klingon B’Elanna, was the day he first fell in love with her. She was so much more complex than he had seen before, with a plate of emotional armor that hid the vulnerable woman inside. And she was so full of pain. They were the same, he realized that day. He could never reject her Klingon nature. The complexity it brought to her character was what had drawn him to her.

Ironically, it was another ‘Klingon encounter’ that had sealed the deal. She and Tom had been good friends for almost two years by this time, and she could tell he was interested in a deeper relationship. She began to notice the ship’s most visible ladies’ man ignoring not only Megan Delaney and Sue Nicoletti, but just about every female on the ship. He began asking her out, making jokes about her love life, and finding opportunities to be alone with her. B’Elanna, of course, pretended she didn’t notice. After all, why was this guy–who had proven he could have most of the women on board–suddenly showing an interest in her? She didn’t trust him. She didn’t trust in herself. So she made it into a game: he’d look longingly at her when he thought she couldn’t see, she’d intentionally ignore him. Ultimately, she found herself taking her own secret glances when his attention was diverted. Never more than that, though.

Then on what was supposed to be a simple away mission to the Sakari home world to mine some gallicite, she was suddenly out of her mind with a ‘blood fever’, a life-threatening hormonal imbalance that drove her to either mate or die. It had been induced by Ensign Vorik, a misguided Vulcan in the throes of the pon farr. In B’Elanna’s compromised condition, she had admitted her attraction to Tom. Well, more than that, she had practically assaulted him, including biting his face in an act symbolic of laying claim to one’s mate. Tom feared that she was too impaired to make such a choice, however, and he refused her advances. Mostly. Fearing for her life, Tom did ultimately agree, and even seemed to enjoy her Klingon-inspired foreplay. Once again interrupted by fate (and a fistfight with a livid Vulcan), they hadn’t gotten very far before it was all over, and B’Elanna’s fever was purged through the battle with Vorik. Still, for the bulk of a very difficult day, Tom had seen her in full-out Klingon passion. And he admitted afterward that he wouldn’t mind seeing it again. That’s when she knew, too; this was a man she could love.

Now, after all they had been through, she had risked their entire future by forgetting that Tom Paris was not John Torres. This man would stay. How stupid she had been, she now realized. Tom had always encouraged her to explore her Klingon heritage. Hell, he was better with a bat’leth that she was. Of course he’d accept a part-Klingon child, just as he had sought out and loved her. It was B’Elanna who had to accept their baby. And perhaps, reflected in his eyes, she could see what Tom had come to love about her, and begin–once and for all–to accept herself.

Her thoughts snapped back to reality as Joe Carey appeared before her. “Chief, I’ve finished the warp core diagnostic and I’m concerned about these new microfissures.” B’Elanna and Joe had come a long way since their first days in the Delta Quadrant when she had punched him out in front of the entire engineering staff. If not for Captain Janeway’s controversial choice of B’Elanna as chief engineer, she would be reporting to Carey now. This issue was long put to rest, however, and Joe had come to respect the fiery half-Klingon as the best person for the job.

He let her review the PADD before he continued. “Some of us are concerned that we might have a hard time going back to warp without a significant layover for repairs.” She was suspicious now, but she tried not to give herself away. Engineering had the reputation for having the most accurate rumor mill on Voyager, a fact that confounded her since she had openly refused to feed into it. Had Joe heard that they were investigating colonization sites? She chose a deliberately vague reply to avoid answering his deeper question.

“Tom and Harry are on a survey mission right now to see if they can replenish our power reserves. When they find something, we should be able to replicate the parts we need without a major delay.” Okay, she really meant ‘if’ instead of ‘when,’ but her leadership instincts guided her to act more optimistic than she felt. Buy it, Joe, she silently hoped.

“You know, Lieutenant, there are rumors that they’re actually searching for a place for us to set down–permanently. The captain wouldn’t really do that, would she?”

Don’t take the bait, B’Elanna, she told herself. “Carey, you know Captain Janeway intends to get this crew home if she has to carry us there on her back. I can’t be worried that you’re letting this gossip distract you. I need you and everyone else focused on holding this ship together. Understood?” Her tone was gentle, but firm. He nodded.

“You know, Chief, I got a letter from my wife in the last datastream. My oldest son is graduating from high school next month.” He looked so sad, and she understood his pain. “He was up to here when I last saw him,” Carey continued, gesturing just below his chest. “She tells me he’s taller than I am now.” B’Elanna didn’t know what to say, so she just held his gaze as long as she could. He took a moment then walked back to his console to begin his next task.

She knew if they ended up settling on one of the nearby worlds, the odds said they would be there for the rest of their lives. If it came to that, the duty to tell her staff would fall to her. She had no idea what she would say. Shaking that thought from her mind, she grudgingly got to her feet and went back to work.

~*~*~*~*~

Harry and Tom had finished their tenth survey without sharing more than perfunctory updates on their findings. Harry had been brave enough to break the silence the last time. Tom knew it was his turn. “Did you mean what you said, Harry?” A vague choice of an ice-breaker.

“What do you mean,” Harry replied. He had said a lot of things this morning. Some of them he meant more than others.

“Do you really feel like I treat you like a kid?” Tom clarified.

Harry didn’t want to antagonize the situation any more, so he hedged a little before answering. “That’s not exactly what I said,” he answered. It was helpful that he couldn’t see Tom’s face during this conversation. It was awkward enough without having to look him in the eye.

Tom apparently didn’t agree, since he was putting the Flyer on auto-navigation and turning around in his seat. “I’d like to know what you did mean,” Tom pushed gently, realizing that the Delta Flyer was rapidly replacing Voyager’s turbolift as his ‘heart-to-heart conversation’ location of choice. “You told me a few months ago that you were tired of always playing Buster Kincaid to my Captain Proton. I guess I didn’t realize how much you meant that.”

Harry still couldn’t quite look at Tom. He didn’t want to hurt his best friend. But he didn’t want to lie to him either. “I guess I’m worried that, if you of all people don’t see me as capable of more than just following your lead, nobody on the ship will ever really take me seriously. Harry Kim: Tom’s little buddy. Tom’s sidekick. On shore leave, in the holodeck, we’re always doing what you want to do. I’m getting to the point that I can’t even tell where your hobbies end and mine begin.” He got the courage to hold Tom’s gaze before he continued. “Some days I feel like Harry Kim is just the short shadow of Tom Paris.” There it was, out in the open.

“Do you think I’ve intentionally done anything to make you feel this way?” Tom really wanted to know. “We tease each other, Harry, it’s just what we do. You’ve always given as good as you’ve gotten. As I recall, I latched onto you when I first came on board. You were a good friend to me, Harry. Better than I deserved at the time, as I recall. But the irony in all of this is that I’m the one who’s always looked up to you.” This was uncharacteristic sentiment from Voyager’s chief cynic, and it made his friend a little uncomfortable. Tom clearly wasn’t through, though.

“I was a great pilot when I came here, Harry, and I knew it. But I was lousy officer material. I had a bad attitude and a smart mouth and a talent for getting myself into trouble. I meant it when I told you I thought of you as the conscience I never had. And I really did try to be more like you. I don’t think I ever would have been taken seriously by the crew if they hadn’t seen you so willing to accept me as your friend.” Tom was right and Harry realized he had been a little hard on him. Maybe it was Harry Kim who needed to let go of the image of Ensign Eager.

Tom must have seen the softening in Harry’s expression, and he reverted to typical Paris wit. “And I’d probably be babysitting for B’Elanna and Vorik if we hadn’t both become such good friends with you.” They both laughed out loud at that absurd idea. “You know,” Tom went on. “I’ve always wanted to give the Buster role a try. And I’m sure my Captain Proton jacket would fit you better these days than it fits me.” Without holodeck access it was a hollow gesture, but the sentiment behind it had been real.

“I’m thinking about a new program,” Harry offered, taking the same glint in his eye he had just seen in Tom’s. “Captain Sulu and the adventures of the USS Excelsior.”

Ugh, Tom thought. He even wants to play Starfleet. “Just don’t cast me as the young Vulcan security officer,” Tom quipped. I don’t think I could pull off a convincing Tuvok!” They grinned at each other before Tom turned around and took control of the stick once more. Thank god that was over.

No more than five minutes passed before their sensors picked up the pre-programmed signs. “Paris to Neelix,” Tom called out over the comm. “Looks like we’ll be needed your services after all.”

~*~*~*~*~

The senior staff was gathered in the briefing room to hear the away team’s report. The news was mixed at best. Harry was summarizing their geological findings. “We found no significant deposits of the key minerals needed to power the ship on any of the planetoids we surveyed. What we did find was unrefineable because of the levels of contaminants present.”

It was Neelix’s turn. “We brought back some seeds from the tenth planet of the fourth system, but it seems to be winter on the only significant landmass, and there was no mature plant life. At least nothing edible.” That was some admission, Tom thought, considering Neelix’s broad definition of the word.

“Gentlemen, I thought you said there were some positive findings to report,” the captain challenged.

Harry and Neelix looked to Tom, who couldn’t help but catch Harry’s eyes before he began. “Captain, we did find a Class M planet in the sixth system. It has crude mineral deposits that could easily be converted to energy, but it’s incompatible with Voyager’s technology. There’s abundant fresh water, but most of the landmasses seem to have been scorched by seasonal wildfires recently. They destroyed most of the edible vegetation and animal life.”

Janeway couldn’t avoid asking the next question. “And that’s a positive finding…?”

Tom took a deep breath. “The planet fits Federation guidelines for colonization for a group our size. The natural resources won’t support a starship, but could easily maintain a permanent settlement. And the land could be terraformed rather easily.”

There it was. A viable option staring her in the face. She couldn’t bring herself to look at Chakotay. “Opinions,” she spat out. Her first officer was wise enough to keep his mouth shut, and she was grateful.

“I think we should press on,” Harry jumped in. We still have several months of reserves, and seven years of experience that tells us that we’ll come across the materials we need somehow. We’ve had to ration before. It’s always worked out in the end.”

Janeway knew his bias and eternal optimism and factored it in. “Seven?”

Seven of Nine turned her chair slightly to face the captain. “I can’t agree with Ensign Kim. Long-range astrometric scans show no significant civilizations within reach of this vessel under our current operating conditions. We have a responsibility to keep this crew safe that supercedes any personal desires to reach Earth. I believe we should send a comprehensive survey mission to confirm the away team’s findings, and begin preparations for colonization.” Two down, six to go.

Tuvok was next. As always he was deliberate in his choice of words. “Your priority has been very clear, Captain. Reaching the Alpha Quadrant has always been our primary mission, and we have taken great risks in the past to achieve that goal. Either scenario presents problems. But I believe the logical course would be to continue on our journey until no other options remain.”

Kathryn knew her friend was guided by Vulcan logic, but she had to factor his bond to his family into his calculated answer, even if Tuvok would have argued dispassionately that he was incapable of falling victim to emotional influences. “Your turn, Mr. Paris.”

Tom’s eyes moved to meet Harry’s as he considered what he would say. He looked away before he began. “I’m with Seven, Captain. Based on what we saw today in the Flyer, there’s not a lot out there we can use. The planet we found isn’t the Garden of Eden, but we could make due. Our survival has to take priority.” He turned back to look at his friend. “I’m sorry, Harry.” The ensign forced himself to nod at Tom; he knew they didn’t agree on this topic.

The captain saw the looks that passed between the two friends and imagined that the conversation during their away mission must have been pretty tense. She wondered if Tom realized that, if they did have to set the ship down, he might never fly again. Could he live with that? Of course, these days her helmsman had other priorities besides piloting. “B’Elanna?”

“Well, I guess if Tom’s staying…,” she’d picked up her husband’s habit of lightening a tense moment with humor. “Captain, I have serious doubts that we can keep this ship going long enough to make it to a more hospitable area. We could be adrift long before we find what we need. I don’t think we have a choice.”

Janeway now had the opinions of her bridge crew, but Neelix and the Doctor had earned the right to be heard. “Doctor, is there a medical consideration you would like to point out?”

The EMH had an opinion on every topic, she knew. But his very existence was at stake, if their holographic technology lost its only source of power. “I’m a doctor, not a psychic. However, I have some serious concerns about our dwindling food reserves and the long-term nutritional requirements of this crew. Assuming you can preserve some of our key technology…” they all followed his less than subtle meaning, “it may be a wise precaution to look for a new place to ‘put down roots.’ Literally and figuratively.”

Janeway nodded. “Mr. Neelix, we have brought you very far from your own home on our quest to reach ours. How do you feel about the prospect of giving up our journey?”

Their morale officer had been struggling to keep the crew in a positive frame of mind ever since the energy rationing was put into place, but–with even less variation in their meals, no way to blow off steam on the holodeck, and their fears about the gloomy prospects for the future, there was little he could really do to keep spirits up. Janeway actually thought she could see the strain on Neelix’s own mood. Ever the diplomat, however, his gentle reply was what they all might have expected. “I’ve been looking forward to touring Earth, as the only ambassador from the Delta Quadrant. But I wouldn’t want you to risk your lives on my account. I’m happy with my life here with this crew. I’ll support whatever decision you feel you need to make.” The Talaxian had become a source of strength for them all these past few years. His selflessness never ceased to amaze the captain, and she smiled at him warmly.

She didn’t bother to ask Chakotay in front of the rest of her staff. She not only knew his position, she knew he could make a compelling and eloquent argument for it. She’d let him do that, but privately. Janeway told the group she would take their opinions into consideration and notify them of her decision as soon as she had made it. She watched her officers–her friends–file out of the briefing room and she was sorry for the burden of this secret conversation she couldn’t allow them to share with their staffs.

Her first officer followed her quietly across the bridge and into her ready room. Neither spoke until they were inside and seated on the couch. Even then, it was a few minutes before the right words came. “Tell me why we shouldn’t do this,” she said to him, taking Chakotay slightly off-guard.

“Wouldn’t I be arguing your case, Captain?” he asked.

“Yes. But I need to know that you understand why I’m loathe to consider it.” Fair enough.

“We’ve made a promise to this crew,” he began, “that we wouldn’t give up until we got them home to their families and friends. Giving up now, when they’ve finally made regular contact with those they’ve left behind might be too painful for many of them to accept.” Good. He was taking her challenge seriously. “We also have some small chance of finding what we need before our options are exhausted. How would we live with the possibility that, had we had only continued a little further, we might have come across the supplies, or assistance, or the uncharted wormhole we needed to make it all the way home.” He was seeing the value of her exercise. These were compelling reasons to push on. “Finally, settling here would be accepting defeat. And Janeways never accept defeat.”

Her head jerked up at that last comment. “Speaking from your long personal experience as a Janeway, I suppose?” She smarted at the truth he spoke.

He smiled gently back at her. “Only from my long personal experience of following a Janeway into one unwinnable battle after another only to come out victorious against all the odds. Kathryn, you’ve flown with deliberation into the heart of Borg territory, stealing Seven right out from under their noses. You fought and defeated species 8472, only to turn them into allies when you realized their true nature. You incited a Borg civil war, and turned a young Hirogen into a budding pacifist. I can’t imagine you finding it easy to surrender to a few microfractures and an empty airponics bay.” God, he knew her so well. She was determined not to let her stubborn pride make this decision, however. For the first time, more than half of her senior staff members were making a well-considered argument for giving up their journey. She had to take them seriously.

“You could see yourself,” she asked him sincerely, “making a life on that burned planet, with no chance of seeing your home, your friends, or your colony ever again?”

This question was almost too easy for him to answer. “Most of my family was killed in the war with Cardassia. My career I surrendered to take up their fight. All my friends who aren’t dead or in prison are on this ship. I’ve already made a new life for myself in the Delta Quadrant, Kathryn. It doesn’t matter so much to me whether that life is aboard this ship or on a new colony in a remote part of space.” He looked deeply into her eyes before he spoke again. “And I can imagine an even better future, free from the protocols and proprieties of the chain of command. Where we’re men and women first and officers second. Our new lives could start now.” She was blushing, and could feel the pained look in her eyes as he continued. “All sorts of possibilities exist on that ‘burned planet.’ My people have always respected fire as a source of renewal. Maybe this is our sign to start anew on that scorched land.”

She reached out her hand to touch his face, and he moved his up to meet it. She gently pulled away from him, and stood and walked to her desk. “I’ll let you know my decision in the morning.” She had her back turned to him now. “Goodnight.”

He only hesitated a moment before he moved out the door. Kathryn Janeway put her hands firmly on her desk and closed her eyes. How could she ever bear to make this decision? Yet she knew it was hers alone. “Computer, lights to 30% illumination.” She had to think. She wouldn’t be going back to her quarters this evening.

~*~*~*~*~

B’Elanna’s day hadn’t started off too badly. This morning, when her dreams led her to pat the other side of her bed, she found the warm body of her sleeping husband right where it was supposed to be. She had woken up anyway and rolled her less-than-agile body on to her side so she could study his sleeping face. People had always described Tom as “boyish,” an observation lent great credibility by his often-infantile behavior. But in these moments, as she watched him peacefully asleep, her feelings for him were almost maternal. He looked all of five years old, his face free from worry and his breathing soft and deep. She could have kept up her motherly fantasies if she didn’t ultimately find herself staring at those lips. There was nothing maternal about her feelings about them. Even though he needed his sleep, she couldn’t stop herself from placing a small kiss on them. She knew this might wake him up, but there was only so sorry she could be about that.

“I’m having this wonderful dream,” he mumbled without opening his eyes, “…that I’m being kissed by a beautiful woman who doesn’t know when to let sleeping dogs lie.”

Where does he get these expressions, B’Elanna wondered. “I guess that puts you in the role of the sleeping dog,” she whispered back at him before kissing him a little less gently this time.

“Ouch,” he groaned, his eyes opening. “I guess I did that one to myself.” He was awake enough now and rolled her gently onto her back before making his own claim to her lips. “But you’re certainly well cast in the role of the beautiful woman.” His interest soon outstripped his energy, however, and he found himself draped over her shoulder, unable to do more than fantasize about advancing their play. “I need another half hour,” he murmured, and was back asleep before she could even respond. They ended up sleeping right through the alarm, and had scrambled to get dressed and out of their quarters in enough time to grab breakfast before their shifts.

Three hours later, and her day was decidedly less enjoyable. B’Elanna was crawling through a Jeffries tube on deck ten, her belly practically scraping bottom, as she and Seven headed to check out a confounding mystery surrounding some damaged power couplings. There was a time, she remembered, when working with Seven in such cramped quarters would have been enough to ruin her whole day. Things had changed between them recently, though, and the women–the two best engineering minds on the ship–had reached a comfortable truce.

In a way, B’Elanna considered, Seven might have even saved her relationship with Tom. When he had cancelled their vacation plans ten months ago to race the Delta Flyer, B’Elanna had taken it as a final omen that she and Tom were a bad match. Without even knowing it, Seven had given her one final inspiration, to replace Harry as Tom’s copilot in the trans-stellar rally. As it turned out, that race that had become the impetus for their impromptu wedding, and the source of B’Elanna’s favorite recurring dream.

Luxuries like racing for sport and a weekend on the holodeck seemed almost unimaginable to her now. She dragged her engineering kit with one hand, as she and Seven finally reached the damaged coupling. She heard herself grunt as she turned over onto her bottom and pulled her legs beneath her. Seven couldn’t help but hear her, too.

“You are experiencing discomfort from the pressure of the fetus on your major organ systems?” Always one to ask the personal questions, that Seven.

“More on my musculature than my organs, if you must know,” B’Elanna answered a little stiffly. Seven was sensitive enough now to know that the observation made the lieutenant uncomfortable, but she had never known a pregnant female and she had some questions. She moderated her tone, slightly, out of consideration for B’Elanna’s feelings, and because she knew it would increase the probabilities of receiving a response.

“I am familiar with the overall anatomical impact of a pregnancy on the female body. I am curious about the sensations, however. Are you connected to the fetus’s nervous system?” she asked.

“Seven, I’ll make you a deal,” B’Elanna replied. “As long as you keep working on rerouting that coupling, I’ll answer the questions I can. But I want to get out of this Jeffries tube as soon as possible before my back seizes up, agreed?”

Seven considered this a fair trade, as she could easily concentrate on her repairs and the lieutenant’s answers at the same time. “Agreed,” she replied.

“First of all, I’m far enough along in the pregnancy that I would prefer you refer to it as a baby or a child rather than a fetus, if you don’t mind.”

Seven picked up the hyperspanner. “Agreed, though you are technically inaccurate in your description.” Borg precision, B’Elanna thought.

“And no, my body feels sensations caused by the baby, but I am not directly connected to her nervous system.” Those sensations had begun at a remarkably early seven weeks, with a flutter the EMH had identified as kicking. “That’s why the Doctor needs to monitor my pregnancy; something could go wrong with the baby and I might not be aware of it.” Seven hadn’t considered this. As a Borg, she had been linked to other drones even with no physical contact. The idea that one could maintain such total individuality from a creature growing inside your body seemed curious. The thought made B’Elanna seem more fragile in her mind, though she wasn’t sure why.

“The sensations you experience,” Seven pressed on, “are they painful?”

“Sometimes,” B’Elanna answered, moving her tricorder over Seven’s work. “When she starts to kick vigorously. I’m pretty sure this baby is going to share her father’s love of sports.” An odd assumption, Seven thought, though she didn’t pursue it.

“You mean your body has been kicked from the inside?” Gee, she really didn’t know anything about this, B’Elanna realized.

“Kicked, punched, rolled over, and–if I didn’t know it was impossible–I’d swear bitten. It comes and goes depending on whether the baby’s awake or asleep and how active she’s feeling. But she’s given me a few painful moments in our last few months together.” They were almost ready to seal up the compartment and move on.

“Childbirth has been described in the medical texts as the most pain a humanoid body can endure,” Seven offered. “If this is the case, I wonder why so many would volunteer to experience it.”

B’Elanna wasn’t sure how to respond. “Well, I guess you just don’t think about the pain until you’re already committed.” Sort of like love, she thought to herself. “And let’s just say that the circumstances surrounding conception are pleasant enough to make one occasionally forget about the potential consequences.” Wow, this was more than she expected to share with her Borg crewmate.

“You are referring to copulation, I assume.” Typically clinical, B’Elanna thought.

“Yes, however I am designating that topic off limits for the purpose of our agreement, since I think you have collected more than enough information about Tom’s and my sex life.” The memories of Seven’s ‘research project’ were making the engineer sorry she had ever allowed this line of questioning. Surprisingly, Seven didn’t push it.

“Anyway,” B’Elanna regrouped, getting back to the original question. “Childbirth is only painful without the assistance of medical intervention. I have every expectation that the Doctor will see to it that I am as comfortable as possible while the baby is being delivered.”

Seven’s next question popped into B’Elanna’s head at the same moment her colleague started to speak it. “Considering our dwindling energy reserves and the real likelihood that we will be in the process of colonizing a new planet, aren’t you concerned that the proper medical facilities won’t be available to you at the time of your delivery?”

This hadn’t really occurred to B’Elanna before this conversation. “Shut up, Seven,” she snapped back, effectively ending their deal.  “Let’s get the hell out of this tube.”

“Senior staff to Astrometrics,” they heard Chakotay’s voice over their combadges. Great, B’Elanna thought, it’s going to take me forever to crawl out of here. Seven seemed to have had the same concern.

“Lieutenant, I believe we might make faster progress if I were to carry your engineering kit.” Ugh! Being dependent on anyone didn’t sit well with the engineer, but depending on Seven was almost too much to bear. Yet, she had a point.

“Thanks,” was all B’Elanna could muster. Her embarrassment only grew as she found she also needed to take Seven’s hand to make the transfer from the tube to the maintenance shaft’s ladder. With Borg assistance, the women reached the briefing only moments after their colleagues.

Harry was already at work behind the Astrometrics main console when the women walked through the door. They could sense an anxious energy in the room, and it was obvious that those already gathered had been eager for Seven, in particular, to arrive. Chakotay was pacing a hole in the floor and Captain Janeway’s voice had that high-pitched yet gravely squeak to it that they both recognized as a sign of her agitation. “Seven, B’Elanna, we’re receiving the new datastream from Starfleet, and there’s an encoded message bearing Lieutenant Barclay’s secure encryption code. The heading on the file has the designation we were told to expect if a viable rescue plan had been found.” She tried to contain her nervous energy. “Harry’s verified the validity of the code. It looks like this could be the one we’ve been waiting for.”

Tom and B’Elanna shot looks at each other. With less of a blind motivation than their friends to get home at any cost, they tended to be skeptical of these ‘gifts from the gods’ that occasionally appeared on Voyager offering a painless and fast way back. They had been proven right time and again, including the last time they got such a transmission from Barclay, in the form of a holographic doppelganger who had almost gotten them all killed. After that near-tragedy, Starfleet had tightened security on the Pathfinder project and had created the new encryption protocols, but that didn’t stop the couple from doubting that this could be the miracle path home. If the codes had been verified, though…

Seven had already begun assisting Harry, accelerating the decryption. Never content to standby and wait, B’Elanna moved to the secondary access console and began data integrity checks of the portions Harry had already decoded. She found no indication of tampering. Indeed, as she watched the technical specifications of the plan scroll past her eyes, her engineer’s mind told her that this might actually work.

Five minutes later the download, decryption, and verification of the datastream were complete. As Voyager’s senior staff looked up at the projection screen, it was Reg Barclay’s now-familiar face they saw. “Captain Janeway, we have been evaluating the data you provided us on Borg transwarp conduits, and Starfleet’s best scientists have been working to see if there is a way we can solve some of the problems you have encountered in opening a stable conduit without a Borg transwarp coil. We think we’ve found a way.” Glances shot around the room at warp speed.

“The Pathfinder staff has been working closely with the engineering team that designed the Intrepid class ships, and we think Voyager can be safely adapted to open a narrow-beam singularity, very similar to the transwarp concept. The specifications are enclosed. I have been asked by my superiors to mention that this plan requires some significant adaptations of Voyagers systems.”

Reg paused. He was a reticent man, and his expression showed a thinly-veiled apology as he continued. “These modifications will require you to scavenge components from several of the ship’s key systems. Once you adapt these systems, it’s unlikely that the ship will be able to exceed warp four again. Of course, that’s not a problem if the conduit opens as we expect. However, if you are able to open and enter the conduit, any instability in your warp engines or deflector array might cause the singularity to collapse. Prospects for Voyager’s surviving such an event would not be good.”

“Captain,” Barclay continued, his nervous voice turning soft, “we understand this would be a major gamble for you and your crew. But we believe it can succeed. If you elect to make the attempt, we have estimated the modifications should take your engineers approximately twenty-five days. That would allow you to notify us of your decision, and send along any…” he stammered, “…final…personal messages in the next datastream before you open the conduit. We would then make all necessary preparations to receive you on this end. We look forward to hearing your reply. Barclay out.” They stood together silently for a moment before the Captain finally spoke.

“Well, I don’t supposed we should have expected something easy,” she mused. “But somehow I didn’t think it would be so ‘all or nothing.'” She paced a few steps before turning back to face her crew.

“B’Elanna, work with Seven and Harry to make a complete analysis of this plan and its risks,” the captain instructed. “What’s the earliest you could make your recommendations?”

The three officers looked quickly at each other. “I think we would need about six hours to review the material and evaluate our current status,” B’Elanna answered for them.

“Good,” the captain replied. I’ll see you all in the briefing room at 1600 hours.

~*~*~*~*~

The remainder of the alpha shift seemed to crawl by, as the bridge crew waited for the engineering team to make its recommendations. With Voyager currently heading pretty much in a straight line to nowhere, Tom spent a long while at the conn thinking about the decision the captain was going to have to make. He had just been preparing himself for a life as a colonist, when they were once again teased by the prospect of making it home to Earth. Just as he had during the last “false alarm,” when Reg’s hologram assured them they’d be home in days, Tom reviewed in his mind the contingency plans he had devised to deal with the various welcomes they might receive upon their arrival.

Scenario A: They’re welcomed home as conquering heroes. His standing in Starfleet is restored, B’Elanna’s given Academy credits for her practical experience as Voyager’s chief engineer, they take an exciting-but-stable joint posting on some nice ship, and they and their daughter live happily ever after. This was Harry’s prediction. Tom, having never been able to sustain a run of good luck in his life as long as he had on Voyager, thought the odds of this to be 50/50 at best.

Scenario B: They arrive in Federation space, at which time the Maquis are immediately arrested as terrorists. Tom is sent back to the Federation Penal Colony in Auckland to finish out his sentence, and is stripped of his operator’s license, effectively ending his career as a pilot. If this gloomy outcome proved true, Tom could come up with only one positive thought: maybe he and B’Elanna could share a cell.

Scenario C: They’re welcomed home warmly, but cautiously. B’Elanna and the other Maquis are pardoned for their crimes, and Tom’s sentence is commuted, but there won’t be a Starfleet career in either of their futures. The big question in this scenario was how they would spend the rest of their lives. Tom secretly thought this was the most likely outcome, and he wasn’t sure how he felt about it. He knew only two things: he’d want to be able to keep flying and he needed to be with B’Elanna and the baby. Pretty much everything else was negotiable.

He was also unsettled at the thought of seeing his family again. He was such a different person from the young man they had last known. Even his mother and sisters, whom he had forced out of his life so as to spare them the shame of his crimes, had known him most recently as a misfit who hadn’t lived up to his great potential. He had refused their visits while he was in Auckland, and he knew that had hurt them. Now that they were able to communicate by letter each month, he had tried to tell them how much he had grown up during his time in the Delta Quadrant. But his official record from Voyager–which he knew his father had access to–could be open to interpretation: his being busted back to ensign for a year after trying to save the Monean ocean, his subsequent thirty days in the brig for disobeying orders, even his having married a Maquis. From so far away, it was possible that Tom still looked like a rebel who couldn’t play by the rules. He knew Captain Janeway didn’t see him that way, but, from Earth, out of context…he had his doubts if it seemed he had learned any lessons at all.

Then there was his father. Tom had really believed that no amount of time or talking could put that relationship right. He couldn’t remember the last time he felt like anything but a disappointment to Admiral Paris, and their time apart before Voyager was lost had been filled with anger, bitterness, and pain for them both. They had been out of each other’s lives long before Tom landed in New Zealand. He would never forget their last conversation, in the foyer of his parents’ home in San Francisco, as Tom returned from Starfleet headquarters after the hearing that stripped him of his commission.

In all of their difficult times while Tom was growing up, he had never heard his father so livid. He had known Owen didn’t think very much of his abilities (a difficult thing for the Admiral to bear, Tom imagined, since he only accepted the ‘best and the brightest’), but their’s had always been a ‘cold war.’ Tom would disappoint his father, feel horrible, give a tepid apology, then beat himself up; his father would lecture him about his lack of focus and sloppy study habits, then freeze him out for the next week. After Tom had confessed to his lie about the accident on Caldik Prime, however, there was nothing cold about their fight.

The crash, his father had told him, showed that even Tom’s piloting–the one thing the Admiral grudgingly acknowledged his son excelled at–left something to be desired. And Tom’s cover-up of his role in the deaths of his friends was more than just dishonorable, it was stupid. Idiotic. A disgrace. The combination of Tom’s guilt, humiliation, and years of being made to feel like a disappointment to the Paris lineage had come to a boiling point. They had screamed things at each other that day–evil words that would be difficult to take back.  Owen threw his son out of the house and told him to stay away. A year later, drunk and desperate for someone to pay his drinking debts, Tom was recruited by Chakotay into the Maquis. Six months after that he was captured and jailed. Another year later, and he was 70,000 light years away from home and presumed dead.

He would never forget that afternoon in San Francisco. But he would also remember another day, just a few years ago, and the surreal feeling of sitting on Voyager’s bridge, hearing his father’s voice for the first time in years, telling Tom’s captain and everyone else who could hear that he was proud of his son and missed him. The memory still gave him chills.

Since the regular data exchanges over the MIDAS array had begun, he had written exactly two letters to that California home he had been summarily thrown out of, but he had addressed them to both of his parents. The first told them about his marriage to B’Elanna. They second let them know about their coming granddaughter. Usually, he spent his allotted space in the datastream trading messages with his sisters. Their letters had been full of love, support, and questions about his life. He enjoyed their correspondence so much, he had really come to look forward to the monthly ‘mail call’.

Okay, so maybe there was room for him to start over with his family. Someday, if they ever made it home.

~*~*~*~*~

Unlike their colonization reconnaissance mission, there was no way the senior staff could keep the news about Starfleet’s message a secret. B’Elanna had needed to include her engineering crew in figuring out the repair timeline and component analysis, and Carey and Sue Nicoletti helped the senior officers run probability scenarios on the Pathfinder scientists’ experimental plan. Thanks to the infamous engineering rumor mill, word of their possible rescue had spread to every deck well before the briefing began at 1600 hours.

“Report, B’Elanna,” Janeway instructed as she took her seat.

Her chief engineer walked to the wall panel and displayed a graphical simulation as she spoke. “Starfleet has come up with a way for us to create a narrow column singularity that–according to their simulations–can be targeted to open and close as we direct. The concept is not all that different from the transwarp conduits the Borg use, except that we’ll use a controlled antimatter explosion to open the rift, then use the deflector array to expand and ‘steer’ it.”

“An anti-matter explosion?” Tom interjected. “That could tear the ship apart!”

“That’s the ingenuity of this plan,” Harry replied. “Starfleet has found a way to focus the energy of the blast into the fabric of space using a highly-charged tachyon burst from our deflectors at the precise moment of the detonation. That’s what opens the wormhole. We just fly Voyager into the mouth of the singularity and wedge the rift open in two hundred meter increments in front of the ship. The angle of the deflector burst determines the direction we head.”

“You make it sound simple,” Chakotay interjected. “What’s going to keep the ship from breaking apart under those extreme stresses?”

Seven spoke up, “We significantly enlarge and enhance our shield emitters, boosting their power with a secondary warp core built from components salvaged from Voyager’s shuttles.”

B’Elanna added, “We essentially build a new power grid just for the shields. The enhanced emitters project a narrow-focused structural integrity field just inside the deflector wedge.”

Janeway was concerned, “You keep referring to this ‘narrow-focus’– how narrow are we talking?”

The three engineers exchanged glances. “Pretty narrow, Captain,” Torres answered. “We’ll have about ninety meters clearance around the entire ship, excluding the wedge itself.” Even Tuvok’s eyes seemed to widen at the news of the tight squeeze.

“Let me get this straight,” the captain sighed. “We’ll have to create an untested, controlled antimatter explosion, pry open the tear it will create in the fabric of space to form a theoretical wormhole, then use our untested shields to keep us from being crushed as we travel through it. If we manage to succeed, we’ll have to steer the deflector pulse, the structural integrity wedge and the ship though a spacial rift with only ninety meters clearance separating us from the singularity?”

B’Elanna shrugged as she answered. “That’s pretty much it, yes.”

Janeway was standing now, pacing toward the windows. “It’s so obvious, I can’t imagine why we didn’t think of it before,” she said under her breath. Her sarcasm was a reflection of her disappointment. This was going to be very risky, at best. “Seven, this plan adapts Borg science in a way we’ve never tried. What’s your reaction?”

“I believe it reflects unconventional thinking,” Seven said in a measured tone. “But I think it has the possibility to succeed.”

Janeway turned to her resident expert on Voyager’s systems. “B’Elanna?”

Her engineer was clearly making a dozen calculations in her mind as she spoke. “We would need to be traveling above warp 2 to open the conduit, so we would have to repair the new microfissures in the warp nacelles before we could attempt it. If we gutted the shuttles, and used some of our energy reserves to replicate the things we can’t salvage from other places, I think I could reinforce Voyager enough to hold things together for a while.” She looked at Seven briefly, but without malice before she went on. “Though the last time we tried something similar without a Borg transwarp coil, we ended up ejecting the core.” B’Elanna remembered having described that day as the worst of her life. At least, in most respects it had been. “I’ll still need to spend some time reviewing their plan for stabilizing the tachyon field before I could feel comfortable recommending this.”

Janeway agreed, “Of course.” She turned back to her staff, “So, will it work?”

Seven spoke first, “We ran the data through the main computer. Our probability studies show a sixty-two percent chance of success.” Not great odds, Tom thought, as an experienced gambler.

“There’s more, Captain,” B’Elanna continued. “Even if we are successful in opening the singularity, any number of things could go wrong. The wormhole could destabilize, crushing the ship. It will be challenging to steer the deflector accurately. We could over- or under-shoot our target rather substantially. And, if we graze the singularity…the forces would likely tear the ship apart.”

Harry, of course, saw things a little more optimistically. “To be fair, Captain, in the simulations run by Pathfinder’s team, they figured out how to anticipate and avoid most of the major systems issues in enough time to correct them. I think, with some practice on the holodeck, we could get our success rate even higher.”

Oh, Harry, B’Elanna thought to herself. So desperate to get home, he would take almost any risk. She knew he wasn’t the only one on the crew who felt that way. As a matter of fact, Harry’s chief competition for the ‘we’ve got to make it home at any cost’ prize now had this decision in her hands. The captain didn’t seem thrilled with the burden. Her tactical officer was about to make it more difficult.

“Captain, I believe there is something else we must consider.” Tuvok didn’t display the same outward signs of tension as his crewmates, but he knew as well as they did what was at stake. “It seems to me that we must confront the truth that, if this plan does not succeed, it is likely this ship will not survive the attempt. And, in light of our already critical supply shortages, I believe we must begin work immediately if we are to commit to this course of action.”

“Is that your recommendation, Commander?” Janeway wondered.

Her security chief steepled his fingers in the familiar Vulcan way and brought them to his chin as he considered his next words. “There are times when a strictly logical interpretation of the facts fails to yield a clear path.” The captain nodded in her friend’s direction. This was as close as a Vulcan could come, she supposed, to saying he wasn’t sure what they should do.

“B’Elanna, make sure the entire senior staff has access to your data. I want you all to go over it exhaustively. I think we need some more information before we can make a decision.” This was uncharacteristic.

“Before we make a decision, Captain?” Chakotay asked.

“Commander, if these odds don’t improve, we may be forced to allow each member of the crew to make their own choice between attempting this jump or settling down in the system we explored yesterday. I have no plans to force that decision on them.” She paused. “Or on any of you. Dismissed.”

Navigation

Next Page >> BCWYWF... Part 2: Decisions

Comments

One Response to “BCWYWF… Part 1: Priorities”

  1. As always, I love this story! Thank you again for sharing it with us. I also love the sequel and am eager for you to keep on writing!

Leave a Response