DOTS#8: Ranks & Rationalizations, Part 3

RATING

PG

SUMMARY

Another in my ongoing series of “Connect the P/T Dots” stories, immediately following “Sacred Ground”. After two years in the Delta Quadrant, Voyager had finally made it back to Earth. So what’s the problem? Tom Paris, Mister 20th Century America, gets his chance to experience the real thing. Unfortunately for P/T fans, he also gets to experience something else he hasn’t had in a while…

TIMELINE & SPOILERS

A smidge of “Sacred Ground” and all of “Future’s End”

CODES

P/T, J/C, P&Tu, T&C, a little bit of everyone else

DISCLAIMER

“Future’s End” was written by Brannon Braga and Joe Menosky, and out of necessity, this story retells much of their plot. No infringement of their intellectual property is intended, but they took Tom Paris on this ride, and I felt like I had to follow him there. I’d also like to remind everyone that they created Rain Robinson, not me. I have only done my little part to put right what they once put wrong…

Text Download: CTDranks3


“One-love.”

 

Chakotay looked over at the panting redhead and thought for a moment her short skirt had gone to her head. Okay, maybe to his head. “Excuse me?” he said to her as his eyebrows raised.

“It means that I’ve won one game and you’ve won…none. Now whose turn is it to serve?” Janeway was pacing like a cat, with her racket poised, ready to strike.

“You know,” he said as he bounced the tennis ball on the court, “you have an unfair advantage, Kathryn. You’ve actually played this game before.”

She smiled and walked to the net where he was standing. “Not for almost twenty years,” she said, sounding a little embarrassed that she was so out of practice. “Besides, this isn’t a competition, really. We’re just having some fun and getting a little exercise.”

He laughed. “Kathryn, for you, life is a competitive sport. And you always play to win.” The tone of his voice turned gentle. “I’m just glad that most of the time we’re on the same side.”

She stopped for a second and looked into his eyes. “Me, too,” she said quietly, before her expression turned wicked. “But not today. It’s your serve…”

Chakotay laughed to himself as he walked to the baseline. She was going to wipe the court with him—he could tell by the look in her eyes. Not that he cared. Any excuse to spend three hours alone in the holodeck with Kathryn Janeway. The little added bonus of that tennis outfit…well, he’d almost forgotten what great legs she had…

~~

‘They forgot I’m here,’ Tom thought to himself as he sat on a bench across from the court. He’d been helping the captain with her tennis holoprograms—one, a replica of her high school court, with a scoreboard and bleachers for spectators; the other in a quiet park near her Indiana home where she could practice in a less intimidating setting. She’d complained this morning that the angle of the sun was making it hard for her to see the ball, and Tom had agreed to check it out. He’d made a few subtle adjustments, but he suspected his very proud captain was having trouble admitting that she was just out of practice.

He was also reminded of something else she would never have admitted: Kathryn Janeway could be a serious flirt. As he watched her first game with Commander Chakotay, he realized that his senior officers were spending more time playing cat-and-mouse than tennis. It was a rare chance to catch them both in an unguarded situation, and two things struck him immediately: they were both funnier and more playful than most of the crew ever knew, and they were clearly infatuated with each other.

Tom and B’Elanna had suspected as much. Right after they’d rescued the captain and first officer from New Earth, the change in their behavior—especially Captain Janeway’s—was hard to miss. She was in a funk for over a month, and her melancholy mood had brought out an incredibly protective side of Chakotay. Still, for the longest time, they were both so closed off, even from each other. If he didn’t know better, Tom would have thought they were fighting.

But he did know better. Paris spent the majority of every day for the past two years sitting three meters away from them, and—though he never intentionally eavesdropped on their conversations—he’d had a front row seat for their evolving relationship.

Just before New Earth, their bridge banter had become less guarded. They’d talk about the ships they’d served on, about interesting stellar phenomena, or about crew morale. As they got more comfortable in each other’s company, Tom noticed that Chakotay would try to make the captain laugh; she’d occasionally ask him questions about his time in Starfleet or about certain Native American customs. They were on the verge of becoming friends.

When they returned from New Earth, however—at least for a while—they turned into cardboard cutouts pulled straight from some Starfleet rulebook. They almost never spoke unless it was about a course correction or the duty roster or some other innocuous and official subject. But there were rare moments when one of them would slip and call the other by name instead of rank, or when the inflection in a voice would become tender. They were burying whatever happened between them behind a barricade of professionalism.

Then Seska showed up.

After the nightmare mission to rescue Chakotay’s ‘son,’ things were different again. Tom hadn’t been there to see what happened on Hanon IV, but many of the crew—the command team included—came back changed. Suddenly there were fewer fights between the Maquis and Starfleet hardliners, a few ‘danced-around’ romances actually took off, and the bridge banter behind him started to change again. Personal subjects were no longer off limits, and calling each other by name became more routine.

His suspicions were reinforced just two weeks earlier when Kes was almost killed in an accident on the Nechani homeworld. The captain had been forced to go through some kind of religious ritual in order to save Kes’s life. Tom didn’t know all the details, but Neelix had mentioned a long, strange preparation process that had left Janeway emotionally and physically exhausted. While she was on Nechani preparing herself, Chakotay planted himself in sickbay at the monitor tracking her vital signs and had refused to leave, worried not only about Kes, but about what the captain was putting herself through to save a member of her crew.

Whatever this ritual was, it had clearly worked: Kes was fine and back on duty in a few days. But ever since then, the captain was different—more relaxed, more interested in the personal lives of the crew. And she had started, Tom noticed, to ‘let down her hair’ in more ways than one. She’d come to him a few days after they’d left orbit and asked for help in creating these tennis programs, specifically in finding historical records in the Starfleet datafiles to make the Indiana settings as realistic as possible. They’d spent a lot of time then, talking about their favorite holoprograms, their mutual love of history, and even about a few professors they’d both shared at the Academy. Tom was glad to help her, and for the chance to get to know her better.

He also noticed that, when the captain was off duty, the tight bun of hair that made her look so intimidating was occasionally being worn down, either pulled back behind her neck or loose around her shoulders. He realized then why she wore it up on the bridge; without the schoolmarm façade, the Kathryn Janeway was actually a petite and beautiful woman. It didn’t take much to make her look slight and vulnerable. That severe hairstyle was her armor.

“Tom!” Her voice snapped him back to reality. She’d only recently started calling him by his first name.

“Yes, ma’am?” Accustomed to jumping at his captain’s orders, he was on his feet and walking to the fenced-in court in less than a second.

She was scowling. “That’s the third return I’ve missed in a row. I think the glare is still too bright.”

Tom noticed that Chakotay was trying not to laugh. Neither man was about to point out that the sun was actually in her opponent’s eyes. Paris tried to be diplomatic. “Well, Captain, short of making it cloudy, I’m not sure what else I can do.”

“You could make it rain,” the commander blurted out. “Then we couldn’t play at all.” She shot him the patented Janeway glare; Tom was impressed that Chakotay didn’t seem at all intimidated by it. “Well, Kathryn, if you can’t play, you can’t lose,” her first officer teased.

The look on Janeway’s face turned from a scowl to an evil leer. “We’re fine here, Tom. Now if you’ll excuse us, I think I have another game to win.”

Paris smiled as he watched her poke Chakotay in the side with her racquet. The commander jumped back, then smiled a kind of unrestrained, childlike grin Paris had never seen from this man who was usually so serious. ‘Oh, yeah,’ Tom thought as he headed for the door. ‘They’ve got it bad…’

~~

His stomach was growling and Paris decided to head for the mess hall. He needed company as much as he needed food, though, and was determined to find someone to talk to when he got there.

He’d been spending a lot of time alone in his sailing program lately—on a kind of quest for the real man behind all the masks he knew he wore—but he was getting antsy. Tom drew his energy from being around other people, and this introspective tour of his psyche was getting a little old. He had come to some conclusions, though, during his time alone on Lake Como—not the least of which was that this second chance he’d been given was going to stick. Tom Paris the drunk, the liar, the criminal, the cad—they were definitely exiled for good. They had gone the way of Tom Paris the womanizer, a character he had long ago abandoned in favor of…

In favor of what? Tom Paris, the emotional doormat? The hopeless romantic? Hostage to unrequited love? What was it he’d become this past year?

That one piece of the puzzle had been harder to figure out. He thought keeping his distance from B’Elanna might help, and in some ways it had. His gut didn’t clench every time he saw her now, and he was certainly concentrating more on his job than he had in a while. But their friendship seemed to be going the way of their budding romance, and he couldn’t deny that he missed her.

He also felt a little guilty. B’Elanna had been though an incredible emotional ordeal just about the time they’d stopped speaking. The implanted memories she’d been given were of a disgusting chapter in Enaran history, and she’d been made to relive them all first-hand.

Tom didn’t know the details of what she’d been though until Harry told him a few days later. By then, there was little he could do besides tell her he was sorry he hadn’t been around to help her through it. But they’d already started pulling back from each other, and it was just as well. They both needed to get a little perspective on their lives and on their feelings, it seemed. The time apart was probably a good thing.

But B’Elanna had been trying to insinuate herself back into Tom’s life for the past few weeks. So far, he’d resisted. He wasn’t sure he could be her friend, could spend that much time together without wanting something else. He’d tried before to draw boundaries and set limits for his feelings. Each time, though, he’d misinterpret some innocent comment or gesture and his heart would take off again, sure that this time she wanted more, too. Each time he’d been painfully smacked to the ground.

But he missed her, nonetheless.

And, when the doors to the mess hall opened, it became clear that—if he was going to have a conversation along with his lunch, it was going to have to be with her.

“Where is everybody?” Tom asked Neelix as he looked around the near-empty room.

His friend looked a little despondent. “Ensign Baytart is having something called a ‘cookout’ for the beta shift in Holodeck 2,” Neelix complained. “And somehow the pleeka goulash didn’t go over too well with the alpha shift. I heard some of them say they were going to crash Pablo’s party.”

Tom wondered for a second if Baytart would notice if his senior officer snuck in, too. Paris was starving, and characteristically low on replicator rations. The charitable side of him quickly won out, but mostly from a lack of other options. “Well, I think they’re crazy, Neelix,” he said as he pointed to the green mush in the skillet before him. “Pleeka… whatever… sounds pretty good to me.”

Unfortunately, Tom’s feigned interest and the small crowd led the chef to pile his plate high with the aromatic glop. Paris was sure to take a big mug of coffee, too; he’d need something to wash his lunch down.

B’Elanna was sitting alone at a table by the viewport, and she’d smiled when he came in. Seeing that his only other choice for lunch company was Ensign Vorik, Tom headed for her table.

“I see you took pity on Neelix, too,” she said, pointing to his tray.

Paris smiled. “Yeah, well, he’s been known to sneak me a few extra rations some days, so I figured it was the least I could do.”

They sat there for a while, picking at their food and trying to think of something to say.

“So,” B’Elanna started slowly. “Are you off duty today?” Tom realized that—until recently—they’d known each other’s schedule as well as their own.

“Yep,” he answered. “I’m just killing time until my turn in the holodeck.”

He noticed that B’Elanna was slowly drawing circles with her fork in her leftover lunch. Like all their recent conversations, this one was just plain painful. “Oh,” she finally said. “Working on something new?”

Tom hesitated to answer. Not that there was anything secret or even particularly interesting about his latest program. He’d just learned his lesson about trying to include B’Elanna in these personal parts of his life. But this project was nothing special; certainly nothing so laden with meaning as Lake Como had been. There wasn’t much to be risked by talking about it. “It’s a rock climbing simulation,” he finally said nonchalantly. “I used to climb all the time when I was in high school. It’s great exercise.”

She seemed intrigued. “Really? Sport climbing or trad?”

Paris looked up at her, making eye contact for the first time during their conversation. “Both, actually. I’ve programmed six different formations for various techniques and levels of difficulty.” He was distracted by her question. “Do you climb?” he asked.

She smiled. “Have you ever been to Kessick IV? It’s nothing but rocks.” This was the most animated he’d seen her in weeks, and she was smiling as she talked. “I haven’t climbed since I was a teenager, but I used to really enjoy it. I did more free climbing than top-roping, but I loved the exhilaration of dangling off the side of a mountain. You’re right. It’s a great workout.”

For a second, Tom felt himself getting swept up in her enthusiasm. “That’s great. You know, if you ever want to try out my program…” He caught himself just in time. “I mean, I could give you the access code. So you could use it yourself.”

He tried not to let his mind imagine that she looked disappointed. “I’d like that,” she said softly. B’Elanna stared into the bottom of her coffee cup, before downing the last few drops. “Well, I’m on duty,” she finally said. “I have to go.”

“Sure,” he nodded as she stood up to leave. “See you around.”

She didn’t look at him as she left. “Right. See you around.”

Tom sat there for a second wondering if he’d done the right thing—but this was a conversation he’d had with himself too many times in the past year. He had to hang onto his resolve. He had to keep things in perspective.

Still, rock climbing with B’Elanna might have been fun.

He mentally smacked himself back to attention, and started concentrating, instead, on a way to force himself to eat the green, slimy lunch that was still staring back at him.

~~

Torres punched the call button for the turbolift with enough force that she felt the panel give a little under her finger. It didn’t really make it easier, knowing she’d done this to herself. Still, how long was he going to keep this up? How long was he going to stay mad at her?

The past few weeks had been hard on B’Elanna. After the literal nightmare of her contact with the Enarans, she had Harry had been nearby when Kes was almost killed by a powerful energy surge at the religious shrine on the Nechani homeworld. They’d done everything they could for Kes—and for a very distraught Neelix—but the young woman had come frighteningly close to dying. Somehow almost losing Kes had affected B’Elanna more than she would have expected. To be standing right there when she was almost killed—not in battle or in a fight with some hostile aliens, but on a simple little tourist outing—and to be helpless to stop it made Torres appreciate how tenuous all of their lives were. How easily it could all be taken away.

She’d had to face some other painful truths, too. The most disappointing: that she may have done permanent damage to her relationship with Tom Paris.

B’Elanna was pretty sure now that Harry was right: Tom’s interest in her went beyond friendship. He’d been hinting and flirting for a long while now, and had shown her a level of caring and attention she’d never seen him give anyone else—not even those women she’d watched him pursue in the early days of their friendship. They’d had long talks about their troubled lives before Voyager, and she had come to feel a connection to him that both surprised and frightened her. She was sure he had been starting to feel it, too.

Yet these days he would barely speak to her, barely acknowledge her when they ate breakfast or lunch with Harry. Ever since that night when she’d skipped out on the captain’s party—and her plans to go sailing with Tom afterward—he’d kept his distance, physically and emotionally. She was starting to wonder if they were even friends any more. And she realized that she’d hurt him. Something she seemed to have a talent for.

Well, intentionally or not, he was returning the favor.

The turbolift doors opened and she headed back to Main Engineering. At least she had her work to keep her occupied. And even though she knew she had a love-hate relationship with her warp core, too, she allowed herself to imagine that at least it was always glad to see her.

~*~*~*~*~

They were once again flying at high warp, and Tom Paris was bored. He knew that most of this long trip home would include moments of extreme excitement and action separated by long stretches of doing the same mind-numbing thing—often for days at a time. But he wasn’t complaining; flying a state-of-the-art starship, even in a straight line, beat almost any other profession he could imagine. Besides, he could always sneak a look at the sensors or calculate warp vectors to keep himself occupied. But today, for some reason, he wasn’t having any fun.

He’d spent the previous afternoon rock climbing alone on the holodeck, and had discovered something very interesting: climbing a simulated mountain in a simulated forest with the safeties on was a little dull—particularly without company to pass the time. Even though he loved and enjoyed the programs he’d created for himself, these days Tom was becoming acutely aware that they weren’t really…real. The element of danger and unpredictability had been removed, and with it some of the fun.

Still, it beat sitting at the helm of a ship going nowhere fast and watching the stars go by.

“Commander!” The tone of Harry’s voice snapped Tom back to attention. “Take a look at this!”

The viewscreen magnification kicked in and they could see a ribbon of energy slowly unfolding in their path.

“Red alert,” Chakotay said evenly. “Captain Janeway to the bridge.”

Paris heard the ready room doors swish open. “Report.”

The first officer told her what little they knew: a spatial rift had just appeared in their flight path. Harry suddenly noticed a distortion in the space/time continuum and his sensor readings showed that it wasn’t a natural phenomenon. As Kim continued with his report, a burst of light appeared from the center of the ribbon. It was a small ship. A Federation ship.

Their hails went unanswered as Tuvok warned them: the vessel was charging weapons. Their shields were barely raised before Voyager was struck by an energy blast; with no warning and one direct hit, they were defenseless.

“Get us out of here,” Tom heard the captain say.

He’d already been trying. “Helm control is offline,” he answered. His fingers were working furiously to reroute the maneuvering controls, but his console was dead.

The ship kept firing—they were clearly outgunned. Chakotay ordered Tuvok to reconfigure the deflector to fire a polaron pulse. It was a desperation move, Tom knew, but they were running out of options. Amazingly, it seemed to work.

Most importantly, the tactic had forced their attacker to reveal himself. What they heard next was unbelievable: a Federation ‘timeship’ from five hundred years in their future had come back to destroy Voyager, to prevent a cataclysmic temporal explosion that had decimated Earth’s solar system.

This was crazy! Voyager was in the Delta Quadrant, over 65,000 light years from Earth, and a good five centuries in the past. How could they have had anything to do with a 29th century disaster? The officer—a Captain Braxton—didn’t seem inclined to explain. Instead, he began firing again.

They were able to readjust Voyager’s deflector and overload his weapon, but the process damaged the timeship. The temporal rift began to destabilize, pulling Braxton and his vessel back inside. It was dragging Voyager along for the ride.

“Reestablish helm control,” Tom heard the captain bark. If only it were that easy.

“I’m trying, Captain. But we seem to be caught in some kind of graviton distortion. We’re being pulled in, too!” Tom used every trick he could think of. Nothing worked. He saw the bright light of the rift as it opened to swallow them, but he kept working, kept thinking that the next thing he tried would be the one to break them free…

Tom woke up face-down on the deck. It took him a second to realize where he was. “Status.” It was the captain. He was on the bridge. The rift…

Paris pulled himself back up into his chair and tried to get his bearings. Tuvok was rattling off a list of damaged systems: the power grid, the weapons… Harry did have one bit of good news—the temporal rift was finally closed.

Tom shook off the disorientation and tried to focus on his console. He keyed in the sequence to reinitialize the astrometrics sensors; at least he could try to find out where they were. It took less than a second for the data to pop up on his display, but he looked up to verify it with his own eyes. Sure enough, right in front of them, the answer appeared on the viewscreen: Earth.

Voyager was home.

They’d made it half way across the galaxy in just a few seconds. But how? Then Tom heard the captain say three words he never imagined he’d hear anytime soon. “Hail Starfleet Command,” she said.

They held their breath, waiting for an answer. What they got was static. And a traffic report. And the play-by-play of a baseball game. And some bad country music. It seemed to occur to Captain Janeway the same time it occurred to Tom: “The question isn’t where we are; it’s when we are.”

It took Harry less than a second to confirm what Tom could now see from his own console. The energy signatures from the stars, the rate of expansion of the galaxy…the Earth year: 1996. But Tom seemed to realize something the others didn’t. “Captain,” he warned her, “they had surveillance satellites during this time.”

Janeway ordered him to put the ship into a high orbit; Paris finessed the maneuvering thrusters as best he could. Hopefully Tuvok could configure the deflector to fool the era’s detection equipment.

Their next challenge was clear: they had to find the timeship. In theory, Voyager had been pulled into the same temporal rift, yet there were no signs of Braxton’s ship either in orbit or on the surface. Where was he? And how were they going to get back to their own time?

Then Tuvok picked up a single subspace signature from somewhere on the planet. It only took him a moment to get a fix on it: Los Angeles, California. The development of subspace technology was still almost a century away; it had to be Braxton—and Braxton’s ship was their only way home.

Within moments the captain had made her decision: she’d lead an away team to the surface check it out.

This was all too much to believe. They’d reached Earth. It was 1996. They were beaming down. This mission was right up Tom’s alley. Luckily, all that time talking history with the captain in the holodeck was about to pay off: before he could volunteer, Tom heard Janeway call his name. He’d be their resident expert on late 20th century America. He’d get to see a period of history he’d been fascinated by for years.

Suddenly this boring day had just gotten very interesting.

~*~*~*~*~

The sun was warm as Tom walked alongside Tuvok. He and the security chief had joined the captain and Chakotay on the search for the subspace readings his Vulcan partner had detected, though nothing about this place showed any evidence that a timeship had landed—or crashed—recently. The away team had split up to search for clues, and Tom was glad he’d pulled this particular assignment—even if the company left something to be desired.

He was on Earth, walking on real sand, in real sunshine, getting a once-in-a-lifetime chance to experience 20th century America first-hand. Their location: Venice Beach, California, a place Paris had never visited, since—in his time—it was under two hundred meters of water. A large earthquake in 2047—which the history texts referred to as ‘the big one’—had plunged everything west of the San Andres fault from San Diego to Santa Barbara into the Pacific Ocean…including the historic California entertainment Mecca known as ‘Hollywood.’ As a classic movie buff, Tom knew he was getting an incredibly rare chance to see a unique part of American history. And, for a man whose most recent away missions had involved being framed for a terrorist bombing, having his shuttle attacked by armed aliens, and having his shoes traded right out from under him, this was payback time. The thought that Voyager might be stuck here for a while—or forever—was something he’d worry about later.

Tom had replicated period clothing for each of them: a practical-but-elegant pantsuit for Captain Janeway, a casually chic t-shirt and suit for Chakotay, ‘urban casual’ khakis for Lieutenant Tuvok, and a pair of classic blue jeans and a surf shirt for himself. Now, as they walked along the shore (and despite Tuvok’s earlier warnings about the harmful effects of solar radiation), Tom had stripped down to his tank top and was enjoying the feeling of the sunshine on his arms. No holodeck program could replace the real sensation of skin baking in the ultraviolet rays. Vulcans and ‘dermal displasia’ be damned—this lieutenant was going for a tan.

As they walked along, Paris though of one little detail he hadn’t considered when planning their outfits for a spring day in Los Angeles: sunglasses. Pale blue eyes and bright sunlight didn’t mix; he squinted as he scanned the beach. Finding nothing worth noting—except beautiful women in very little clothing—the men were heading back to the boardwalk to find Captain Janeway and Chakotay.

Tom saw the command team walking about thirty meters ahead. (He couldn’t help but notice that Chakotay’s hand was resting in the small of the captain’s back as they strolled the boardwalk.) Then the senior officers stopped for a moment to watch an old, bedraggled man tape a piece of cardboard to a tree, giving him and Tuvok a chance to catch up.

“He’s the source, gentlemen.” The captain said softly when she saw them. “Somehow the subspace signature is coming from that old man.”

Tom noticed the strange metal cart the derelict pushed. “If the timeship was damaged, he could have picked up a piece of it with all that other junk. Maybe a transponder or a relay washed up on shore.”

Chakotay nodded. “We need to get close enough to scan him without anyone noticing. This place is too crowded.”

Janeway agreed. “Let’s just follow him for now. Maybe he’ll lead us to the rest of the ship.”

They spent the next half-hour wandering the streets of Venice. With his three senior officers carefully tracking their subject, Tom allowed himself a few moments to see the sights. There was a lot to take in: street performers, sand sculptors, vendors selling everything from kites to clothing to original works of art. He was struck by the diversity of cultures and fashions and kinds of people; definitely not the boring homogeny of the late 24th century. This place had a grittiness to it that appealed to Paris. ‘I could get used to this,’ he thought to himself.

Of course it struck him a moment later: if they didn’t find Braxton, he might have to.

They’d walked about a kilometer when the captain’s commbadge sounded. The four found a quiet spot where she could answer without attracting too much attention.

The call was from Harry, who—with the four ranking senior officers on the surface—was now in command of Voyager. Unfortunately, there was bad news on several fronts. The ship had just received a signal from the planet’s surface, a transmission recorded in multiple languages and with standard mathematical and biological constants—a ‘Welcome to Earth’ greeting for extraterrestrial visitors.

“We’ve been detected,” Janeway realized. Tom, nodded: he’d been afraid of this.

They heard Harry’s confirmation. “It looks that way. We tracked the signal to an observatory about twenty kilometers from your location.”

But that wasn’t the end of their problems. The captain instructed Kim to transport Tom and Tuvok to the source of the transmission—only to learn that the main transporters were offline. Unless Voyager practically skimmed the planet’s surface—becoming visible not only on radar scopes, but to the naked eye—there was no way to beam the away team out. They were all stuck there for a while.

Even bad news can have its good side, however: with the coordinates of the observatory downloaded into Tuvok’s tricorder, they’d have to find some other way to make the trip. Tom knew an opportunity was presenting itself. “No one walks in Los Angeles,” he told the captain, trying to sound like an expert. “And they don’t have much of a public transportation system.”

“Do what you have to do,” Janeway instructed him. “Find out who sent that message and get more information: have we been detected? How many people know about us? We cannot risk contaminating the timeline.”

So, with their captain’s permission, Tom and Tuvok went off in search of “wheels.”

~~

In the commercial culture of Earth’s late 20th century, the men had no trouble finding a place to buy a car. Unfortunately, the cost of an automobile was significantly more than the $100 in American currency Tom had replicated to cover their basic needs.

“We should attempt to locate a transport for hire,” Tuvok said as they walked across the lot.

“A taxi?” Tom said indignantly. “Forget it. Just leave this to me.” Before the lieutenant could raise another objection, Paris scanned the dealership for just the right vehicle. If he was only going to get one chance at this, he wanted to make it good.

Unfortunately, the particular brand sold on this lot seemed to feature mostly small cars that screamed ‘practical’ and shuttle-like transports labeled ‘minivans.’ (Tom did get a laugh when noticing the model description emblazoned on the vans’ sides: ‘Voyager,’ it said. He decided to take that as an omen that they were in the right place.)

Then it caught his eye: a sapphire blue pickup truck with a sport suspension and chrome detailing. Not as interesting as a ’57 Chevy, but—for the era—it would do. “That’s the one,” he said to the skeptical Vulcan at his side. “Now let me do the talking.”

Tuvok’s eyebrows raised, but he went along with the plan.

It look less than a second to attract the attention of a middle-aged man in an ill-fitting sport coat. “Gentlemen!” the man said warmly. “What will it take for me to put you in this beautiful truck today?”

Yep, Tom thought: salesman. “Well, I don’t know,” he answered slowly. “We thought we’d take our time, check out a few different models. You know, a little comparison shopping.”

“Tom,” Tuvok said uncomfortably. It was the first time Paris had ever heard the Vulcan use his first name. “I think you are forgetting that time is of the essen…”

His interruption earned Tuvok a hard slap on the back, as Tom grabbed his shoulder and laughed. Under his breath, he said quietly, “I thought we agreed that I would do the talking here…?” The grin never left his face as he tried to send his telepathic senior officer a silent message: butt out.

“Of course,” Paris turned back to the salesman, “we’d need to take her around the block, see how she handles, you know, um…” the phrase was escaping him.

“A test drive,” the salesman filled in.

“Yeah, a test drive. Kick the old tires, take her for a spin, you know.” Tom noticed for the first time that the salesman—who was being quite friendly to him—was eyeing Tuvok suspiciously.

“Will you be the driver?” he asked Tom, never taking his eyes off the Vulcan.

Paris wasn’t sure what was going on. “Yes. My friend here is along for moral support. He doesn’t know anything about cars, do you Tuvok?”

His comment drew a glare, but nothing more—though Tom suddenly found himself wondering what difference it made which one of them would drive.

The salesman turned back to face Tom, but continued to glance over his shoulder at Tuvok. “Well, then, I’ll need a copy of your driver’s license, and you can give this beauty a try.”

Tom nodded as he tried to remember which back pocket held the wallet and which the tricorder—not a mistake he wanted to make in front of a ‘native’. And he congratulated himself that his attention to detail was coming in handy; he’d replicated a California operator’s license along with his cash and clothing—just in case. “Here you go,” Paris said as he handed it over. In ten minutes, he was behind the wheel.

This day was getting better and better.

~~

So far, so good. Tuvok began triangulating the location of the observatory with his tricorder, as Tom enjoyed the feeling of driving a real, historic, not-a-holographic-simulation pick-up truck.

Of course, he discovered quickly that his navigator left something to be desired.

“I am detecting the observatory at 28.7 degrees to the north.”

Tom rolled his eyes. “You know, Tuvok, this truck has a decent radio, a racing tachometer, and even a gauge to tell us the oil pressure, but—amazingly enough—they forgot the navigational sensors. How about if we simplify things: you say ‘turn right,’ and ‘turn left,’ and I’ll get us there somehow.”

Paris couldn’t take his eyes off the road, but Tuvok’s sigh was enough to let him know he was getting on the lieutenant’s nerves. It was mutual. “Very well, then,” the Vulcan answered. “‘Turn right.’”

Even though the vehicles from this era were relatively boring in their design, Tom enjoyed the sensation of being at the wheel of a real automobile. The experience was subtly different than in the simulations he’d played at the Academy, and it gave him an idea: he’d add a holographic car race to the list of programs he’d write when they got back home.

If they got back home. Even if they found the source of the subspace signal, there were no guarantees they’d find Braxton or his timeship. They might be forced to find another way back to the 24th century.

Everyone knew that time travel was possible: almost eighty years earlier Starfleet legend James Kirk and his crew had done it. Three times. Just slingshot around the sun until temporal velocity was achieved, then pull away hard. The gravimetric forces would open a temporal rift and zoom…you were heading into the past or the future. But Kirk lived in the days before the prohibitions against time-travel. The specific velocities and escape vectors were now one of the most highly-classified secrets in the Federation.

But it was theoretically possible.

They were pulling onto a major freeway when Tom realized there was a chance that Voyager and her crew might be stuck in this time, at least for a while. For a moment, he wondered what it would be like to get the chance to totally reinvent himself in 20th century America. It might actually be fun for a few months.

Of course, not unless they threw a certain curious scientist off their trail first…

~~

To Paris’s relief, they arrived at their destination in less than an hour, but not before making a few wrong turns. Tuvok spent almost half that time obsessing over the ethics of their little ‘test drive’ and his concerns about contaminating the timeline. Tom had a hard time believing this pickup truck had some greater destiny they had thwarted by borrowing it for an afternoon. He rolled his eyes and wondered for a moment how Tuvok had gone undetected for weeks as an undercover Starfleet agent in Chakotay’s cell. The man clearly would have made a terrible Maquis.

Still, they’d arrived at the Griffith Observatory without a major accident or incident. The museum was kind of quaint, and for a moment Tom got caught up in the kitschy representation of the planets and the astronomical speculation that passed for science. The average ten year old in his time knew more about the origins of the universe and about stellar phenomena than the best scientists of this age, Tom knew.

The observatory tour was free and open to the public, and the men were lucky enough to hit a time when the normal tourist traffic and school field trips were at a low. It wasn’t hard to find a secluded spot to pull out their tricorders and take a few readings. In a second, they had what they needed. The transmission was coming from Room 123. The sign on the door: “Do Not Enter: Employees Only.”

Tom knocked lightly to see if anyone was inside, then turned the knob and walked in. It was some kind of laboratory loaded with video display terminals. A large console covered in dials and buttons took up one whole wall. A quick look around the room confirmed that it was empty. Then Paris noticed a primitive computer screen on a desk just inside.

He also noticed a small ceramic alligator whose belly was hollowed out to hold a clear dome. Inside the glass: little white pellets floating in some kind of liquid. Tom shook the little creature and watched as the specks floated slowly to the bottom. It looked like it was snowing. ‘Cute,’ he thought as he smiled and moved the trinket out of his way.

Then he saw what had been sitting beneath the little creature. “Over here,” he whispered to Tuvok. Tom recognized the patterns. “These are radio wave readouts,” he explained, taking a seat at the desk. “It looks like radio telescope transmissions.”

Paris picked up the computer’s input device—the keyboard, he thought to himself—and checked the display on the monitor. He’d played with one of these machines in a museum once, and had even gotten fairly good at entering the alphanumerics with his fingers. Not all that different from the touch screen displays of his helm console when it came right down to it.

Of course, Tuvok didn’t seem impressed by his discovery. Tom was being ‘careless’ and ‘impulsive’ in the Vulcan’s estimation, as he carefully restacked the paper readouts and indicated for Tom to return them—and the snow-bellied alligator—to their original places on the desk. Paris grudgingly did as he was told.

Tom’s attention was drawn to the computer display: a crude graphic of the earth, with a red, elliptical line showing a vessel in synchronous orbit. “They found us, alright,” Paris said, pulling out his tricorder. “The orbital schematic matches Voyager’s position.”

Tuvok concurred. A readout from the desk clearly showed that the observatory was tracking the ship’s warp emissions—something no one in this century should have known to look for. This was strange; it was as if the radio telescope had been scanning the skies for Starfleet vessels. Nothing about this was adding up.

“Excuse me.”

Tom looked up and had an instantaneous, visceral reaction to the young woman now standing in the doorway. If not for her high-pitched voice and longer hair, he could have sworn from a distance that it was B’Elanna. Same build, same coloring—same angry expression. Okay, she was missing a few cranial ridges, but the resemblance was uncanny.

“‘Do not enter, employees only’…the sign on the door…” The young woman gestured with a pizza slice—pepperoni from the smell of it—a large pizza box tucked under her other arm.

Tom recovered quickly. “I’m sorry. I think we’re a little lost.” He took a few steps closer. “We were on the museum tour and we took a wrong turn at the Saturn exhibit.” God, it was distracting just looking at her.

She was happy to give them directions out of her office, but Tom knew they couldn’t leave without covering Voyager’s tracks. Time to impress Tuvok with his knowledge of late 20th century slang. “This lab,” he said looking around. “It’s pretty…groovy.”

For some reason, the young woman winced. “Groovy…” she said under her breath. Tom didn’t have time to wonder why.

“What do you do here?” he asked, turning on the charm. Somehow flirting with her seemed to come naturally.

“We watch the skies,” she answered with a patronizing tone. “For signs of extraterrestrial life.” She turned back to her desk. “Nice meeting you.” Somehow Tom wasn’t convinced that she meant it. Still, he had a lot of experience being rejected by pretty brunettes with big brown eyes. He wasn’t that easily deterred.

“My name is Tom Paris, by the way,” he said as he moved to shake her hand.

“Rain Robinson.” She was polite enough, but not exactly friendly.

Tom leaned over to see what she was imputing into the keyboard. “Your curves don’t look so great,” he said without thinking. She seemed offended. “This is a Fourier spectral analysis?” he asked, pointing to the screen. “You might get better resolution if you adjust your amplitude parameters.” He had Rain’s attention now and watched as Tuvok took the opportunity to step behind her and pull out his tricorder. Tom tried to keep her distracted. “Or you might try using a theta band filter.” He always did know how to sweet talk a girl.

She actually seemed impressed. “You know a lot for someone who can’t find his way past Saturn.”

Tom laughed. “I majored in astrophysics.”

“Where?” she asked, now sounding almost civil.

Tom answered honestly, without thinking. “At Starfleet Academy.” Oops.

Rain looked puzzled. “Never heard of it.”

Time to vamp. “Um, east coast school,” he covered. Paris paced a few steps and tried to focus. Something about her was distracting him; that was a stupid mistake.

When he looked up, he noticed the large, framed movie poster on the wall of her office. A scantily-clad woman was feigning terror at the sight of a huge hairy monster. “Orgy of the Walking Dead?!” Tom’s reaction was instinctive. “That’s a classic!” He practically ran back to sit on the edge of her desk. “Did you see the sequel? Um…” What was it called? “Bride of the Corpse?!”

Now he had her interest as well as her attention. “Let me guess: you minored in ‘B’ movies?”

Paris laughed at his own enthusiasm. “Something like that.” His joke made her smile. Wow. This was an experience he’d almost forgotten: he was impressing a woman.

“Pardon me, Tom.” Oh, right. Tuvok. Sounding just as uncomfortable as the first time he’d said Paris’s first name. “We should be going. Our…friends…are waiting for us.”

Of course. The captain. The mission. “Gotta go,” Tom said a little sadly. Surprisingly Rain looked a little disappointed herself.

“Hey,” she called out as they reached the door. “I do the planetarium show Tuesday nights, so, uh, you guys should come by, check it out…bring your friends…” If Tom didn’t know better, he’d swear she’d started flirting with him. Then, quoting what was undoubtedly the observatory’s sales pitch, she joked, “‘The best stars in Hollywood are right above us.’”

Tom had a sudden impulse to say yes. But he couldn’t. “I think we’re busy on Tuesday. Thanks anyway.” Still, he stopped for a minute before he left. The height, the eyes, the smile. Not that he’d seen B’Elanna smile much lately. Still, it was a little eerie.

Paris forced himself to follow Tuvok out the door. Too bad, he thought. They were just getting to know each other.

~~

Tuvok seemed pleased with their success. He had been able to download all of the data Rain had collected about Voyager and then caused a malfunction in her computer. By the time she found and fixed the problem, they should be long gone.

“It’s a shame, though,” Tom thought out loud. “She was about to make the biggest discovery in human history. It could have changed her career.”

Tuvok wasn’t so sympathetic. “And ended ours,” the Vulcan pointed out before changing the subject. “I am curious, lieutenant—what does it mean: ‘groovy’?”

Before Tom could explain, they head a very familiar voice screaming at the top of her lungs. “Hey! You guys!”

Oops. She must have realized what they had done. “Red Alert!” Tom joked as they headed for the truck. Rain was a fast runner, though, and caught up to them in an instant.

“What the hell did you do to my computer? The hard drive is wiped!” So much for getting in and out undetected. “Who are you people, and what is that thing in your pants?!” She was practically assaulting Tuvok. “That little gadget you put in your pocket. What is it? A demagnetizer or something?”

Tom had rounded the truck and could see, over Rain’s shoulder, a man in a dark suit taking up a defensive position behind a statue on the observatory lawn. Paris could have sworn the man was carrying…

“Get down!” he yelled, as the man aimed what was clearly some kind of hand phaser in their direction. In a second, Tom’s brand new borrowed truck disappeared in a glowing orange ball of energy. Tuvok immediately pulled his own phaser from his jacket pocket and returned fire.

“What the hell?!” Rain was stunned. Tom realized this must be an unbelievable sight in an era well before plasma weapons. Not to mention that someone had just tried unsuccessfully to kill her.

He caught Rain’s attention and had her point out her own car. While Tuvok covered them, Paris pulled the young astronomer into the vehicle—a battered old minivan that was clearly a few generations older than the one they’d passed up on the car lot. Throwing the van into gear, Tom swung around the driveway, trying to go fast enough to get them out of there, yet slow enough for Tuvok to jump inside. Rain caught the Vulcan’s arm—and a clear shot of his now exposed pointed ears. In a moment, they had dropped behind the protective arc of the hill and were out of danger.

What the hell was going on?

~~

Tom followed the road signs and was out of Griffith Park in a matter of seconds. Hopefully, they had a large enough head start to keep that thug with the phaser from catching up to them. Paris knew he and Tuvok must be thinking the same thing.

“So, what do you think that was about?” he said under his breath.

Tuvok had moved to the front passenger seat and was scanning the area with his tricorder. “I am uncertain. Perhaps whoever found Braxton’s vessel also discovered his weapons.”

Tom nodded. “It looks like maybe they discovered more than that. Someone went to a lot of time and expense to scan the skies for our warp emissions. Do you get the feeling maybe they were expecting us?”

“It would seem so. Which begs the question: who was the gunman’s intended target? Us…or Miss Robinson.” Tuvok glanced over his shoulder. Rain was frantically searching the road behind them, looking for any signs that they were being followed. With their fugitive distracted, the lieutenant pulled his commbadge from his pocket and held it up to his lips as he squeezed it. “Tuvok to Janeway.” Nothing.

Tom reached into his shirt pocket and tossed his badge to the security chief. It was dead, too. Before they could speculate about why, Tom saw a face appear in his rearview mirror. “So, when is someone going to tell me what the hell is going on?!”

~*~*~*~*~

B’Elanna was frustrated. For some reason, every time Voyager’s systems failed them, she felt like somehow it was her fault. Of course there was no way she was responsible for the damage caused by some futuristic temporal rift. But still, keeping the ship working was her responsibility. And right now, with the exception of life support—almost everything that could fail had failed.

The power grid was damaged, the weapons were down, the warp drive was fluctuating, and the main pattern buffer of the transporters had overloaded. Maneuvering thrusters were maintaining their orbit, the deflector—thank goodness—was keeping their energy signature masked, and the impulse engines would be repaired soon, but Voyager was still a large sitting duck.

Not that the ship was in any real danger. Earth history had recorded no confirmed visits by warp-capable vessels until the Vulcans showed up in 2063, so it wasn’t likely that they’d need the ship’s phasers or photon torpedoes. And the warp drive—well, for now, there wasn’t really any place in this time period where they could go. But the transporters…B’Elanna hated knowing that there was no easy way to retrieve the away team if something went wrong. It was her first priority; all other repairs took a back seat.

She was glad when the captain finally checked in. Janeway and Chakotay had discovered that the old man with the push cart was actually Captain Braxton. He’d been stranded on Earth since the late 1960’s, after his ship crash landed in the California dessert. The timeship—and its 29th century technology—had fallen into the hands of a man named Henry Starling, who had built a small technological empire from the innovations he was able to adapt from the vessel.

Janeway and Chakotay were on their way to Starling’s corporate headquarters. Maybe, once there, they could locate the timeship, and with it, Voyager’s way home. It was strange, though. The command team hadn’t heard from Tom or Tuvok in hours, and B’Elanna wasn’t able to detect their commbadges either. It was as if the men had vanished from the city.

B’Elanna tried not to worry. She knew about Tom’s obsession with 20th century America; if anyone on Voyager could survive alone in 1996, it would be him. Still, it was standard protocol for away teams to check in every few hours. Something must have gone wrong. She tried not to think of all the things that might have happened.

~~

“Rain,” Tom began. “I know this is a lot to take in all at once, but you’re going to have to trust us.” He was relieved when she seemed to calm down and listen to what he was saying. “Now I need you to answer a few questions for me.” He looked in the rearview mirror and saw her sit down on the back seat, her arms crossed, eying him suspiciously. But she let him continue. “Can you tell us about your research?”

Robinson leaned forward. “I work on a privately funded SETI project. Mostly I search for radio wave transmissions from stellar phenomena, you know, pulsars, quasars, nebulae. But the guy who pays for the lab, Henry Starling, also asked me to scan for a specific frequency of gamma emissions. I’ve been looking for three years, and today was the first time anything fit the pattern. There’s something in orbit right above us—but then I’m guessing you know that already.”

Tom and Tuvok exchanged glances. There wasn’t any point in denying it, but Tom couldn’t answer her directly. “Did you contact anyone when you found…it? The thing in orbit?”

She nodded. “I called Starling. He told me to sit tight; not to do anything or tell anyone. But, you know, I had to do something. So I sent the standard ‘hi/we’re friendly/don’t invade us’ recorded greeting. But there was no answer.”

Tom smiled for a moment, imagining Harry standing on the bridge getting a ‘Welcome to Earth’ phone call from their own home planet.

So this guy Starling must be behind the whole thing. The man knew enough to pay someone to scan for Federation warp signatures at least a hundred years before the warp barrier was even broken. And he had armed his goons with 29th century plasma weapons. Suddenly their entire mission had gotten much more complicated. They had been detected and were being hunted.

It occurred to Tom, then: no one could have known that he and Tuvok had intercepted the message and gone to the observatory. They couldn’t have been the targets. Which meant only one thing: the gunman had come for Rain.

~~

“Report,” Harry said to her in full voice as he leaned on the ops station. Her friend really seemed to be getting into the job.

“Report on what, Harry?” she whispered to him. “I’m doing ten things here.” Her friend looked a little embarrassed, and B’Elanna moderated her tone. “It’s always a good idea to be more specific with that kind of question or you risk getting an imprecise answer.”

Harry was nervous, she could tell. With all of his big dreams of commanding his own ship one day, this was the first time Captain Janeway had actually left Kim in command. And while the tone of her answer was technically insubordinate, he seemed to understand that she was only trying to help.

“What’s the status of the search for Tom and Tuvok?” he clarified, his voice low.

B’Elanna took a deep breath. “I’ve been monitoring Kaplan’s readouts,” she said, subtly reminding him that this was a question usually directed to the officer at tactical—a fact he knew as well as she did. “There’s nothing new.”

She watched Harry shake his head as if the motion would suddenly inspire a new and brilliant idea. “Can’t we scan for Vulcan lifesigns at least? At least then we’d know if they were still…” He stopped himself as their eyes met. “Um, if they were still in Los Angeles.”

She knew that’s not what he’d planned to say, but decided to ignore it. “Sure, if the biometric filters on the scanners were working properly. Which—like most of the other systems on this ship—they’re not.”

Her own words triggered an idea in B’Elanna, however. “You know, there is something…”

She was interrupted by Ensign Kaplan. “Sir, Captain Janeway is hailing us.”

Kim moved to take a seat in the command chair as he answered. “Put her through.”

B’Elanna hoped the news would be good—and, in some respects, it was. The captain and first officer had reached Starling’s office and were accessing his computer. Janeway had interfaced her tricorder with the machine and was requesting that they upload the information Starling had collected. B’Elanna scanned for the device’s signature and began the process of converting the data standard from the ancient binary code. It would only take a few minutes.

Of course, those were crucial minutes. By the time she had made the adaptation and Harry signaled the captain, the officers had already been detected. As soon as B’Elanna began the uplink, an unfamiliar voice came over the com. “Stop or I’ll kill your captain.”

It was Starling. Harry ordered her to stop, and she quickly broke the link. “What’s our transporter status?” he asked her.

She knew what she’d find before she checked. “The main pattern buffers are still offline.” There was only one thing to do. “We can try an emergency transport from a lower orbit.” B’Elanna immediately began adjusting their targeting scanners to locate the senior officers’ commbadges, not waiting for Harry to give the okay.

But Kim was hesitant. “That’s exactly what the captain ordered us not to do. We’d be risking detection.”

There were times, she knew, when orders were meant to be broken. “Harry, we can’t worry about that now. Their lives are in danger.”

“And if somebody sees a starship flying through the clouds…?” He didn’t have to finish the question.

She took a deep breath and looked at her friend. “The captain put you in charge. It is your decision.” For a moment, B’Elanna thought he might crack. Then a look of determination crossed his face, and the orders started pouring out of Kim like he was a seasoned starship captain. They were going in.

In less than five minutes, the command team had been beamed to the bridge—and Voyager was careening wildly though the skies over Los Angeles. Janeway immediately took charge: as long as they were already buzzing the city, they were going back for the timeship, too. B’Elanna moved to the auxiliary tactical station and tried to get a lock on the vessel. “Mister Kim,” Janeway said as she passed between them, “you have an impeccable sense of timing. Not bad for your first day in the ‘big chair.’”

B’Elanna took a quick glance over her shoulder: Harry was beaming. He shot her a look of thanks before they got back to work.

~~

Tom and Tuvok had spent the rest of the afternoon and early evening chasing the captain and Chakotay—and their tails. Without working commbadges, they had only their eyes to count on; the transtaters in the badges had been shorted out in the phaser fight, and—for the moment—their communicators were nothing more than highly sophisticated jewelry.

Even their tricorders were no help: the captain and commander were both human. Their lifesigns were indistinguishable from any of the thousands of people in Venice, and their own commbadges would only register within a few dozen meters. So the men were lost, wandering aimlessly around Southern California—and holding a young astronomer against her will.

“Well, Mister Tuvok,” Tom said. “I’ve been driving in circles for hours. You’re the…secret agent in charge here. What’s your plan?”

Tuvok shot a look at Rain, who was staring blankly out the back window. “Logic dictates that, when one’s whereabouts are uncertain, taking a stationary position and waiting for assistance is often the best course of action.”

“So, you mean that—since we’re lost—I should pull over and park and wait for…our friends…to find us?”

The Vulcan’s eyebrows raised. “I believe that is what I just said.”

Tom just shook his head and smiled. “How about I find us a secluded place to spend the night. I don’t know about you, but it’s been a long day and I could use some sleep.”

Tuvok agreed. “I suggest stopping somewhere as close as possible to our original location. Our colleagues may assume that we returned there and come looking for us.”

“Agreed. And we can sleep in shifts,” Tom said. “As long as I get the first one; I’m really beat.”

“Actually, there is no need for you to relieve me.” Tuvok offered. “My…unique physiology allows me to go for several days without rest. I will guard the van and our…”

“Prisoner?” Rain chimed in from the back seat. “Is that what I am, ‘Agent Tuvok’?”

The men exchanged glances. “You’re not a prisoner, Rain,” Tom said reassuringly. “But let’s just say that you’re in ‘protective custody’ for the time being, okay?”

She nodded grudgingly as Tom found a secluded parking spot not too far from the entertainment pier where they’d first beamed in.

Paris got out of the van and stretched. While he was used to sitting at the helm for hours at a time, the van’s pedals and old-fashioned clutch required a different set of muscles than he was used to using and hours behind the wheel had made him stiff.

“You should find a quiet place to get some rest,” Tuvok offered.

“Just what I was thinking,” Tom answered. He rooted around in the back of the van until he found a large, old Indian blanket. “Mind if I borrow this?” he asked Rain.

“Uh, sure. Um, I mean no,” she said, trying to figure out what he was doing. She watched as he threw his shoes in the back of the van and started walking toward the shoreline across the sand.

Tom picked out a secluded spot out of the glare of the boardwalk lights. The moon was almost full, the sky relatively clear, and through a slight haze, he could see most of the constellations. But his attention was drawn to the horizon and the lights of a ship in the distance on the ocean.

It was the first time all day he’d had to just let the reality of Voyager’s situation sink in. After what had started as a very boring morning, Tom was suddenly thrust into history, on the run from some unknown attackers, and hiding out with a pretty girl who had seemed instantly familiar to him in some strange way. Now, he was about to fall asleep on a warm beach under the stars, on the home planet he hadn’t seen in almost two whole years. All in all, a big improvement over the way his day had begun.

As he looked out over the water, it occurred to him to wonder what would happen to him and his friends if they couldn’t find a way back to their own time. It might actually be fun, he thought, making a new start here in the past—at least for a while. He could drive a car—not that old jalopy of a van, but a vintage car he could rebuild himself—maybe even learn to fly a real airplane. He could take Harry and B’Elanna to a baseball game, or a rock and roll concert, or…

It occurred to him then: being stranded on Earth in 1996 would probably be a lot less fun for the Vulcans, Bolians, and Bajorans. For a Talaxian. For a half-Klingon.

He realized it was the first time in hours he’d actually thought of her…

“Mind if I sleep with you?”

Tom was startled and turned around to see that Rain had joined him. She seemed to realize after she said it exactly what her question had implied. “I mean, do you mind if I sleep on the beach, too? That Tuvok guy gives me the heebie-jeebies.”

Tom laughed. “He’s harmless. But no, you can join me if you want.” He watched as she put down a second tattered blanket just a few meters away.

He’d had dreams about this: sitting on a real beach, looking up at the stars, an attractive woman by his side. Not this woman exactly. But a woman who she resembled quite a bit. His mind drifted back to Voyager, back to B’Elanna. He wondered what she was doing, if she was worried about him. He thought about the strain he’d felt in their relationship the past few weeks, about the distance he’d put between them. Now, that distance was about 20,000 kilometers and it was all too real.

The sound of the waves crashing onto the shore was relaxing—almost hypnotic. It had been a long day, and Tom could feel his eyelids getting heavy. He let himself lay back, replacing his view of the ocean with a view of the sky. It was ironic, he thought, that one of the stars he now looked up into was probably not a star at all, but Voyager. Here he sat—on Earth—searching the heavens for a dot of light that had become his home.

“So, Maxwell Smart.” Since the rest of the beach was deserted, Tom assumed she was talking to him, though he didn’t get the reference. He turned on his side to see that Rain was also scanning the skies. “Looks like Orion’s Belt has an extra buckle tonight.”

He looked up and got his bearings before finding the new addition to the familiar constellation. She’d found it: Voyager.

“Must be pretty big to be visible from here with the naked eye.” Rain was fishing for information he just couldn’t give her.

“Must be,” he answered cryptically. “Whatever it is.”

She seemed to sense this was all she would get in the way of a response, and headed their conversation in another direction. “So, ‘Secret Agent Paris,’ um, where are you from?”

Tom realized that his first instinct was to say, ‘Earth.’ “I grew up in San Francisco,” he said truthfully. “But I haven’t been back in a while.”

The ever-perky astronomer was now downright animated. “Wow! I’m from Berkeley! We’re practically neighbors!” She sat up, legs crossed, facing him and the moonlight lit her face. “I was conceived in San Francisco, though.”

Tom’s tired eyes were now open. “You know where you were conceived?”

He watched as Rain traced a pattern in the sand with her finger. His mind instantly flashed back to lunchtime the day before, and another brunette making the same pattern with her fork in a half-eaten pile of pleeka goulash. It distracted him to the point that he almost forgot what they were talking about. Oh, right: conception.

“Well, let’s just say that I’ve heard more than I ever wanted to about how my parents spent the ‘Summer of Love.’”

Oh, yeah, he was awake now. “‘The Summer of Love’? Sounds interesting.”

She was eying him suspiciously. “Yeah, well, I would have thought that a ‘groovy’ guy like you would know all about it. I mean, you had to be—what—four or five at the time and living in Frisco. Weren’t your parents into the Movement?”

This was starting to sound familiar now. San Francisco history, late 20th century. If this was 1996 and Rain was in her late twenties, that would make her birth year sometime between 1967 and 1972. Vietnam War era, the Peace Movement…hippies.

So she was asking him if his parents had been hippies, too. What little he knew about the reference made him laugh out loud.

“My parents?” He was still chuckling. “No. Not hardly. My father…well, my father was sort of in the military.” Sort of.

“Oh, right,” she said, nodding her head. “And that’s how you ended up in ‘Star Fleet Academy’? Cause you don’t seem like an army brat to me.”

Tom looked at her for a second before he remembered his slip at the observatory. His ‘east coast school.’ “Yeah,” he answered, realizing how on-the-money Rain’s assessment was. “My father—the Admiral—wanted his son to follow in his footsteps.”

She looked up at him, “Sounds like you had other ideas.”

There was no way they were going to have this conversation, Tom thought. He was having too much fun to spend any time thinking about what went wrong with his father. Instead, he decided to ask a question of his own. “So, your parents were hippies?” She didn’t flinch this time so he knew he must have found the right term. “Sounds interesting.”

“I guess,” she said quietly. “But I wonder sometimes if it wasn’t more a fashion than a cause for them. I mean, I don’t know that they really believed in any of it. And of course I got stuck with Rain for a name. My mother used to tell me all about how I was conceived in Golden Gate Park in the middle of a thunderstorm.” She looked up at him. “You know, I think it’s possible to give your kids too much information.”

She was quiet for a moment, then smiled. “You have nice eyes,” she said out of nowhere.

Tom wondered if he was blushing. It had been a while since a woman said anything that overly flattering to him. “Thanks,” was all he could think of to say. “So do you.” Beautiful deep brown eyes, he remembered, though it was too dark to see them now. But he didn’t have to see them to know. He’d looked into a very similar pair enough times to have them committed to memory.

Her fishing expedition was about to begin. “So, you like monster movies.”

Tom nodded. “I like all kinds of movies, but mostly the monochromatic ones.”

“Monochromatic?” she said, confused.

He’d slipped again. Why was he making such stupid mistakes—and about things her knew as well as his own name? “Black and white,” he corrected himself. “War movies, gangster films, buddy flicks…”

“Romances?” she asked pointedly.

He chuckled thinking about the last 20th century film he’d watched. Casablanca. Somehow it was all of the above. “Sometimes,” he answered honestly.

“Really?” she said, surprised. “Most straight guys won’t go near old romance movies. My last boyfriend used to call them ‘chick flicks.’” She got a strange look in her eyes. “You are straight…right?”

“‘Straight’?” he wracked his brain for the late 20th century colloquial context for the word…

Rain seemed worried about how he would answer. “You like girls. Romantically.”

Tom laughed, suddenly remembering the archaic term. “Yeah. I like girls.” He’d forgotten the strange emphasis this culture had placed on the choice of sexual partners. Nevertheless, he’d been honest about his own preference, not that it was a big deal to anyone in his time. But once again, the whole conversation led him back to thoughts of a particular girl.

Rain must have sensed something about his answer. “Oh,” she said softly. “So, you have a girlfriend…”

Tom didn’t answer for a long moment. Instead, he remembered how he’d been thinking about that whole quaint concept recently. How he’d wanted a girlfriend for the first time since he was a teenager. How, despite his best efforts, he didn’t have one. “No, actually,” he finally said, more to himself than to Rain.

Something occurred to Tom in that moment: here he was on a beautiful spring night with a pretty girl who was clearly interested. She was funny, kind, and—for some strange reason—seemed attracted to him. If ever there were an opportunity waiting to be seized…

Yet he couldn’t. Didn’t want to.

This was new. He’d always wanted to in the past—and had—with women a whole lot less interesting to him than Rain. Yet every time he looked at her, every time he thought maybe he’d just let himself really enjoy having stepped so totally outside his life, all he felt was sad. This real moment, this real woman, held no more excitement for him than the holographic Ricky, or the afternoon he’d spent rock climbing.

‘Real’ was that extra star in Orion’s Belt, he realized. And its complicated, angry chief engineer who was probably searching for him right now.

“Well, it’s getting late. We should get some sleep,” he said as he lay back down on the blanket. “Good night, Rain.” He whispered as he settled into the sand.

Then Tom took a moment to find them: the stars that formed the mighty hunter Orion. There, twinkling in his belt at the far right edge of the southern sky was Voyager. ‘Night, B’Elanna,’ he thought as he drifted off. Within a moment, he was asleep.

~~

Things had gone straight to hell rather quickly after the captain and Chakotay returned. Not only were they unable to recapture the timeship, Starling had turned their transporter beam into a downlink, and had stolen and erased over 20% of the files in Voyager’s main computer core—including their holographic Doctor.

Starling had also discovered that they were from the 24th—not the 29th—century, and that he now held the tactical advantage. Perhaps even more disturbing: when Voyager swooped down to make the transport, they were videotaped by an amateur photographer. Footage—showing the ship streaking across the night sky—had been broadcast around the world almost instantaneously.

It was the end of a long and tiring day, however, and the captain had instructed the senior staff to get some rest. B’Elanna knew that Janeway would ignore her own advice; as long as two of her crewmen were missing on the surface, the captain would be spending the night on Deck 1.

“I thought I told you to get some sleep,” she said as she walked to the engineering station.

B’Elanna tried to sound matter-of-fact as she answered. “I will, Captain. I’m just giving Lieutenant Carey instructions for the gamma shift. He’s pulling a double tonight, and I want to make sure he knows what needs to be done.”

Janeway looked at her with an expression that said she didn’t quite believe B’Elanna’s story. Still, she put her hand on the engineer’s shoulder. “They’ll be fine, Lieutenant. Tuvok is experienced and Tom is resourceful. If I had any doubts about their safety, I’d take a shuttle after them myself right now.”

“I know, Captain,” B’Elanna answered. “I’m not worried.” She returned the captain’s smile, then waited until Janeway headed for her ready room before moving to the tactical station. “Take five, Ensign,” Torres said to Lang. There was something she’d been wanting to do ever since the idea popped into her head that afternoon.

B’Elanna accessed the crew medical records and pulled up the latest bioscans on Tom and Tuvok. Entering their genetic patterns into the transporters targeting scanners, she concentrated the sensors on a narrow stretch of the southern California coast. This was an old Maquis trick she’d been forced to use when they had missing men in enemy territory without the luxury of commbadges. Normally, she could have used the same technique to beam a missing crewman aboard—if the transporters were working. But at least this would tell her the most important thing she needed to know.

She waited a moment for the scan to cycle. The information appeared on her display: two biosignatures. One definitely Vulcan. One a human with a genetic pattern that matched Tom Paris. They were alive.

She closed her eyes and let herself breathe before turning the station back over to Lang.

The turbolift ride seemed to take forever, and B’Elanna’s mind was full of all the events of the day. Still, she smiled for a moment thinking about Tom. He was stuck on Earth with Tuvok; they were probably driving each other crazy. But he was in his element, she knew, probably having the time of his life.

She allowed herself to think for a moment about what might happen to them all. They’d found Braxton. They’d found the timeship. Still, there was no way to know how or when it might send them home. And the potential for a temporal explosion that would destroy Voyager and all of 29th century humanity still loomed as a real possibility. For that matter, so did the chance they’d be stuck there in 1996 for the foreseeable future. Somehow, the Delta Quadrant didn’t seem quite so bad at the moment.

She reached her quarters and kicked off her boots before pulling off her jacket and tunic, deciding to sleep in her uniform pants and tank top in case something happened and she needed to dress quickly. But her cabin was chilly and she opened her wardrobe to look for a shirt to wrap around herself.

She smiled when she saw it, the spoils of her stealth mission to Tom’s quarters a few weeks earlier: his uniform jacket. She pulled it out and slipped it over her goosebumped shoulders. Suddenly she wasn’t so tired anymore.

Wrapping herself in the oversized coat, she picked up a datapad, grabbed the blanket off her bed and settled in on her couch to do some reading. Three paragraphs into a report on the phaser array—her hands barely peeking out from too-large sleeves—and she was sound asleep.

~*~*~*~*~

The morning was only two hours old and already it just wasn’t Tom’s day. Mostly, he was coming to realize, because it wasn’t his decade. If that damn time ship had skipped a little further back into Earth’s 20th century—say anywhere from 1925 to 1975—he would have been right in his element. But the mid-1990’s…well, frankly, they’d seemed a little phony.

After one whole day trapped in Southern California, it was all coming back to him now. He’d spent very little time studying this particular period in American history, for a simple reason: the music was repetitive, the movies formulaic, and the television shows poorly written and lacking consistency. It was the era of the ‘bottom line’ and a Ferengi-like focus on profits had made American entertainment from 1980 to 2010 a little stale. Even the science fiction television shows he’d loved so much from the schlocky 1960’s had morphed into poorly drawn parodies of themselves that relied too heavily on girls in tight clothes and a kind of magic ‘reset button’ that kept the characters from any real danger or growth.

Besides, at least the old shows had been funny. Ray guns and walking robots and men with bad hairpieces. The stuff from the 1990’s, though…it was just a monument to wasted potential.

It occurred to him then that the mistakes he’d made in the slang, the history and the other details of 1996 life had come not from carelessness, but from apathy. He barely knew this particular period in time.

One thing he did know was that a 1960’s era car radio made a pretty lousy signaling device. Still, he’d had the inspiration to try to hot wire his commbadge’s transtater thought Rain’s ancient AM radio as he thought some more about their little predicament.

Tom had woken up at sunrise and traded turns with Tuvok in the beach’s public restroom. A few splashes of water on his face would have to pass for a shower this morning. And his stomach was making it known in no uncertain terms that breakfast had better not be far off. Tom agreed to keep an eye on Rain and the van while the Vulcan headed off in search of food.

It was a beautiful morning, and Paris decided to take his little engineering project outdoors. He put the pilfered device and his commbadge on a checkerboard table next to the van and began his experiment in cross-century cross-wiring. Everything he tried failed. This project was better suited to Harry or B’Elanna’s talents, he knew.

Tom started thinking about his friends as he worked, and about what might happen to all of them if they couldn’t find a way back to their own time. Starfleet protocols were pretty clear: find a remote corner of the world and stay out of history’s way. That might be possible—maybe even easy—for the human members of the crew, but Tom once again found himself thinking about the others. Some, like Tuvok and Kes, might be able to alter their appearance to blend in. But the others—the blue-skinned Bolians, Neelix with his furry face and spots, B’Elanna and her very distinctive—and beautiful—ridges. They’d have to stay hidden. He wondered for a moment how that would feel, knowing you had to live the rest of your life as some kind of freak on a planet you knew as well as your own homeworld.

It was only now that Tom could really appreciate what it must have been like for B’Elanna growing up on Kessick IV, the only Klingon in a group of humans. Must have been pretty lonely, he realized.

He’d accessed the radio’s capacitors and was about to rig the device to his communicator when he saw Rain throw her blanket in the car and walk toward him. “Let me guess,” she said. “Someone broke into the van last night while I was sleeping, tried to snatch the stereo, you bravely fought them off, and now you’re repairing the damage.”

He smiled, but kept working. “That’s exactly what happened,” he teased.

“My hero.” She was mocking him, but he didn’t mind. When she picked up the commbadge, however, and started giving it the once-over, Tom quickly grabbed it from her hand. She looked frustrated. “What’s it like? Life as a spy, I mean?”

“Classified,” he answered. He knew the next round of ‘twenty questions’ was about to start.

“Oh, right. I forgot… But you said ‘secret agent,’ and nobody says ‘secret agent.’ And you do that a lot, you get things not quite right.” She stopped and looked at him carefully. “Like you don’t belong here.”

“Rain,” he shook his head. “You’re fantasizing.”

She was getting mad. “And you’re insulting my intelligence. Yesterday afternoon I picked up a UFO in orbit. Today my life is completely out of control, so don’t think I’m too stupid to notice.”

He felt a little guilty for having to lie to her. She was right; she was too smart to buy his half-baked explanations. “I apologize.”

She looked glad that he hadn’t denied it. “Accepted,” she said quietly.

Tom couldn’t leave it at that. “Will you also accept that there are lives at stake here? The more you keep asking me questions, the more difficult you make things. For everybody.”

She looked embarrassed. “I’ll try.”

He knew he was hurting her feelings, and decided to change the subject. “So, why did you become an astronomer?”

Suddenly she was animated again. “My brother had a telescope. A little refractor. You could barely see in the treehouse next door, actually—but it was enough. It was enough to see the rings of Saturn.” The look on her face turned almost wistful. “I remember…I remember I used to think that they looked like jewels from a pirate’s treasure. All I ever wanted to do since then was reach out and touch them.”

Tom realized something in that moment. His whole life he’d taken for granted something Rain could only dream about; looking at the stars was all she’d ever get the chance to do. Something about the realization made him feel a little sorry for her. And glad—maybe for the first time—that he’d been born in another time in history. The 20th century, for all its fascination, was still a very backward and limiting place.

He was about to be reminded of exactly how backward. After finishing a quick breakfast of burritos, hotdogs and caffeinated soda with Tuvok—and after accidentally shorting out Rain’s radio with a misplaced screwdriver—Tom had the idea to use the observatory’s radio telescope to send a message to Voyager. They quickly packed up the van and were about to head off when a woman in an official looking uniform approached Tuvok.

“This your vehicle?” the officer asked suspiciously.

Rain interjected. “No, it’s mine. What’s wrong.”

The woman kept looking at Tuvok as she spoke. “You’re in a ‘no parking’ zone. I’m going to have to ticket you.” She opened a flip-top book and began making notations.

“But we were just leaving,” Rain said truthfully.

The woman pulled her aside. “Honey, listen to me: a pretty young girl like you should be more careful about who she associates with.”

Tom was totally confused by the conversation, as was the security chief.

“Excuse me, officer, but the parking restriction you’re sighting doesn’t go into effect until 8:00 AM. It is only 7:52.” The illuminated clock on the bank across the street seemed to verify Tuvok’s observation.

The woman looked him up and down. “Not by my watch, sir,” she said angrily before ripping the ticket from her booklet and handing it to Rain. “Have a nice day,” she said sarcastically.

Robinson waited for the officer to walk away before venting her frustration. “Racist asshole,” she said under her breath. “Let’s go.”

Tom wondered what the hell had just happened. Then he remembered: though the bulk of America’s overt racial oppression was legislated away by the late 1970’s, a kind of covert bigotry had taken its place and stayed a problematic part of the culture until just after the third World War. It hadn’t occurred to him until that moment that Tuvok’s skin was dark—he would be mistaken for an American of African descent. These kinds of superficial distinctions within any given race were just an alien concept to him. They were all human, after all.

“Curious,” Tuvok said as they climbed into the van. “For some reason, I seemed to be the focus of that woman’s anger.”

Tom and Rain exchanged glances. “Yeah,” Tom said, deciding to keep his realizations about this disgusting exchange to himself. “Curious.”

~~

Since they were now pretty convinced that Rain wouldn’t try to run away—and since she knew the roads so much better than he did—Paris reluctantly surrendered the role of driver to her. There was an upside, he realized: he could just look out the window and try to calm down.

The whole incident with the traffic enforcement officer was sticking in his craw. That kind of blind hatred of someone based solely on their appearance was virtually unheard of in his time. Or was it? His mind drifted back to B’Elanna and to a realization he’d had earlier that morning.

She’d told him once, when they were trapped in the Vidiian mining prison, about her childhood on Kessick IV. She’d been teased and taunted—made to feel like an outcast—simply because of her appearance, and the Klingon temperament that went with it. Just like this morning, the abuse she’d described was subtle and hinted at. Nothing you could grab onto and force into the open. And she’d had to face it for years—as a child, no less.

Just thinking about it turned on a light for him: B’Elanna had been hurt by humans so often, it must be difficult for her to trust them. Even him. This could explain a lot.

Except the whole Bristow thing, since Freddie was human, too.

But Tom was becoming more and more convinced that there wasn’t—and never had been—anything to that. He knew for a fact that B’Elanna had gone on two dates with the ensign, the second of which was apparently a Parisses Squares match that left Bristow with injuries requiring medical attention. Tom knew, too, the kind of hours B’Elanna worked and that almost every off-duty moment was normally spent with him or with Harry. She couldn’t be dating Bristow or anyone else; she didn’t have the time.

Maybe that was just wishful thinking. No, he thought, something more was going on. For the first time he wondered if B’Elanna might be afraid to trust him. And he wondered if there might be some way he could prove—somehow—that he would never hurt her.

But first he’d have to contact the ship and get himself home.

They pulled up to a service entrance of the Griffith Observatory and checked for Starling’s guards. Tuvok’s tricorder verified that they were alone, and the three snuck into the employee entrance undetected.

~~

The morning briefing was especially frustrating. The Doctor’s program was definitely missing from the databanks, the weapons and transporters were still offline, and they’d confirmed Starling’s role in the temporal explosion that destroyed 29th century Earth. Topping it all off, Tom and Tuvok were still missing: no one had heard from them all night.

Going after the men—or the timeship—would mean dropping into a lower orbit and Neelix reported that the United States military was already investigating the news footage of Voyager’s first little dip into the atmosphere. It was just too risky.

The captain was just about to give B’Elanna new orders when a call came in from the bridge. It was Tuvok. Torres held her breath and looked at Harry as they waited to find out what had happened.

“Mr. Paris and I are at the Griffith Observatory in the Hollywood Hills. We have modified the satellite dish transmitter to send and receive Voyager frequencies.” A burst of static suddenly interrupted his report. “I regret the bad connection.”

The captain was visibly relieved to hear that the men were alive and well. “That’s quite all right, Mister Tuvok,” she answered. “What’s happened?”

He explained that they’d met a young woman, an astronomer at the observatory, who was working—amazingly enough—for Henry Starling. She had been the one to detect their warp signature—at Starling’s instruction—but had sent the ‘welcome’ greeting on her own.

It became clear to everyone that finding and stopping Starling was their new top priority. And it would help to have an away team on the ground—particularly one that included someone on the inside of the man’s operation. B’Elanna heard the captain ask a question she’d been wondering herself. “Tell me about this young woman. Can we trust her?”

She wasn’t sure why she was surprised when she heard Tuvok’s answer. “She and Lieutenant Paris appear to be bonding on a cross-cultural level. I would have to say yes.” B’Elanna could have sworn she heard giggling in the background. One of the voices was an annoyingly high-pitched female; the other, unmistakably Tom.

B’Elanna noticed that Harry was suddenly avoiding her gaze. Chakotay, on the other hand, was looking sympathetically into her eyes. They were making her uncomfortable and she wasn’t sure why. She heard the captain and Tuvok discuss this woman astronomer’s willingness to help them and make a plan to lure Starling into a trap. Then she heard her name mentioned and forced herself to pay attention.

“Tuvok, I’m going to send Chakotay and Torres down in a shuttlecraft. They won’t be as easy to detect and—once we’ve located the timeship—they can beam you two and it back to Voyager.”

“Acknowledged,” she heard him say. A second later the link was broken, and B’Elanna had her orders. She stood up headed for the shuttlebay. As she made her way through the aft corridor and to the turbolift, she wondered why she suddenly felt like some kind of wounded, jilted lover.

So Tom had barely spoken to her in a month. So he was spending his second day in the company of a young astronomer who he’d ‘bonded’ with in some ‘cross-cultural’ way. (Whatever the hell that meant.) This had nothing to do with her. Nothing whatsoever.

So why did she suddenly feel sick to her stomach?

~~

Tuvok ended his very unique long-distance call and turned off the portable phone he’d rigged as a rudimentary communicator. “Mister Paris,” he said, no longer bothering with Tom’s first name. “I have confirmed our instructions. We are to attempt to lure Starling into the open, so that our colleagues might triangulate his position and bring him in.”

Tom glanced at Rain, trying to figure out how he could get the information he needed without revealing too much. “What about our little…transportation problem?”

Tuvok understood. “Chakotay and Torres will be acting as intermediaries from a point in between our two locations. Once they have Starling in custody, they will take him the rest of the way in.”

This speaking in code was all too much for Rain. “So you’re gonna kidnap him…and I’m the bait.”

Tom turned to her. “We won’t let anything happen to you, Rain. Just trust us.”

“What choice do I have?” she asked rhetorically. “So…what’s the plan?”

~~

B’Elanna was nearly finished the preflight checklist when Chakotay arrived.

“We’re almost ready,” she said matter-of-factly. “I’ve downloaded the coordinates Tuvok sent us, and all systems are showing normal.”

“Is the deflector configured?” the commander asked as he climbed into the pilot’s seat.

“Yes, sir,” she said absentmindedly.

Chakotay looked at her and smiled. “Just like old times,” he said as he began entering their flight plan. “It’s been a while since I sat next to you in the cockpit. We should do this more often.”

She smiled, thinking back to the last time they’d flown together like this. “Just be sure to avoid any coherent tetrion beams this time,” she joked, reminding him of the last thing either of them could remember before the Caretaker’s array pulled the Liberty and its entire Maquis crew into the Delta Quadrant.

“Oh, I don’t know,” he said thoughtfully, “It hasn’t worked out so badly for the two of us, has it?”

She looked over and noticed for the first time that Chakotay actually seemed happy. She’d been so wrapped up in her own personal drama, that she hadn’t spent much time with her old friend in the past few months. It occurred to her as she looked into his eyes that the anger she’d seen there for so long was gone. He seemed at peace with himself—a huge change from the driven Maquis captain she’d dedicated herself to almost four years earlier.

“Maybe you’re right,” she said gently. Unlike most of the rest of the crew, B’Elanna knew she’d actually begun to prefer her life aboard Voyager to the one she’d left behind in the Alpha Quadrant. She realized now that her friend felt the same way. “Isn’t it strange, Chakotay? Two Maquis misfits like us going ‘Starfleet’? Maybe we’re getting soft.”

The commander stopped working and turned to her. “Or maybe we just found something else worth fighting for.” He turned back to the helm. “Let’s go get Starling and that timeship so we can bring Tom and Tuvok home.”

Chakotay verified their all clear and gave the signal to open the shuttlebay doors. In a moment, they were on their way.

~~

They needed a very public, heavily-trafficked spot in order to put their plan into motion. Rain suggested Metro Plaza in the heart of downtown Los Angeles. It would be hard for anyone to stage a kidnapping or a phaser fight there without being seen, offering some small measure of protection for their ‘bait.’

The trip from the observatory took less than thirty minutes, during which time Tom and Tuvok talked through their plan.

“Rain, we’ll need you to call Starling,” Tom explained. “Tell him you’re scared, that someone tried to kill you yesterday and that you want him to come and get you. Make sure he understands that you won’t go with one of his goons; you’ll need to see him personally.”

Tuvok chimed in. “When he arrives, you will need to make an excuse to lure him back to this van. Our colleagues will be prepared to intercept him as soon as he’s inside.”

Rain looked confused. “So are these ‘colleagues’ of yours meeting us at the Plaza?”

There was no way Tom could tell her the truth: that a Federation shuttlecraft in a low synchronous orbit would demolecularize Starling and store him in their pattern buffer until he could be rematerialized either on the shuttle itself or aboard Voyager. “Let’s just say that they’ll take him off our hands. I can’t tell you anymore than that.”

She was becoming accustomed to unanswered questions, Tom noticed, since she didn’t press the issue. But he could also tell that she was afraid. “Rain, Tuvok and I will be there the whole time. We won’t let anything happen to you.”

She smiled. “I trust you,” she said. Tom could tell that she meant it.

Rain pulled the van into a parking place on a side street next to the plaza and they scouted out locations where the men would have a clear view of the entire square. Tom hated that they’d have to put Rain in danger, and he was impressed that she seemed to willing to trust two strangers she’d met under totally unbelievable circumstances less than a day earlier. Her curiosity and sense of adventure would have made her a prime candidate for Starfleet, he realized—if she’d been born even two hundred years later.

Tuvok pointed to a covered walkway next to a large performing arts center; its pillars would offer the men a place to hide with a clear view of the entire area. Tom handed Rain the cellular phone. “Mister Starling,” they heard her say. “Oh my god, I’m so scared! They’re gonna find me…!”

~~

As soon as they cleared the ship, B’Elanna brought the deflector online. With a few simple tricks, she made the Cochrane appear to be a small 20th century jet, both to the naked eye and to the era’s primitive tracking satellites. So far, so good.

She verified that the shuttle’s transporters were working, then took a moment to check Tuvok’s tricorder data. They’d been given the general coordinates and would wait for the final telemetry before activating the targeting scanners. “We should be in range in about ten minutes,” she said out loud.

Her pilot seemed more interested in the blue ball that appeared in the viewport. “You can see the entire Baja Peninsula. I forgot how beautiful the view is from this altitude.” Chakotay’s voice got quiet. “I thought I’d never see it again.”

B’Elanna realized that her friend’s exile from the planet had begun several years before their adventures in the Delta Quadrant. The last time the Maquis captain had visited Earth was to recruit a hotshot young pilot they’d heard rumors about: the troubled young son of a Starfleet admiral who might be willing to join the cause—if the price was right. She had a hard time now reconciling that drunken pilot with the friend they were on their way to rescue. Tom had come so far since those days. So, she now realized, had Chakotay.

“You trained as a pilot in North America, didn’t you?” she asked.

A nostalgic look crossed his face. “That’s right; my first year at the Academy. Then I went to Venus for a few months to learn how to handle atmospheric storms. And then I dodged asteroids for a semester in the Belt.”

She enjoyed listening to him reminisce, even if her own memories weren’t as pleasant. “Sounds like you had a lot more fun at the Academy than I did,” she teased. “I remember dodging a few punches in the lab.”

He laughed. “Only you, B’Elanna, could start a brawl in Astrotheory 101.”

Even she had to smile at the absurdity of it all. “I guess I was just a little more…enthusiastic in those days.”

“I guess so,” he said, charitably. B’Elanna knew her ‘enthusiasm’ was actually more like loneliness, frustration. And a total lack of self-confidence. It was a feeling she could remember quite well at the moment.

“Chakotay,” she said softly, “what if we’re stuck here. What if we can’t find a way back?” Starfleet actually had a contingency plan for these kinds of situations, she knew: find a secluded spot and keep out of the way. Don’t impact history any more than necessary.

Surprisingly, her friend didn’t seem all that disturbed by the idea, even musing that their potential exile might give him a chance to pursue archeology on a full-time basis, maybe even work on a major dig. “I could win a Nobel Prize,” he dreamed.

“So much for a low profile,” she teased him.

Chakotay smiled at his own silly fantasies. “What about you” he asked.

It wasn’t as if she hadn’t wondered the same thing herself. But the reality of her situation was staring her right in the face—literally. “‘Highly-qualified Klingon seeks position as engineer.’” Once again, that half of her heritage would present certain…problems.

He seemed to sense her fear. “I’d hire you in a second,” he said gently, instantly reminding her why he had been her best friend for so many years. Chakotay had saved her life—not just by rescuing her from the Cardassians, but by giving her chance after chance to prove to herself and to others that she was a capable engineer—and a worthwhile person. He was as close to family as she’d ever had, she knew, and today she really needed to feel that kind of connection.

They heard the sensors blip as the shuttle came into range of Tuvok’s signal. “Let’s start our descent,” Chakotay said softly. “Watch out for birds.” He seemed determined to make her smile, despite herself.

As they maneuvered the ship into a lower orbit, B’Elanna allowed herself to give the question some serious consideration: what would she do back in a time before warp engines or plasma relays or replicators? For a moment an image flashed through her mind: her and Chell stuck in permanent exile, watching as all their friends went off to work every day. Perish the thought…

~~

It took less than ten minutes before a large black limousine pulled onto the Plaza’s driveway. Rain indicated that it was Starling’s, and Tom nodded for her to get ready as he and Tuvok took their positions. Neither man was prepared, however, when they saw a very familiar face in a Starfleet science uniform step out of the car, joined immediately by a tall, blond man in his late forties.

Tom opened their improvised communicator and signaled the shuttle. “Paris to Chakotay.” He waited for their response, which came almost immediately. “Starling’s arrived—with the Doctor.”

“What?!” he heard B’Elanna say, incredulously. “How is that possible?”

It was good to hear her voice, but there was no time to talk. “I don’t know,” he answered. “Are you in range?”

“Another two minutes,” Chakotay answered. This was going to be close.

Tom watched as Rain climbed the steps at the far side of the Plaza and headed toward the fountain at its center. Starling and the Doctor were waiting, the EMH looking a little overwhelmed at all the sights and sounds. Paris could see what looked like a silver medallion on the physician’s left arm.

This should have been impossible, Tom knew. Even portable holographic projection systems needed a huge power supply and defined physical parameters—some kind of room to act as a mini hologrid. But he could see with his own eyes that their holographic friend was standing in the middle of an outdoor Los Angeles mall. Weird.

Tuvok had been scanning the area with his tricorder, getting a final fix on the van’s coordinates. He walked over to Tom and took the phone, instructing B’Elanna to prepare for his uplink as Paris watched Rain approach Starling. Tom knew she had to be scared, yet she did exactly as he’d instructed without hesitation. He was suddenly feeling very protective of her, and knew Robinson was counting on him to keep his promise—to keep her safe.

He and Tuvok could see her make contact. At that moment, Tom realized that Starling was carrying something—some kind of device. He seemed to be aiming it at the Doctor. Was it a weapon? Starling said something that caused Rain and the EMH to look around them, as if they were searching for something. Then Paris watched as the man put his hand on Rain’s shoulder and lead her off—in the wrong direction. They were heading not for Robinson’s van, but for Starling’s limo. Tom got Tuvok’s attention and took the phone as the Vulcan pulled out his tricorder and began revising his calculations.

As the three approached Starling’s car, Tom could see that the driver awaiting them was the same thug who had tried to kill Rain at the observatory the day before. She seemed to realize it, too—he could see her back away in fear. He was worried now; they’d have to improvise—and without any of the technology or tools normally in the Starfleet bag of tricks.

Tom was on the verge of panicking. “We’re recalibrating Starling’s position,” he told Chakotay, as Tuvok madly entered the new data. “You’re going to have to take him out of his own car.” They ran to get to a better vantage point. Tom knew that they were seconds away from watching that car pull off into busy Los Angeles traffic. If that happened, Rain was probably as good as dead.

With no time to spare, he heard Tuvok’s tricorder beep: they had the coordinates. “Now, Chakotay!” Tom practically shouted into the phone.

“Energizing,” he could hear B’Elanna say. “Pattern buffer’s overloading. He’s activated some kind of device. It’s interfering with the transport.” Then Tom lost the channel.

He didn’t have time to wonder why. Rain was suddenly running as fast as she could away from Starling’s car. A moment later, the Doctor followed. Tom ran to meet them as he watched the sedan speed away. “Are you alright?” he said to Rain.

She was out of breath, but didn’t seem hurt. “I guess so,” she answered, sounding a little less than sure.

Tuvok then asked the question both men had been wondering: how was it possible that the EMH was now roaming the streets of California? The Doctor showed them the device affixed to his sleeve. It was some kind of mobile holoemitter—29th century technology that Starling had stolen from Braxton’s ship.

The physician also confirmed that their plan had worked: despite Starling’s attempts to stop the beam-out, he had been successfully transported from the car. Tom remembered the phone in his hand and signaled the shuttle. “Paris to Chakotay.” There was no answer. “Paris to Torres,” he tried. Still nothing.

Tuvok pointed out that Starling’s little show had attracted a bit of attention, and suggested they leave before the local authorities arrived. Tom nodded as the four headed back to Rain’s van.

He wondered, as they walked, why the shuttle wasn’t answering his hails.

~~

Starling’s little stalling technique hadn’t been able to prevent his beam-out, but it was wreaking havoc with the Cochrane’s systems. Aft thrusters were down, and EPS relays were popping all over the ship. Voyager was able to transfer their captive out of the shuttle’s pattern buffer, but the chain reaction of damage was already escalating.

B’Elanna frantically tried to stem the tide of overloads, but there was nothing she could do. There was barely time to get out a distress call before the shuttle plunged into the atmosphere. She knew it was inevitable: they were going to crash.

The viewport was filled with yellow and orange streaks as they buzzed what looked like a dessert canyon. She could hear Chakotay’s frustration as he frantically tried to control their descent. Then she said a silent prayer that the inertial dampers would be the last system to fail.

‘We’re going to die on Earth,’ B’Elanna thought to herself with no small sense of irony. After two years of doing nothing but dreaming about their return to this place, it would ultimately be her undoing.

She felt the drag of the landing struts as they scraped across the ground. A flash of sparks from her exploding console was the only thing she saw before slipping from consciousness.

~*~*~*~*~

Mission accomplished. Starling was in custody, they’d accidentally rescued the Doctor, and no one had gotten hurt or abducted in the process. Not too bad for a low-tech improvisation. Still Tom wondered why they’d suddenly lost contact with the Cochrane, and why Voyager’s only instruction to them was to stand by.

Had something gone wrong?

With nothing to do but drive around waiting for new orders, Tom realized he should probably help Rain process everything she’d just seen.

“I’ve gone out with guys who’ve disappeared into thin air on the first date…” she said, sarcastically. He could tell where this was leading. “But I have never actually seen it happen.” She turned to the Doctor. “And you, Mister ‘Leisure Suit,’ that guy punched you a bunch of times. You should have a black eye, a swollen lip, a broken nose…”

The Doctor was attempting to reassure her. “Try to relax. You appear to be…hallucinating.”

It was a good try, but Tom knew there was no way Rain would buy that. He also knew there was no way he could explain transporter technology or the ‘thick skin’ of a holographic ‘person.’ She’d been patient until now, but she’d seen some things with her own eyes that must have seemed like alchemy to someone from 1996, and Paris wasn’t sure there was any real point to trying to keep her in the dark any longer. But the Temporal Prime Directive existed for a reason—one wrong word and all of their lives could be snuffed out in an instant. Still, he decided he wouldn’t outright lie to her anymore. “Rain,” he said sympathetically, “I’m sorry you got dragged into all this.”

He was interrupted by the ringing communicator. Tuvok ‘took the call.’

It was a rather one-sided conversation. “Aye, Captain,” they heard him say after only a moment. “Tuvok out.”

The lieutenant leaned forward. “Mister Starling is ‘under control.’ I suggest you return to Chronowerx and continue our business there. The Doctor and I must make our way to Arizona.” Tom wondered what was going on. Even more, he wondered how his two crewmates would get to Arizona from L.A. without transporters, a shuttlecraft, or even their own car. Not that either man knew how to drive.

Tuvok pulled out his tricorder and scanned the display. “Phoenix,” he read aloud. “That’s our target. We will need to find transportation.”

Tom knew the area well—and it was over seven hundred kilometers from their current location. He also knew that—after that morning’s breakfast and an earlier stop for gasoline—he had about $70 to get them there. “Rain, where’s the nearest bus station?” he asked.

She raised her eyebrows. “You can make Starling disappear right in front of me, but these two have to ride the bus? To Phoenix?” She looked incredulous. “Who planned this little ‘secret mission’ anyway?”

Their run of good luck was holding: buses from Los Angeles to Phoenix ran on a regular schedule and the adult fare was only $27. Tom split the remaining $16 between himself and Tuvok. ‘Lunch money,’ he said jokingly, though that was about all it would buy them, he realized.

While the Doctor looked around in wonder—and Rain followed him around making jokes about the physician’s fashion sense—Paris took a moment and pulled the lieutenant aside. “What’s going on?” he asked. “What’s in Phoenix?”

Tuvok kept an eye on Rain as he answered. “Voyager lost contact with Commander Chakotay and Lieutenant Torres shortly after Starling materialized. It appears that their shuttle crash landed somewhere in the Arizona dessert.”

Tom looked away. “Are they alive?” he forced himself to ask after a moment.

“The data Ensign Kim transmitted to my tricorder would seem to indicate that their lifesigns are steady,” Tuvok answered. Why he couldn’t just say ‘yes,’ annoyed Paris to no end. “But they are not responding to hails.”

Tom thought for a moment about B’Elanna, stuck in the middle of nowhere, maybe hurt—definitely in trouble. Suddenly Voyager’s big adventure on Earth didn’t seem like so much fun anymore. “You’d better get going,” Paris said as he watched the Arizona-bound bus begin loading its passengers. Then he realized something. “Hey, we only have one communicator.”

“You should take it,” Tuvok said. “If I am successful, I can use the shuttle’s systems to contact the ship. And we have no way of knowing what you will find at Chronowerx.”

Tom nodded. “Good luck,” he said, wishing for a moment that they could trade missions. Then he watched the men board the bus and ride away.

“Let’s go,” he said to Rain.

They climbed into the van and pulled out into traffic. Tom could see his friends’ bus turn off toward the highway. It would be almost seven hours before they’d reach their destination, he knew. Seven hours during which B’Elanna and Chakotay would be at the mercy of their injuries and the elements—and of 20th century America. It occurred to him then that a half-Klingon would be a pretty big curiosity for anyone who might stumble upon them. He tried to put the thought out of his mind. B’Elanna was tough, he knew. She could take care of herself.

For her part, Rain seemed relieved that they were finally alone.

“Let’s recap,” she said as they headed back downtown. “UFO in orbit, laser pistols, people vanishing. I’ve seen every episode of ‘Mission: Impossible.’ You’re not ‘secret agents.’”

‘Here we go again,’ Tom thought. “I told you, I can’t talk about it.”

“Well, you can’t keep a girl from hypothesizing,” she scolded. “I’m a scientist!” He was curious to see where her imagination led her. “I’m thinking…I’m thinking alternate dimension. I’m thinking…close encounter…” She looked to see if she could tell anything from Tom’s reaction.

“Whatever,” he said, smiling at her clichéd science fiction scenarios.

Then she grinned and got a disgusted look in her eye. “Talk about a motley crew! We have ‘The Doctor,’ a guy with the worst, worst taste in clothing I’ve ever seen.” Tom laughed. He’d never really thought about the fashion value of the standard Starfleet singlet before.

Rain wasn’t done her little critique, however. “Tuvok…what a freakasaurus! Has the guy ever cracked a smile?”

‘Freakasaurus.’ Now there was a word Tom would have to remember. “Not that I can recall,” he answered her.

“And you—Tom Paris.”

Tom was surprisingly anxious to hear her assessment of him.

“Sexy.”

Wow. He could live with that.

“In a ‘Howdy Doody’ sort of way.”

Ouch. Tom knew that reference: goofy 1950’s children’s television puppet. Not exactly the image he wanted to project to women. Still, he could tell that Rain was flirting with him again in her own strange way. After a moment, he was sure of it.

“Although,” she now said more gently, “sometimes I think you’re the smartest man I ever met. All this running around you do—your ‘mission’—you’re so dedicated, you know. Like, you care about something more than just your own little life.”

Tom looked at her, and realized for the first time that what she said was true. He was committed to his work, even if he’d never really thought of it that way before. Still, that hardly made him special. “Is that so unusual?” he asked.

“Yeah,” she said softly.

He supposed—in this ‘me’ focused day and age—maybe it was.

Still, her comments made him think. Only a few weeks earlier, he’d begun to tackle the larger questions of his life. Who was Tom Paris? What did he believe in? The time he’d spent alone on Lake Como had helped him get a sense of those answers. But it wasn’t until he’d come here—to 1996, to Earth—that he could really step back from his life and reflect on it.

He’d fought his father’s Starfleet dreams and ambitions and knew that—had the choice been solely his—he’d have followed a different path. But Tom’s time on Voyager had allowed him to see some of the attraction the life had held for the Admiral—not only the adventure and the responsibility, but the more altruistic parts of Starfleet service. In his own way, on his own ship, Tom had come to believe in the work they were doing, and realized that it was more than just his desire to find a way back to Earth that made him so committed. And Rain was right—he’d become dedicated to it.

She was quiet as she drove them the last few miles back to Starling’s headquarters. Tom suspected that Rain was waiting for him to return the compliment, to start—finally—to give some hint of how he felt about her.

But he couldn’t, and for one simple reason: he just didn’t know.

By all normal Tom Paris standards, Rain was the perfect woman. She was pretty, smart, funny, and shared his interest in toys, bad horror movies, and pepperoni pizza. She was an astronomer with an adventurous spirit and a kind soul. She was everything he could have wanted in a woman.

So why wasn’t he interested? The question was as perplexing to him as it clearly was to Rain and it hung in the air between them until they arrived at their destination.

Tom glanced up at the imposing Chronowerx skyscraper, then turned back to her. “I guess this is goodbye,” he said gently.

She looked at him uncertainly, clearly trying to make up her mind about what she would say. “I guess so,” she started slowly before diving in. “Listen, are you busy tomorrow night? Cause, um, we should hang together.”

“I can’t,” he said, trying to let her down gently—something she was about to make impossible.

“Well, what about this weekend?” Tom didn’t know what to say.

A look of horror suddenly crossed her face. “You’re married!” she said as she turned away.

“Absolutely not!” he blurted out before wondering why he’d said it that strongly. He supposed he’d just never thought of himself as the marrying type. “I’m just…very busy.”

A look of realization crossed her face. “Oh, yeah, you’ve got to get back to Mars, right?”

He smiled. If she only knew how close she was to the truth. And how far away. “Saturn,” he teased.

“That’s perfect!” she said, recalling their conversation about her brother’s telescope. “I told you, I’ve always loved Saturn!” She was downright animated now. “So, um, give me your phone number…”

He really didn’t want to have to hurt her, to tell her honestly that—even if he weren’t from another time, even if he didn’t have to leave soon—his heart just wasn’t following where his mind told it to go. But she was forcing the issue. He didn’t have a choice. “Rain…”

Saved by the bell. Tom’s tricorder began beeping madly as it suddenly detected tachyon emissions from a location right in front of the van. He looked up to see a large tractor trailer pulling away from behind the Chronowerx building. “They’re moving the timeship!” he said to himself, not thinking about the fact that she could hear him.

“Timeship?!” Rain echoed. “What are you talking about?!”

He turned back to her as he realized their little trip wasn’t really over after all. “You wouldn’t mind ‘hanging’ with me for a while longer, huh?”

Her enthusiastic smile was all the answer he needed.

~*~*~*~*~

The smell was familiar: musty and dank. It reminded her of the marketplace near her grandmother’s house on Qo’noS. The thought jolted B’Elanna awake.

She opened her eyes and immediately regretted it. Her head was pounding, and she could feel the flash burns on her cheeks. Where was she?

She tried to pull her arms in front of her to push herself up only to discover that they were tied—tightly—behind her back. Her ankles were also bound. She wriggled to a sitting position before noticing Chakotay, unconscious and also restrained, lying behind her.

Before she could wake him, a noise startled her and she looked around the room. She seemed to be in some sort of storage shed. It was filthy, covered in cobwebs, with all kinds of assorted junk stacked around her. Suddenly a blinding light stung her eyes and she scrambled to move her back against the wall.

At the top of a steep staircase, she saw two men silhouetted against the bright sunlight. It was then that she realized she must be in a basement or storm cellar. One of the men carried an odd looking rifle as they walked down the steps and over toward her.

“Where are we?” she asked them quietly.

One man spoke, but not to her. “This one looks like an Indian,” he said derisively. He was pointing to Chakotay, who B’Elanna was relieved to see was now awake. “And that one…” he was gesturing to her now. “I don’t know what her story is.”

The second man kneeled in front of her. “What’s that thing on her head?” he asked, not even acknowledging that she was awake and very aware that they were discussing her. The man pointed a finger and reached out slowly as if to poke her ridged forehead. Instinctively, she growled and snapped at him, coming within millimeters of taking off his fingertip before he flinched and pulled away.

The first man laughed. “Careful, Butch,” he said to his friend. “She looks like a fighter.”

She heard Chakotay from behind her. “Who are you?” he asked.

“You first,” the man challenged. “Are you spying on us…Chief?”

B’Elanna wondered for a moment why Chakotay’s Native American heritage seemed to be of interest to these two. Still, she could hear her friend’s attempt to be civil as he answered the question. “No,” he said evenly. “Just passing by.”

‘Butch’ was now eyeing the commander. “In your new stealth plane?” he asked skeptically. Torres knew ‘plane’ was short for ‘airplane,’ and she assumed they’d mistaken the shuttlecraft for one. “Who sent you?” he pressed.

This was ridiculous. “Nobody sent us,” B’Elanna answered, a little more sarcastically then she probably should have. “We had engine trouble.”

The man looked angry. “I don’t believe her,” he said to his friend. “They’re wearing military uniforms, flying a secret plane. They’re coming for us.”

It became clear over the course of the next few minutes that these men were paranoid radicals who seemed to be convinced that she and the commander were operatives of the United States government. Denying it earned Chakotay a hard kick to the abdomen. B’Elanna lashed out to protect him, catching one of the men in the shin with the heel of her boots.

The first man who’d spoken to them seemed to be the leader, and he was convinced now that the two Starfleet officers were dangerous agents of a government he distrusted and despised. After sending ‘Butch’ off to round up reinforcements, the leader stood guard over them for almost an hour —spouting separatist rhetoric the entire time—before finally heading up the stairs and out the door.

B’Elanna was knew their ordeal was far from over, but she was relieved to be left alone with Chakotay. “We need to get out of here,” she said softly as she pulled on the ropes that bound her hands. Unfortunately, struggling only seemed to tighten the knots.

“I’m sure Captain Janeway is looking for us,” the commander said confidently. “These men are dangerous. I don’t think we can afford to risk making them any angrier than they are.”

B’Elanna was surprised, but couldn’t argue the point. One look around their little prison told her these creeps were probably heavily armed and looking for a fight. They seemed to have stockpiled ammunition, food, and water, and they were clearly suspicious to the point of paranoia.

Her knowledge of American history wasn’t that extensive, but even their pre-flight briefings didn’t give any hint of a civil war during this time. She turned to Chakotay. “Who are these people, anyway? And why are they so angry at their government?”

Her friend tried to sit up as he spoke. “It looks to me like they’re probably part of some civilian militia splinter group. The late 20th century was a time of huge change in American society. Technology was moving most high paying jobs from unskilled to highly-skilled labor, and the country was getting more ethnically diverse at the same time. A lot of people—particularly the white men who had been in power for so long—started to feel that they were losing control of their lives and their destinies. They began to blame anyone who was different from them, and to mistrust any agent of change, including their own government.”

He tried to get more comfortable as he spoke, but every move seemed to cause him pain. B’Elanna noticed that he was favoring his left side. “Of course, some of them were just violent idiots,” he said as he winced.

B’Elanna tried to reach for him, but was held back by the ropes restraining her hands. “Chakotay, you’re hurt. We’ve got to get you out of here.”

He shook his head. “I’ll be fine. Besides, those guns they’re carrying don’t have a ‘stun’ setting. I’ve seen what that kind of firearm can do to a person. We just need to be patient and wait until they come for us.”

Deep down, she knew he was right. “You know, patience isn’t one of my strengths,” she joked.

Chakotay smiled. “Well, maybe you just need a distraction.” Then a thought seemed to occur to him. “You know, we barely see each other anymore. Why don’t you tell me what you’ve been up to lately?”

She only wished there was something to tell. “This could be a very short conversation,” she joked. “I haven’t exactly led the most exciting life recently.”

He looked concerned. “Any more dreams?”

She turned to see if he was teasing her, but his expression was one of compassion. “No more Enaran history lessons, if that’s what you mean,” she answered honestly. The dreams she’d continued to have about Tom Paris would stay her little secret. It was her turn to change the subject. “What about you? You seem…different these days. If I didn’t know better, I’d say you were almost happy.”

B’Elanna was surprised when he looked embarrassed. “Oh, I don’t know. Maybe I’m just getting soft in my old age.”

“Maybe,” she kidded before turning serious. Then she decided to take a risk. “Or maybe you finally just met the right woman.” His blush told her she’d struck a nerve, so she decided to press on. “You know, Chakotay, you can talk to me. As a friend, off the record. I think you know that I’m pretty good at keeping secrets.”

He smiled. “I know,” he said gently. “And I promise you, if there was something to tell, I’d tell you first.”

She wasn’t buying it. “The crew would understand,” she said, ignoring his protest. “They’d want you both to be happy.”

His expression turned sad. “You’re trying to convince the wrong person,” he said quietly. A bittersweet look crossed his face before he decided to turn the tables. “What about you?” he asked.

“What about me?” she tried to dodge.

“These days you’re hardly the spitting cobra who used to go around breaking noses.” He made sure to catch her eye before he continued. “Breaking hearts instead, maybe.”

Her eyes got wide. “Oh, right. I’ve got crewmen lined up outside my cabin door,” she joked. “Not hardly.”

His expression never wavered. “I don’t know. Word is that Ensign Bristow is carrying quite a torch for you.”

B’Elanna rolled her eyes. Why was it that she couldn’t seem to shake the specter of that little toad? “Actually, you can put Bristow into the ‘broken bones’ category,” she joked. “We played one game of Parisses Squares and he was barely able to walk for two days.”

Chakotay laughed. “Well, there’s another pilot I can think of who’s been moping around Voyager like a wounded cat the past few weeks. I don’t suppose that has anything to do with his feelings for you, though…”

B’Elanna looked away. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she lied.

“No, I guess not,” her friend said, a calculating tone slipping into his voice. “Besides, he’d have to have a heart before it could be broken.”

She spun around to face him. “That’s not fair, Chakotay!” she spat. “Tom’s a great guy. He’s changed a lot since the Maquis. If you’d only get to know him, see what he’s really like underneath all that sarcasm, you’d realize…”

The look on her friend’s face stopped her cold. She’d been set up.

“So what are you so afraid of?” Chakotay said gently.

She took a deep breath and looked at him for a moment before she answered. “I don’t know,” she said softly. “I don’t know.”

~~

Tom was beginning to wonder where his little adventure was leading him. He and Rain had been following the truck with the timeship for almost three hours now, and were going nowhere—literally. Starling’s driver seemed to be heading into the California dessert, probably looking for a secluded place to launch.

His conversation with Rain had been limited to directions and small talk ever since he’d tried to let her down gently back in the city. She seemed glad to be spending the extra time with him, but afraid to push the issue any further. Tom wasn’t sure if the silence between them was a good or bad thing, though.

At least when they were talking his mind was occupied. Without a distraction, he found himself worrying about B’Elanna and Chakotay, counting off the hours he knew it was taking Tuvok and the Doctor to reach them. He’d always preferred flying or driving to using the transporters, but today he would have given anything to have his friends beamed out of harm’s way.

It was too bad he’d shorted out the radio. At least music might help keep his mind from wandering.

Rain looked over at him and smiled before turning her attention back to the road. Maybe it was Tom’s fear, maybe the growing loneliness that had begun to gnaw at him—or maybe just wishful thinking—but in that moment he once again noticed how much she resembled B’Elanna. It was distracting and compelling all at the same time.

But the more time they spent together, the more aware Tom became of the differences, too. Rain was pretty, there was no getting around that, but she was closer to cute than beautiful. Her face was absent the sculpted ridges that he had come to love on B’Elanna. Her lips weren’t as full, and her eyes…well, they were just as brown, but missing the fire.

It was more than her body, though. Rain was clearly intelligent, and she shared Tom’s interests and ironic sense of humor. But she seemed to operate at the surface of her life; there was no intrigue, no mystery. No secrets waiting to be revealed.

There was one other difference, however: Rain had made it pretty clear that she was attracted to him. Hell, she practically propositioned him just a few hours earlier. He’d even caught her checking out his face or his body when she thought he wasn’t looking. That made him laugh: he’d done the same thing to women all his life.

It felt good, he realized, to feel wanted in that way. These last few years hadn’t done a lot to boost his confidence. The months after leaving Starfleet were a drunken daze, and he’d been a Maquis just long enough to realize that a playboy cad was not what women fighting for a cause found attractive. And Auckland was just plain lonely; a prison anklet was hardly a turn-on to the Federation guards, and he had no interest in getting involved with another inmate. He’d occupied those nights with fantasies of women he’d seen but didn’t really know—including one petite Maquis engineer who was all spit and vinegar. A woman who was ‘bellissima,’ especially when she was angry.

He’d been shocked to see her again on the steps of the Ocampan tunnel. Of course, his focus that day was finding Harry. Tom laughed now at how he’d ignored B’Elanna—practically stepping over her—to make sure his new friend was safe. None of them could know the way their lives would change in two short years. They couldn’t know what they’d all come to mean to each other.

There were some ways, Tom realized, that he still wasn’t sure what he and B’Elanna meant to each other. They’d been on the verge of something, he knew. Something more than drinking beer in Sandrine’s and eating bad Talaxian cooking in the mess hall. Then their entire lives had gotten sidetracked by the damn Kazon. (Yet another reason to hate Seska.) If they’d never been captured, if Tom hadn’t left Voyager to go back for the Talaxians…

Well, that was a stupid thought, he quickly realized. If he hadn’t gone for help, they’d all be trapped on that volcanic dustbowl—and probably dead by now. No, if saving her life and the lives of their shipmates meant losing his chance with B’Elanna, that would have to be alright.

But the incident with the Kazon was over three months ago, and he still hadn’t gotten over the sense of loss—of missing something he’d almost had with her. Even his attempts to avoid her these past few weeks weren’t working.

He thought about the way he’d been treating her since the Enarans left—keeping his distance, pushing her away. He suddenly had a sick feeling: what if she really was hurt in the crash this morning? What if the last contact he would ever have with her was an icy, distant, impersonal conversation about nothing. What if he’d wasted their last few weeks together punishing her for—for what? For protecting herself? For not returning his feelings? He was being stupid, he realized. It was a mistake he’d have to correct as soon as they got home. Assuming they ever did get home.

Rain seemed to sense that something was wrong. “Are you okay?” she finally asked. “You’ve been pretty quiet since Mister Ears and that creepy dude left us.”

Tom smiled sadly. “There’s a problem with the mission,” he explained. “Some of the people I work with are missing. That’s why Tuvok and the Doctor had to leave. They’re going to look for them. There’s a chance they might be hurt.”

“Oh,” she said quietly. “Is it those people you were talking to this morning? Chak…Chak…”

“Chakotay,” he filled in. “Yeah. And Torres.” Tom’s voice drifted off.

Rain was quiet for a moment. “This Torres person. Is he a friend of yours?”

Tom smiled. “Yes, she is. She’s a good friend.” Once again, it seemed he’d revealed more than he intended.

“Oh,” Rain said softly. “I’m sure she’s okay.”

He could only hope so.

They rode in silence for another minute before Rain suddenly took a deep breath and looked straight ahead. “Are you in love with her?” she asked.

Tom’s eyes widened and he almost blurted out a denial. But for some reason, he stopped. In all his scheming and planning and dreaming and hoping about B’Elanna, it was a question he had never stopped to ask himself. He cared about her—deeply—he knew. He was attracted to her, wanted to touch her so badly he could barely stand it. But was he in love with her?

“I don’t know,” he answered honestly. “Maybe.”

Rain looked crestfallen. “Oh,” she said sadly.

And they were silent once again.

~~

They’d been locked in the stifling shed for over three hours, and had been unconscious for who knows how long before that—meaning B’Elanna had no way to know how much time had passed since the crash. She was starting to get worried. The transporters weren’t likely to be fixed anytime soon, and all the senior officers except Harry and Captain Janeway were now stranded in the western United States. It was unlikely that the captain would send an inexperienced crew on a rescue mission as long as their lifesigns were strong—they’d already taken too many chances of contaminating the timeline. Plus, she knew Voyager was still dealing with Starling and the whole timeship nightmare.

Still, part of her wondered why no one had come for them.

Chakotay had dozed off several times while they waited, and B’Elanna was worried that he might have internal injuries—if not from the crash then from the violent kick he’d taken from their lunatic captors. He seemed to be resting comfortably for now, and—even though she was desperate for his company—she decided to let him sleep.

She hated being trapped alone with nothing to do but think. The past year reminded her of a carnival ride she’d heard Tom mention once: a roller coaster. The way he’d described it, a coaster would climb to new heights, plunge to dizzying drops, and take enough twists and turns to make even Klingon stomachs queasy. Still, the year had redefined her and she found herself anxious to get out of this shed—out of this time—and back to her normal life.

‘Normal life,’ she laughed to herself. When had she ever led a normal life?

There was a time, though, not that long ago, when she’d actually started thinking about it. Her new position as Voyager’s chief engineer had given her a sense of purpose, a new cause to care about, and she’d gotten more confident and self-assured in the process. She had a warm bed to sleep in, and some new friends—people she really cared about and who cared about her. People she’d give just about anything to see at the moment.

She looked up at the door to the shed and pictured Tom walking though it. He’d be worried about her, ask her if she was hurt. The look in his eyes would tell her that he’d finally forgiven her for being such a jerk these past few months. When he saw that she was alright, he’d smile—that special just-for-her smile where his mouth grinned, but his eyes penetrated. They’d both decide then—even if they didn’t say it—that everything was alright again. That they would close the stupid distance that had opened between them.

Then he’d untie her hands, and she’d throw them around his neck and squeeze him until he couldn’t breathe.

Her daydreams were interrupted by the bang of the shed door as it opened. Unfortunately, the man who stepped inside wasn’t Tom Paris.

It was ‘Hat’, as she’d come to think of him, the man in the odd looking cap who seemed to be the leader of this—what had Chakotay called them?—separatist group. He was alone this time, still carrying a large rifle, but also a thermos of coffee.

Fearing that the man would kick her sleeping friend awake, B’Elanna leaned over and nudged Chakotay with her knees. He opened his eyes and she nodded toward the door.

She watched as Hat paced the floor on the other side of the room. He seemed to be even more anxious than when he had left. After a moment he moved toward them.

“There are two forces at work in the world. The drive toward collectivity and the drive toward individuality. You represent the former and I am the latter.”

B’Elanna noticed that he had basically cast her and Chakotay in the role of the Borg. “We told you, we are not from the United States government, and we are not…”

He cut her off. “The beast has many heads, and I am looking at two of them.” His diatribe was almost incoherent, and Torres wondered for a moment how anyone could be so full of rage at two people he didn’t know.

To his credit, Chakotay tried to engage the man in a rational discussion. “Look I used to believe that violence could be the solution to a problem, but it’s not true.”

“You’re no patriot,” Hat sneered.

“I was a freedom fighter—or so I thought,” he said a little sadly. “That gun will get you nowhere.” B’Elanna wondered in that moment if she and the other Maquis would have looked that paranoid and irrational had they captured Captain Janeway or one of her other Starfleet friends during one of their raids. She and Chakotay had been fighting for a cause they deeply believed in. No, their situation wasn’t the same. Still, seeing this man so caught up in his rage—lashing out at anything or anyone he feared—stopped her cold.

How much was she just like him, she wondered?

None of them had much of a chance to think about their conversation as four men burst through the door. It seemed that federal agents were on their way. What would happen now? Would they get caught in the crossfire between these radicals and the officials they feared? B’Elanna watched as the men unlocked a weapons closet and began arming themselves. This was going to get ugly very quickly. The best case scenario she could think of was that they’d end up in the hands of the United States government.

They could hear the federal marshals order the men to drop their weapons. Torres leaned over to Chakotay and whispered softly, “What are they going to do when they find a half-Klingon in here?” She was really scared now, for the first time since their capture.

Then she heard a strangely familiar voice. “Please stand aside, officer.” Thank the gods, it was Tuvok. She turned to look at Chakotay. Maybe they’d get out of this without being dissected after all.

She could hear the distinctive sounds of phaser fire and watched as her captors scrambled around madly. “It’s a black man and some bald guy,” Hat warned. They took up defensive positions in the corners of the basement.

When the door opened, B’Elanna couldn’t believe her eyes. It was Voyager’s Emergency Medical Hologram. Or a man who looked just like him. Suddenly the two agents opened fire, blasting huge holes in the wall behind the man at the top of the stairs—and instantly answering B’Elanna’s question. No human could have survived that barrage unharmed. It was definitely their Doctor.

“God in heaven, help us…” Hat murmured.

“Divine intervention is…unlikely,” the EMH said as he pulled a phaser and took out the two men. He was down the stairs in a moment, looking rather pleased with himself. “Tuvok’s at the shuttle,” the Doctor said as he untied her feet. “He’s starting repairs.”

Chakotay asked what she was wondering. “Doctor, how…”

“It’s a long story, Commander,” the physician said as he untied the first officer’s hands. “Suffice it to say I’m making a house call.”

They were freed in a matter of moments. B’Elanna noticed that Chakotay was walking with a slight limp, but she was relieved to see that her friend was mostly unharmed. As she started to head for the steps, she stopped for a moment at the prone body of ‘Butch,’ the man who tried to poke her forehead ridges. For a second, she considered spitting in his face. Instead, she remembered her own questions about her life as a Maquis and thought the better of it.

The man was full of hatred from his own inability to see another’s perspective on the circumstances of his life. She wouldn’t make the same mistake. Not anymore.

~~

They’d made the turn off the highway and were now on a narrow two-lane road in the middle of nowhere. The van was getting dangerously low on fuel, Tom noticed, and they were also without any real cover. Paris was glad for the excuse this new development gave him to check in with the ship—it had been just over seven hours since he watched Tuvok and the Doctor pull away on that bus, and he was anxious to see if Voyager had heard from the men.

“Paris to Janeway,” he said into the phone. Tom heard Harry’s voice announce him to the captain.

He explained their situation and was about to ask for instructions when Rain grabbed the phone. “Hi,” she said into the speaker, “my name is Rain Robinson—you don’t know me—but the point is, there is zero traffic on this road. They’re gonna know we’re following them.”

Tom smiled. Even though her observation would have been obvious to the captain, he admired how Rain was getting into their little mission. She was anticipating their next move with an instinct that suggested she’d make a great officer. He was also glad that the captain was gracious in her reply.

Janeway then told him that their scans showed a small landing field just ahead. This was good news—maybe their low-speed chase was winding down after all.

“Stay on top of him,” she instructed. “Our weapons are still offline, and Torres hasn’t finished repairing the shuttle.”

Tom almost sighed out loud. B’Elanna was alright.

He wanted to ask for details, but there was no time. “It might all be up to you,” the captain concluded.

Well, that was no pressure. “I’ll do my best,” he said confidently. “Paris out.”

Tom leaned his head back and closed his eyes for a second. He hadn’t realized until that moment how afraid he had been that something might have happened—not just to B’Elanna, but to Chakotay, too—out in the Arizona desert.

When he opened his eyes, Rain was looking at him. “Bad news or good news?” she asked.

He smiled. “Good news,” he said, grateful that she’d asked. “They’re okay.”

He saw her nod, but she didn’t say anything in reply. But Tom noticed that she was now lost in her own thoughts.

He also noticed the truck swerve and the driver lean out the window and take aim. “Watch out!” he yelled as he grabbed the wheel and cut it hard, narrowly avoiding the man’s phaser blast. The truck then made a hard left and Tom knew this was the time and the place. “Get in behind him,” he instructed Rain as he leaned out the window. He’d try to shoot out the truck’s tires, he reasoned. Make the driver slow down at least.

Robinson closed the distance, but she could only get so close. Tom pulled the trigger and watched as the rear port—damn! left—tire exploded in a hail of sparks. The truck skidded over the ridge and Rain slammed on the brakes to avoid rear-ending it. The move flooded her engine, however, and the van was stalled in the middle of the road.

Before Rain could start it again, Paris saw movement in his peripheral vision. He turned to see the huge truck barreling down on them. “Jump!” he screamed just moments before it would hit them. He and Rain bailed out of opposite doors and hit the sandy ground hard.

They were hardly far enough away to avoid the danger of the flying debris when Tom saw a familiar silhouette swooped down out of the cloudless sky. One sustained phaser blast later and the truck was a shower of small parts floating down around them.

The cavalry had arrived just in time.

“Chakotay to Paris,” he heard his communicator sound. “What’s your status?”

“We’re fine,” Tom answered, relieved for the assist. “Good shooting,” he said for B’Elanna’s benefit, guessing correctly that she’d been the one who’d fired on the truck. Unfortunately, she seemed to be preoccupied.

“Wasn’t there supposed to be a timeship in that truck?” he heard her ask.

One quick scan explained it: it was a trick. The truck was throwing off false tachyon readings and this entire godforsaken trip to the middle of nowhere had been one elaborate ruse to keep them from finding the real ship. Over the open com channel, Tom heard Janeway recall the shuttle and B’Elanna confirm that its transporters were working. It was time to go.

Even though Voyager’s mission was far from over, Tom knew this was the end of the line for Rain. She’d come too far with them, seen too much already, and they’d have to finish this little adventure without her.

He was surprised at how sorry he was to leave her, though. Not that he’d begun to return her feelings—if anything, he’d become more convinced that he’d been right to resist her advances. But she was still a remarkable young woman, and she’d given him a great gift: the chance to look at himself reflected in her eyes. And, for the first time in his adult life, he liked what he saw: a man who was dedicated to his mission, committed to his friends, and worried about more than just saving his own neck. It was more than that, though. She’d made him feel attractive, desirable—worthy of the love of a good woman. She’d boosted his confidence at a time when he’d really needed it, and he was flattered and grateful in ways he could never express in the few short seconds they had left.

Tom looked at her, this time seeing more than just a pale reflection of B’Elanna. He appreciated Rain for who she was: a pretty astronomer who hid her considerable intelligence behind a disarming sense of humor and a slightly twisted view of the world. He realized in that instant that—had she come into his life at a different time—he would have been more than just flattered at her attention. He would have been very, very interested.

“Your space ship’s waiting,” she said sadly, confirming that she really did know where he was about to go.

He took a long look at her before he answered. “I’ve never met anyone quite like you,” he said honestly. “And I don’t think I ever will.”

Rain smiled sadly. “Same here.” She looked into his eyes “Say hi to Saturn for me.”

Tom laughed for a moment then looked at her. “I will,” he said gently. He reached up and touched her face, suddenly wondering if he wasn’t being an unbelievable idiot. He had walked away from an incredible opportunity—an opportunity he’d been looking forward to for almost two whole years: to win the heart of a woman who could really appreciate him for who he was—for who he wanted to be.

He knew in that moment that he’d act on the impulse. If nothing else, it would be his own personal experiment to see if he’d just wasted two whole days pushing away a woman he could really have fallen for. He leaned over and kissed her gently, then let his thumb caress her cheek. Despite himself, he knew he would miss her. But he also knew there was one more thing he had to do before he’d know the answer to his question.

Tom watched Rain slowly dissolve in front of him as the transporter beam scattered his atoms and rematerialized them. When he could see again, he was in the cramped confines of the Cochrane’s aft compartment.

Paris pushed past the Doctor and made his way to the cockpit, barely acknowledging Chakotay or Tuvok. After all, he was in the middle of the most important research experiment of his life at the moment, and he needed to make one final test before he would have his results.

B’Elanna was preoccupied with the scanners, but seemed to sense that he was standing behind her. She pivoted the seat slightly and looked up at him. “Welcome back,” she said a little tentatively. She was covered in soot and looked like she’d been through hell. He’d never seem anything so beautiful in his life.

And he had his answer.

“Thanks,” he said, totally unable to suppress a wide grin.

She seemed to be relieved that he was so happy to see her and Tom noticed her begin to relax. “Nice shirt,” she said, rolling her eyes. “What are those, flowers?”

And in that moment, he knew he was home.

~*~*~*~*~

Tom had just finished his first shower in two days and was finally starting to feel like himself again. Well, maybe a new and improved version of himself.

They were back in the Delta Quadrant. Back to the exact place and time they’d been before Braxton and his stupid timeship had dragged them half way across the space/time continuum.

It turned out that Starling had actually succeeded in launching the timeship from its original location: the Chronowerx skyscraper. The man had gone so far as to open a temporal rift and start to make his way inside. But while Starling had a surprising grasp of 29th century technology, he’d vastly underestimated the 24th century’s own secret weapon: a determined Kathryn Janeway.

With their weapons systems still down, the captain had personally launched a photon torpedo into the side of the errant timeship—throwing the firing controls manually from inside the torpedo tube. Starling and his stolen vessel were vaporized almost instantly—and Janeway found herself with some pretty nasty burns on her face and hands. Her injuries didn’t stop her from making her way back to the bridge, Tom noticed, marveling at her strength of will.

Then, as they wondered how in the hell they were going to get home without the now destroyed timeship, it appeared again, almost out of nowhere.

Its pilot wasn’t Starling, however, but a once-again young (and once-again pissed off) Captain Braxton. Turns out he’d picked up Voyager’s signature on some kind of temporal scan and came to see why a 24th century vessel was sightseeing Earth in 1996, not even realizing the role he had played (would play?) in their whole ridiculous adventure.

But Braxton was glad to give them a lift home—though not all the way. His ‘Temporal Prime Directive’ prohibited him from using 29th century technology to get them back to the Earth of their own time. Instead, they’d have to pick up their mission where they’d left off: stranded in the middle of the Delta Quadrant.

(Of course, no one on Voyager mentioned the little portable mobile emitter the Doc had picked up during their travels, and—luckily for their EMH—Braxton didn’t know to ask…)

So they were home—sort of—and Tom was just as glad. He’d been given an incredible opportunity, he realized, to see a place in time he’d always dreamed of, and in the process had found out some important things about himself.

Finally, the last piece of the puzzle of his new life was falling into place. The ‘B’Elanna question’ was far from being answered, but he was finally able to see it in a new light. Yes, their friendship was still new and fraught with problems. Yes, she would probably keep letting him get close only to push him away. But Tom knew now that he wasn’t quite ready to give up on her.

Besides, the painfully slow pace might be good for him, too. Rain had pushed him to question some things about his own feelings. Was he in love with B’Elanna? Tom knew he should be sure of the answer to that question before he let things go too far. If she was going to trust his feelings for her, he’d have to be very clear with himself about exactly what they were.

And he planned to begin Phase Two of his little experiment tonight. The captain was throwing a little ‘welcome home’ party for the senior staff, and Paris knew now that he would let B’Elanna know that—from his perspective—their little cold war was over. And he would begin to test a few theories about her interest and his own.

He moved to his wardrobe and pulled out a clean uniform—wondering once again why he seemed to be missing a jacket—and got himself ready to go. Before he left for the party, though, there was something he wanted to do.

He walked over to his desk and flipped on the monitor. “Computer,” he said, “scan all Starfleet and Federation databanks. Look for references to the name ‘Rain Robinson’ and display results to this station.” The nearly-instantaneous beep told him that his search was complete.

He was surprised at what he saw. Aside from the normal governmental listings like driving records and car registration, her name appeared more than four hundred times in feature articles relating to the entertainment industry. He searched through a few magazine stories and quickly discovered why.

Sometime in the year 1997, Rain had apparently sold a screenplay to a major Hollywood studio about a group of spies from the future who had come to Earth on a secret mission to save history. While it bombed at the box office, it had become a cult classic, and Robinson had gone on to a modestly successful career as a science fiction writer. The thought that maybe their adventure together had been the inspiration for her film made Tom smile.

He scanned a few pages down and came across another story. This one was from the Hollywood Reporter and Tom almost laughed out loud as he read it. It was an article about a young screenwriter and her impending marriage to an actor who played the lead role in a script she had written. It seems that they met and fell in love on the set of the cult television show she had helped to create, a space opera about a group of adventurers from the future who traveled the stars making contact with new species and solving intergalactic mysteries. He couldn’t help but notice the name of the character Rain’s actor husband played on the series: Tom Paris.

As for the ‘real thing,’ he was very happy for her. The knowledge that Rain had found love and happiness with her own Tom Paris was actually kind of reassuring to him, and reinforced his own feelings that he’d made the right decisions—for her and for himself. After all, they were too much alike to make a good couple, Tom realized—for the first time thinking that his friend from the past was at least as much like him as she had been like B’Elanna.

That’s when it struck him. If he and B’Elanna ever had a daughter, she’d probably be just like Rain: beautiful and smart like her mother, with a twisted sense of humor and an appreciation for the inane like her father.

Of course the second thing that struck him was the ridiculousness of the very idea that he and B’Elanna might ever have a child together. ‘One step at a time,’ he laughed to himself. ‘You have to get her to go out with you first.’

Still, this afternoon he’d found himself kissing a young woman who had come to symbolize everything he’d wanted in his life right now. Instead of the fantasy, however, he knew that he wanted the real thing. And, for the first time in weeks, he decided it might be worth taking a few risks to get.

Tom turned off his computer, took a quick look in the mirror, then headed for the mess hall, smiling all the way there. Maybe it was about time he took Rain’s cue and wrote his own happy ending. Tonight, at least, he was determined to try.

~~

B’Elanna was nervous. She’d been through quite an ordeal, though, and was determined to relax and celebrate their victory in saving the timeline and getting home safely. And she was determined to do something else, too. Tonight, she’d make Tom talk to her and fix the damage she’d done to their friendship. She wouldn’t take no for an answer.

The mess hall was almost deserted. B’Elanna was early, she knew, as she walked over to the viewport and gazed out at the stars of the Delta Quadrant. Not as breathtaking as the Baja Peninsula maybe, but right now they looked beautiful to her. She sat down on the couch and enjoyed the strange feeling of being glad to be exactly where she was: stranded on a patched-together ship in the middle of nowhere with a job she loved and people who cared about her. This was as good as her life had ever been, she realized, feeling a little silly at how she’d almost started to take it all for granted.

She’d almost taken Tom for granted, too, she knew. It wasn’t until he was stranded on Earth—with another woman—that B’Elanna understood how fragile her entire world had become. But instead of reinforcing her fears, her realization had made her determined not to lose what she’d gained these past two years. Including a childish, silly, boy of a man who made her heart flutter every time she saw him.

But she had to be careful, she knew. She was still unsure of how much she would ever be able to share of herself, and she was determined not to lead Tom on again—at least not until she was sure where she wanted all of this to go. But she’d fix their friendship. And she’d try to be open to the possibilities of something more.

B’Elanna heard the doors from the starboard corridor swish open and watched as Captain Janeway and Chakotay walked in together. The captain was in the middle of some long and drawn out story about the Doctor’s treatment of her injuries—apparently the EMH spent as much time planning for his newfound freedom as he did tending to his patient. The captain seemed more entertained than annoyed, B’Elanna realized, since her story was full of broad hand gestures and laughter.

She couldn’t help but notice that Chakotay was hanging onto Janeway’s every word. Despite the bittersweet nature of their conversation on the planet, her friend was clearly happy—and more than a little smitten. She wondered, as she watched the two of them lost in each others’ company, if the captain would ever get the courage to say to hell with Starfleet regulations and admit her feelings for her first officer. Life was too short to waste any of it afraid of what some bureaucrat would say about who you chose to love.

It hit B’Elanna then: life was too short to spend any moment running away from your feelings, from someone who made you happy. It was a lesson she would try very, very hard to remember herself.

~~

Tom gathered his courage as he walked into the mess hall. It only took him a moment to find her—sitting alone by the viewport. B’Elanna was looking out at the stars in exactly the same spot where they’d made their promise to stay friends a short eight weeks earlier—the night he and Harry had been rescued from the Akritirian prison.

Grabbing a glass of champagne (and downing it quickly to boost his nerve), Tom decided it was time to get the answer to a question that had been nagging at him for weeks. He walked over to B’Elanna before he could talk himself out of it.

“Mind if I join you?” he asked casually.

Maybe the champagne had gotten to her, too, but B’Elanna’s smile was inviting and warmer than he’d seen in a long while. “Nope. I’d like that,” she said.

Of course, now that he was there, he wasn’t sure he could go through with it. Luckily, she distracted him before he could totally talk himself out of the idea.

“So, did you enjoy your little vacation?” she asked. “I understand that you spent the night with a woman you met down there.” She was toying with him, Paris knew.

“Well, I hate to be the one to ruin my own reputation, but let’s just say having Tuvok for a chaperone can really cramp my style. Besides, she was old enough to be my great-great-great-great-great-grandmother.” He couldn’t resist teasing her, though. “Too bad, too. She was a great girl.” He could give as well as he got.

“So, then, she was your type?” B’Elanna teased him.

“Oh, yeah, she was definitely my type: smart, short, dark hair, beautiful brown eyes. And she seemed to get some big thrill out of insulting me. You know how I can’t resist that.” He was actively flirting with her again for the first time in weeks. And, strangely enough, this time, she didn’t dismiss him out of hand.

In fact, she had an evil twinkle in her eye. “Well, now I know the key to your heart: insult you. I’ll have to keep that in mind.” Okay, Tom thought to himself, it had to be the champagne.

Still, she had given him an opportunity and he intended to take it.

~~

Torres was enjoying her little conversation with Tom. She’d seen the embarrassment on his face during the senior staff briefing that evening, and could tell almost immediately that there was more to his two days with that Robinson woman than he was letting on. Something had happened during his visit to Earth. And B’Elanna wasn’t sure she really wanted the details. Still, it was fun to make him squirm.

She was trying to think of a way to probe for more information when Tom suddenly changed the subject.

“B’Elanna, can I ask you something?” She was hesitant to agree until she knew the question.

“Um, sure.” She could feel herself go to yellow-alert, but tried to stay calm.

“A few weeks ago when we were on that survey mission in the Cochrane, before we were injured, you said—you implied—that you weren’t really interested in Freddie Bristow.” Her eyes opened wide; she had no idea where this conversation was suddenly going.

“Yeah, so…?” Was he about to make fun of her stupid accidental dates with that little twerp? B’Elanna wondered for a moment if Tom was once again angling to fix her up with that child.

Maybe that wasn’t it. His eyes weren’t twinkling in that way she knew signaled a normal ritual humiliation. Instead, he looked nervous, like he was trying to get the courage to say something. She decided to wait to see where this went.

Tom was practically stuttering. “Well, uh, did I miss something? You weren’t dating Bristow?”

Well, there was a choice to be made about how to answer this question. Clearly Paris knew about the two times she’d ‘seen’ the ensign; she’d run smack into Tom when she left Bristow’s holodeck dinner, and Paris had teased her about the game of Parisses Squares while they were in the shuttle. Her own internal denial that those had actually been ‘dates’ probably wouldn’t wash here.

“I went out with him one time. By accident. Then he tricked me into playing Parisses Squares. But we only played once, and—considering the bruising I gave him—I’m pretty sure he’s not looking for a rematch.”

She turned to look at Paris as the next thought occurred to her. “Tom, what is all this about?”

He looked confused. “Then who have you been seeing the past few weeks?”

Well, this was a question she couldn’t answer truthfully, since she’d have to explain that—with the exception of a brief interlude with an Enaran implanted memory—she’d actually been seeing him. If only in her dreams. She’d stick to evasion, she decided.

“What makes you think I’ve been seeing someone?”

~~

Tom was starting to question his sanity. Hadn’t he seen her with Freddie? Or maybe there was someone else. This was all too confusing. “That night after Harry and I were rescued from the prison ship, you and I were sitting right here, and you said that even though you were dating someone, you still wanted us to be friends. Who were you talking about?”

B’Elanna suddenly looked like he’d shot her with a phaser, and Tom was unprepared for the name she blurted out.

“Megan Delaney.”

Now Tom’s eyes were wide. “You were dating Megan Delaney?!”

He watched B’Elanna shake off the idea. “No, you idiot. You were dating Megan Delaney!”

Tom had once seen an old recording of a pair of comics called Abbott and Costello. In their most famous routine, one of the men asked the other questions about a fictional baseball team. The humor of the piece came from an ongoing misunderstanding about the names of the players at each position. As Tom took a moment to process what he’d just heard, he had a new and deeper appreciation for the confusion that had set up that classic bit.

“B’Elanna, I never dated Megan Delaney. I went out with her one time almost two years ago. Why in the world would you think that I…?”

She seemed to be caught off guard. “Well, I just assumed that…I mean, she’d been practically throwing herself at you for weeks before the…and then I heard you in sickbay, and…”

“Whoa, what are you talking about?!” He was anxious for at least one complete sentence to help him figure out where she’d gotten such a ridiculous idea.

B’Elanna took a deep breath. “After the captain rescued you from that prison, you were hurt, and then you were sleeping in sickbay and I…well, you thought I was Harry and you told me you had been dreaming about Megan Delaney. And, well, you had this smile on your face, like…”

Tom was laughing, mentally smacking himself on the forehead at the same time. “B’Elanna, I wasn’t dreaming about Megan Delaney.” He just looked at her. There was no way he could tell her the truth: that Megan had been a code he’d used with Harry every time Tom started to fantasize about B’Elanna herself. He couldn’t explain it, and he knew she’d never believe it if he did. “You’re just going to have to trust me: I haven’t been with anyone else. I haven’t wanted to be with anyone else.”

Oops. He’d said ‘else,’ implying—quite accurately—that he’d wanted to be with her. He waited to see if she noticed, but the implications of his comment seemed to go sailing past her.

She was staring at him, her brow was furrowed, and she looked as if she were trying to solve pi to the last digit. “You haven’t been dating Megan Delaney.” She said it as if it were a fact. And it was.

“And you haven’t been dating Freddie Bristow.” They sat there silently for a few minutes.

“Oh,” she said softly.

Tom looked at her for a moment, then started to smile. “B’Elanna, what are you doing tomorrow night?”

She looked at him a little warily. “Nothing that I know of. Why?”

Tom thought of something Rain had said to him earlier in the day. “I just thought maybe we could hang together for a while.”

“Hang?” she asked, confused—as he knew she would be.

“Hang out, spend time together. You know. Go places, do things. Together.”

She was smiling. “I suppose. Do you have something in mind?”

“Oh, yeah,” he said more intensely than he’d intended. “I’ve had something in mind for a long while now…”

They were interrupted by the clinking of a spoon on stemware. The captain had Neelix distribute champagne and gather the senior officers together in the middle of the room. “Hold that thought,” Tom said wryly, as he took her hand to pull her off the couch. She looked at him, wondering what he would have said if the captain hadn’t interrupted.

As they walked to join the others, B’Elanna noticed that Tom was smiling—broadly. Then she realized that she was, too. She looked into his eyes one more time before she turned to face Janeway.

“Well,” the captain said, “we made it to Earth, just a little bit off the mark. But if we did it once, we can do it again.” She looked around at her crew. “To Ensign Kim. While your first command had its bumpy moments, you made exactly the right choices at exactly the right time. A sign of what’s yet to come for you, no doubt.” Harry was blushing and grinning from ear to ear as his captain continued.

“To Lieutenant Torres and her crew for putting the whole mess back together in record time. And to our prodigal sons: Lieutenants Tuvok and Paris. We hope you enjoyed your little walk through history. You two make a great team. Good work, gentlemen.”

The staff started to raise their glasses to drink, but Janeway interjected one more thing. “You know, tempting as it might have been to some of us, we can’t live in the past. And thank goodness we don’t have to.” She raised her glass to her crew. “To the future,” she said confidently.

Tom turned to look at B’Elanna. She was smiling up at him with a look in her eyes he’d thought he might never see again. He knew for sure then, that—in the span of forty-eight hours—everything had changed between them once again. Everything once again seemed possible.

“Here, here,” he said softly to her.

‘To the future.’

~*~*~*~*~

End “Ranks and Rationalizations”

~*~*~*~*~

To Be Continued… Next up: “Warlord,” “Macrocosm,” “Fair Trade,” and “Alter Ego”
(P/Ters, start your engines…)

CREDITS:
“Future’s End” was written by Brannon Braga and Joe Menosky

Navigation

Next Page >> DOTS#9: Vulcans & Other Strangers, Part 1

Comments

Leave a Response