DOTS#9: Vulcans & Other Strangers, Part 1

RATING

R

SUMMARY

Another in my ongoing series of “Connect the P/T Dots” stories, immediately following “Future’s End.” They’re ready. They’re willing. They’re…on separate shifts, flirting with photons, attacked by giant viruses, Tom’s arrested for murder, and they’re silently sabotaged by a Vulcan with a hidden agenda. Fasten your seatbelts—this could be a bumpy ride.

TIMELINE & SPOILERS

“Warlord,” “The Q and the Grey,” “Macrocosm,” and “Fair Trade”

CODES

P/T, with guest appearances from everyone from Q to a big pointy virus (and no, I wasn’t talking about Vorik!)

DISCLAIMER

Hold on, we’re going episode hopping! But if you want to know the full story of these adventures, you’re going to have to watch the shows themselves or read Jim Wright’s excellent reviews (click on the episode name in the list above for a link to his review of that show). This is not, after all, “Connect the Voyager Dots.”

Complete writing credits for the above episodes are listed at the end of this story. Suffice it to say, I didn’t write any of them and Paramount owns all things Star Trek. But they don’t own the stuff I’ve written to connect their puny little ‘dots.’ That’s all mine.

NOTE

Let me just say that I love Vorik. If there were no Vorik, there’d be no “Blood Fever.” If there were no “Blood Fever,” there’d probably be no P/T. (And I would have about 200 hours of my life to live over differently.) So here’s to my favorite Vulcan and the actor who played him to perfection, Alexander Enberg. As Vulcans go, he rocks.

Text Download: CTDvulcans1


Personal log, Ensign Vorik. Stardate 50317.8:

I am making this recording at the suggestion of Lieutenant Tuvok, who has pointed out that a recounting of the events of my day may prove to be a good mental exercise. He also suggested that I use this log as mechanism to reflect on my interactions with my crewmates in an attempt to increase my level of comfort in socializing with the others aboard Voyager. While I fail to see the relevance of these recorded ruminations to my work performance, the Lieutenant is both my senior officer and a Vulcan elder, so I shall attempt to comply with his wishes.

To that end, I make the following observations:

This morning, while in the turbolift on the way to my station, Ensign Ashmore attempted to engage me in conversation. I am aware that such nonsensical interactions are common among humans, and can assist in identifying shared interests among those who are not well acquainted. I found the Ensign and his obsession with a sport known as Velocity quite tedious, however, and have determined that I have no desire to get to know him further.

At 0815 hours, I observed Lieutenant Nicoletti arrive late to her station with her hair in a state of disarray, and a coffee stain on her left sleeve. As I distinctly recall that same stain on the uniform she wore yesterday, I can only assume that the lieutenant employs extremely poor personal grooming habits.

Oddly, I do not believe Lieutenant Torres was aware of Lieutenant Nicoletti’s tardiness. Though I understand they are common in other departments, such lapses of protocol are rarely tolerated in Main Engineering. However, when I suggested to Lieutenant Carey that he point out the infraction to Lieutenant Torres, he made an unintelligible comment about her having worked all night, then turned away from me–clearly with no intention of sharing my observations.

For some reason, Lieutenant Torres then spent the entire shift alone on the upper engineering deck, never once stopping to check on our progress in repairing the secondary power relays. I happened to notice, quite by accident, that she was working in the personal database of Lieutenant Paris. While this is a highly unusual way for the chief engineer to spend her workday, her rank affords her a certain amount of discretion in these matters. Since I know Lieutenant Torres to be an extremely efficient chief engineer, I can only assume that there was some official nature to her task, though that is only speculation on my part.

[End recording.]

~~*~~

“That program has been deleted.”

Tom couldn’t believe what the computer was telling him. All of his holoprograms: gone.

“I’m sorry,” B’Elanna said apologetically. “I ripped apart the databanks, but Starling’s downlink had a tapeworm virus built into it. It recursively searched for backup copies of everything he took and then deleted them.”

Tom’s head sank to rest on his arms, which were gripping the control panel in the holoimaging lab. When he looked up again, he just shook his head. Lake Como and his sailboat. The clipper ship at Cape May. Three different customized shuttle simulations. His new rock climbing program. The original, private version of Sandrine’s—and ten others in various states of completion. They were all gone. “What else did he get?” Paris asked, not really caring.

“Nicoletti’s personal logs, a few dozen engineering diagnostics, the maintenance schematics for the replicators, Neelix’s recipe for pleeka goulash…”

“Um, actually,” Tom interjected. “I deleted that one.” Paris was despondent. “You’re sure you can’t retrieve them?” he asked sadly.

B’Elanna just sighed. “I spent the entire night and most of this morning working on it. I’m sorry; they’re gone.” Her large brown eyes were now little more than slits, and Tom realized she wasn’t exaggerating about having been up all night.

“No, I’m sorry,” he reassured her. “What are you gonna do without those diagnostics?”

B’Elanna shook her head as she finished what Tom thought might be a world-record yawn. “Oh, I have copies of the diagnostics and all the critical systems files. We keep backups offline in case the computer core dumps. It’s the personal files that are gone for good.”

He looked at her for a moment, only then realizing the implication of what she was saying. “So you were up all night trying to get back…?”

She was blushing, as she interrupted him. “Well, uh, Nicoletti lost two years worth of personal logs…”

Somehow, Tom knew that her hours of effort had been for his benefit, not Nicoletti’s. “Thanks,” he said, saving her the embarrassment of admitting it. “I mean it. I know you did what you could.”

B’Elanna looked up at him and smiled. “You’re welcome,” she said sincerely.

They were interrupted by the opening of the lab doors and a very cheerful Harry Kim. “So, are we going climbing or what?” he said, oblivious to his friend’s lost programs and the effort that had gone into trying to retrieve them.

Tom didn’t feel like explaining. “No, Harry, I changed my mind. It’s late and B’Elanna’s tired so maybe another night.” He shot her a look that said she should let it go at that. “How about Sandrine’s? We could give it one final send-off before Neelix opens his new place.” Tom was desperately trying to salvage some of their evening together.

“I can’t,” B’Elanna said sadly. “I have crew evaluations first thing tomorrow morning, and I have got to get some sleep.”

Tom was more than a little disappointed. His time with B’Elanna at the welcome home party the night before had been cut short, first by an engineering crisis left over from their trip through the temporal rift, then by Torres’s discovery of Starling’s little prank. Now she was leaving before their night together had even begun.

“I have to go,” she said, barely able to keep her eyes open. “I’m really sorry.”

She was halfway to the door before Tom realized that they had no firm plans to see each other again. Somehow, his mission to get B’Elanna back in his life was suddenly going nowhere fast.

“Wait,” he called as he ran to catch up with her. “I was hoping we could have dinner at least. I mean, you have to eat, right?”

She just shook her head. “I can’t,” she said in a tone that made him believe her. “I’d really like to, but I need to get some sleep.”

After she had stayed up the whole night trying to retrieve his deleted holoprograms, Tom couldn’t very well complain that she was bailing on their plans. Still, they’d made some real progress at last night’s party, and he didn’t want too much time to pass before they solidified their repaired friendship. Besides, he had plans. Plans that he’d waited long enough to put into place. “Sure. I understand,” he said sincerely. “So, dinner tomorrow night, okay?”

B’Elanna was yawning again, and Tom had to wait to hear why she was shaking her head. “I guess you haven’t seen the duty roster,” she finally managed to say. “You and Harry start your beta shift rotation tomorrow.”

Tom couldn’t believe he’d forgotten. He normally looked forward to this month: he could sleep in if he wanted, play all morning, then end his day with the 1600 to midnight shift. But the timing couldn’t have been worse. For the next four weeks, during the hours of eight to midnight, either he or B’Elanna would be on duty. And, while the hours between midnight and 0800 were wide open, the two were hardly at the late-night dating stage. Hell, they weren’t at the any time dating stage.

“Well, then,” Tom said, trying not to sound disappointed, “Maybe lunch?”

B’Elanna smiled. “Sure. Goodnight.”

Paris watched the lab doors close, knowing any chance he had for a true fresh start with her would be delayed for at least a month. He tried not to let it get to him. After all, they were going to be trapped together on this ship for the rest of their lives, in all likelihood. He’d just have to distract himself and seize the right opportunity when it finally came. If it finally came. Besides, he was starting to see a dim light at the end of the dark tunnel of their relationship. The hope it brought gave him patience he normally didn’t have.

“So,” Harry said, snapping Tom back into the moment, “since it’s just you and me, do you care if we skip Sandrine’s? I was kind of looking forward to a workout.”

Well, there was nothing better to do—unfortunately. “Sure,” Tom said. “What do you have in mind?”

The look on Harry’s face turned almost mischievous. “How about a few games of beach volleyball?” he asked. “I started customizing a program I found in the fitness database and I could use some practice against a real player.”

“Sure,” Paris said gamely, not sure what his friend suddenly found so fascinating about hitting a ball across a net. But he had some pent-up energy to expend, and volleyball was the best offer he was likely to get anytime soon. “You’re on,” he said as they headed down the corridor to the holodeck.

As they walked, Tom couldn’t help but feel disappointed at the loss of his own holoprograms. But, in a strange way, having Starling delete them had kicked a kind of emotional crutch out from under him. There’d be no more hiding out on the sailboat, no more solitary climbs up the face of a steep cliff, no more avoiding the people and issues that had come to occupy his thoughts lately. He’d have to face the questions about his future head-on now. And, for the first time in his adult life, Tom Paris felt ready.

~~

B’Elanna stumbled into her quarters and resisted the temptation to drop face-first and fully clothed onto her bed. She had walked half the way back to her cabin with just one eye open—barely dodging the crewmen and bulkheads in her path—but she knew she’d regret not changing out of her ripe, two-day-old uniform before crawling under the covers.

She’d gone longer than this without sleep many times, but her marathon mission to recover the data Starling stole had come right after a string of restless nights. For the past few weeks, she’d been too preoccupied to sleep, brooding about the sorry state of her friendship with Tom Paris. Then, forty-eight hours ago, she’d tossed and turned waiting for news when Tom spent the night stranded on Earth with Tuvok and that…that…astronomer woman. And—while last night’s welcome home party had gone a long way to repair the massive misunderstand she and Paris seemed to have had with each other—it had been cut short by a call from Joe Carey with an update on the missing datafiles.

B’Elanna knew she’d have a limited window of time to try and recover the files from the computer core before they were lost for good, so the rest of her night and most of this day had been spent trying to piece together any fragments or stray data packets she could find. It had proved to be a colossal waste of time.

Now here it was 1930 hours and she was totally beat. And missing the chance she’d waited so long for—to spend time mending fences with Tom. But she didn’t have a choice. She was two blinks away from unconscious.

B’Elanna walked to her dresser, peeling off her dirty uniform as she went, not caring where the pieces fell. Only after her jacket hit the floor did she realize that she’d forgotten to remove her commbadge. Deciding that she did care and did need to retrieve it, she bent over and reached down…only to let gravity convince her that the floor was almost as comfortable as her bed. ‘I’ll just lay here for a minute,’ she thought to herself as her arms crossed into a makeshift pillow…

…three hours later, a dull ache under her right shoulder poked B’Elanna out of a sound sleep. Reaching up, she felt for the cause of her discomfort—only to find her left boot wedged in her armpit, the heel having dug a crater in her skin where she’d collapsed onto it.

With more than a little frustration at having woken up so soon and in such a position, Torres wrestled the boot out from under her arm and hurled it across the floor—deciding at the last moment that she’d better watch to see where it landed. Then she saw them…

…next to her boot, wedged between her couch and the wall: a pair of beady little eyes. After the second-long impulse to jump out of her skin, B’Elanna rolled onto her back and laughed. Finally, she made herself crawl over to the nasty looking creature and his secret hiding place.

“There you are, you little monster!” she said as she snatched the matted ball of fur into her hand. “I’ve been looking for you everywhere!”

B’Elanna rolled over and sat up with her back against her couch as she pulled the stuffed toy onto her lap. Well worn and showing signs of the abuse she’d occasionally doled out, the targ stared blankly back at her. Torres decided to imagine that he forgave her for exiling him under a corner of her couch, since she now remembered the fit of anger that had caused her first to mangle then hurl him there from across the room.

That night—one of many in recent weeks when Tom had rebuffed her attempts to have a real conversation with him—she’d come home to find Paris’s little gift sitting in his customary spot next to her computer display. She’d been angry and frustrated, and didn’t want any reminder of the dozens of chances she’d wasted with the pilot—including an early impulse she’d had as she walked along a carnival midway with a man she’d once hated who had only recently become her friend.

Just the memory of it made her smile, though, as another thought occurred to her. Something she’d totally forgotten until now.

“Computer,” she said as she climbed off the floor and walked to her desk. “Access my personal archive and display all files saved between Stardate 49380 and 49550.” It only took the computer a second to comply and the results were staring right back at her.

‘Thank you,’ she thought to herself. It was still there.

The idea now firmly planted in her brain, B’Elanna grabbed the tattered targ from the desk and planted a big kiss on his fanged mouth. “Come on,” she said as she tucked him under her arm and headed—finally—to her bed. “This can wait until tomorrow.”

~*~*~*~*~

Personal log, Ensign Vorik. Stardate 50347.8:

I have been on the alpha shift for almost two weeks now, and am learning a great deal about the different expectations two equally competent officers can have of those who report to them. While my experiences with Mister Carey were quite positive, I found the beta shift to lack a certain sense of discipline and order. Whenever I would make an observation about his lax standards, the Lieutenant would tell me to “relax” or “lighten up,” occasionally suggesting that he and I “throw back a cold one” together, yet never really addressing my concerns.

Lieutenant Torres, however, demands a certain level of precision from the engineers on her shift. One is expected to report for duty on time and properly prepared. I have also come to prefer her direct interpersonal style, though it does seem that she occasionally has some difficulty in controlling her temper. (Possibly the result of the inherent conflict between her Klingon and human natures.)

When I inquired to Lieutenant Carey about remaining on the alpha shift on a permanent basis, he suggested that I curry favor with the Chief by volunteering to lend a hand with less pressing tasks in my spare time. Therefore, yesterday evening I approached Lieutenant Torres about an extracurricular assignment. I was surprised when she suggested that I assist Mister Neelix with a power transfer to the hologrid.

Ironically, while I excelled at advanced holoprogramming at Starfleet Academy, and have participated in the creation of several holographic battle and piloting simulations, I have never really understood the human compulsion to create artificial environments for the purposes of amusement. Yet I suppose the sort of isolation the more emotional members of our crew feel here in the Delta Quadrant makes such distractions comforting in some way. And I have accompanied Mister Carey and Mister Ayala to Chez Sandrine’s on a few occasions.

Nevertheless, that was the Lieutenant’s assignment, so I did as I was told. She did seem to appreciate the effort I showed.

[End recording.]

~~*~~

Twelve days into their beta shift rotation, and Tom was climbing walls again—though not on the holodeck. The ship was passing through an unspectacular region of space, he’d seen B’Elanna a grand total of twenty minutes in the last six days, and his recent boredom at the helm was turning into an obsessive desire to be just about anywhere else.

He and Harry had been spending their off-duty hours playing volleyball (his best friend’s latest obsession) and helping Neelix put the finishing touches on his new public holoprogram, but Paris’s heart wasn’t in either activity. He had plans of his own—big plans for him and B’Elanna—and the random nature of the duty roster was all that was standing in his way. He considered asking Chakotay to reassign him, but had second thoughts. The reasons he could come up with would all sound as phony as they were, and Tom suspected that the first officer would be the last person to take pity on his desire to spend more time with Voyager’s chief engineer.

So he and Kim were in for the duration: eighteen more days. And, truth be told, this rotation had its moments: while all of their friends were on duty, he and Harry were about to be the first witnesses to the grand unveiling of Neelix’s resort, a new public holoprogram where the crew could relax and unwind. Rumor was that it would leave Sandrine’s in the dust—which was just fine with Tom. As he waited for Harry to meet him on Deck 6, Paris tried his best to work up some enthusiasm.

And, when he finally walked with Kim into Holdeck 1, he had to admit there was a lot to like. As Neelix described it, the program was a meticulous recreation of the Paxau Resort, an exclusive lakeside villa from Talax’s heyday. The entrance from the corridor led to a large stone palazzo covered in cushioned lounge chairs perfect for soaking up the warm—if simulated—sunshine. Just past the lounge was a slightly more formal terrace clearly designed for parties and dotted with clusters of intimate tables, mostly for two. The veranda opened onto a golden, sandy beach abutting a large, crystal blue lake. There was even a small sailboat, Tom noticed, tied up at a dock along the shore. It was small—and nowhere near as nice as the ‘Bellissima’ had been—but he made a mental note to check it out at some point.

The shoreline was dotted with elegant iron benches, the occasional bamboo hut, and what was clearly a swimming beach. It looked, Tom thought, like one of the places in the Virgin Islands his parents had taken him on one of their well-intentioned family vacations: beautiful and elegant…but a little sterile.

As Neelix enjoyed a footrub from their Talaxian hostess, he basically confirmed Tom’s observations. “The Paxau Resort was the place to go on Talax for serious relaxation and some, um, personal pampering. It was very exclusive. You had to be rich and privileged—or know someone rich and privileged who owed you a favor…”

Clearly Neelix was speaking from personal experience. His friend’s comments made Tom wonder exactly who the rich friend had been, and how the person had come to be in Neelix’s debt. The thought reminded Paris of something he and the Talaxian had in common: colorful and questionable pasts. He smiled at the thought, happy for Neelix—and for himself—that their days of living by their wits alone were behind them.

“I’d say if anyone deserves and needs a little pampering, it’s this crew,” his host continued. “Don’t you feel as though all your cares are just light years away?”

“Yeah,” Harry answered, his voice barely concealing his ambivalence. “It’s…nice.”

Neelix looked at them and seemed to sense what the men were both clearly feeling: the resort was fine, but not quite right. “I’m certainly open to any suggestions for perfecting the program,” he said, sounding only a little defensive.

Tom struggled for a way to be helpful without sounding critical. “Maybe it could use a little more…fun.”

“Loosen it up,” Harry chimed in, clearly trying to help.

“Yeah, right.” Tom continued, as he moved to the bar. The waiter, a tall alien dressed completely in black, glared back at him. “Like this guy: he’s so…formal. Computer, give the waiter a more casual look.” Instantly, the black funeral attire was replaced by a colorful overshirt and baggy cotton clamdiggers. “And have him serve Rekkari Starbursts all around.” Paris watched as the small glasses on the waiter’s tray turned into the distinctive oversized stemware of his favorite tropical drink. “Now, what we need around here are some more people.”

Harry seemed happy to oblige. “Computer, add characters from Kim’s Sport Program Theta 2.”

It took only a second for three voluptuous women—two blondes and a redhead in various states of undress—to appear on the deck before them. Technically, Tom noted, their clothing could be considered workout attire, however he wondered what kind of athletic competition called for high-heeled sandals as its regulation footwear. “What sport would that be, exactly?” he asked his friend.

“Volleyball.” Ah, ha. That explained Harry’s recent obsession. And his newfound good mood. But Tom had to stop and wonder why these three characters had been missing whenever the two men had played together. “They’re a championship team,” Kim explained. “Gold Medal winners in 2216.”

“No wonder your game’s improved,” Paris said, realizing that his friend must have been sneaking in some practice sessions with these very fit—and distracting—players. Tom was also happy to see that Harry had continued the process of building a new life without his long-lost love, Libby.

“You know,” Kim was clearly getting into the spirit of things, “this would be even better with more upbeat music.”

Tom nodded. “Computer, access the cultural database and create musicians from…Earth’s Caribbean region.” With that, a steel drum band appeared on the terrace, and the resort was filled with the festive sounds of the islands. “Now, this is relaxing!” Tom said, only then checking to see if Neelix approved of the changes he and Harry had made.

For a moment, Paris couldn’t tell if his host was pleased or angry at the additions to his carefully crafted program. But it only took a second for a wide smile to cross Neelix’s face. “More drinks for everyone!” he yelled to the bartender. “And bring out some spicy Paraka wings. You can’t have a party without food!”

Suddenly this boring day had begun to show some promise, Tom thought. He followed Neelix, Harry, and the three volleyball babes as they made their way toward the band.

Their fun was quickly interrupted, however, by Captain Janeway’s voice over the com. ‘All senior officers report to the bridge.’

Tom and Harry exchanged frustrated glances. “Great program, Neelix,” Kim said sadly. Paris suspected his best friend had been looking for an excuse to do more than just play volleyball with his Gold Medal team. And, truth be told, Tom didn’t see the harm in having a few Paraka wings with a beautiful holographic woman. Or three. But perhaps another time.

“Save it for us, will ya?” he called out to Neelix, feeling only slightly guilty at the interest he was taking in Harry’s photonic friends.

But duty called. Too bad, too. Things were just starting to get interesting…

~~

A chief engineer belonged in the engine room. At least that’s how B’Elanna was feeling this morning as she tried to stave off her boredom. With Tuvok, Harry and Tom on the beta shift, the captain had asked Torres to take her bridge duty station several days each week, and she’d spent her morning running diagnostics on the ship’s systems to keep herself busy. But she was getting bored with the exercise, and had actually resorted to mentally reorganizing the furniture in her quarters just to pass the time.

B’Elanna hadn’t felt this restless in a long while. When she first came aboard Voyager, she’d looked at a bridge shift as a good way to learn Captain Janeway’s style, to scope out the other senior officers, and to get a sense of what would be expected in her new role as chief engineer. Lately, she’d found herself using these shifts to plan out her staff’s duty assignments, work with Harry on engineering tactical drills, or to sneak a look Tom as he worked the conn—waiting to catch his eye, anticipating the inevitable smile. Today, however, her staff was occupied, her friends were off duty, and there was simply nothing interesting to do.

So, when the proximity sensor alarm sounded, it almost startled her out of her chair.

“Captain,” she heard Ashmore say, “I’m receiving an automated distress call.”

Sensors had detected a passenger vessel less than two parsecs ahead. It was burning, and venting its atmosphere.

“Mister Baytart,” the captain barked, “alter course to intercept. Ensign Lang, notify sickbay to expect casualties. All senior officers report to the bridge.”

Tuvok arrived so quickly that B’Elanna wondered if he’d been in the turbolift when the call came. He relieved Ashmore and quickly assessed the situation. “I am reading three life signs, all faint.”

Janeway turned to Lang at Ops. “Are we within transporter range yet?” she asked.

“No, Sir,” the ensign answered. Torres made a mental note to remind her junior engineer that the captain preferred ‘ma’am’ to ‘sir,’ and ‘captain’ to ‘ma’am.’ Of course, now wasn’t the time.

While Tuvok updated the situation, B’Elanna heard the turbolift doors open and glanced up as Tom and Harry took their stations. Tom winked at her on his way to the conn, and she couldn’t help but notice that he was out of uniform, wearing his tight, rust-colored pullover and the patterned vest that went with his good suit. She loved that outfit; she’d even kidnapped the matching jacket for a few months once.

She and Paris had spent almost no time together lately; it was good to see him.

‘Pay attention,’ she thought to herself as she turned back to her console. “Their warp core is heavily damaged,” she reported as she watched the data from her latest scans. “It’s leaking warp plasma and gamma radiation. It could breech any time.”

Chakotay was clearly thinking the same thing she was: this was going to be a tricky rescue. “Can we beam the passengers out through all that radiation?” he asked Harry.

“Not from here,” Kim confirmed. “We’d have to get within 5,000 kilometers.”

Tuvok, as always, stated the obvious: “At that range, we’ll be at risk if their engine core explodes.”

Janeway ordered Tom to take the ship closer as Harry prepared to make the transport. She knew her friends would have to coordinate this carefully—Tom had to be ready to move quickly if the situation went bad, and Harry needed to find a way to boost the transporter capabilities on the fly. It was a precision maneuver for both of her friends.

“I’m diverting warp plasma to the targeting scanners; trying to get a pattern lock.” Kim’s tactic was unconventional and B’Elanna was impressed at the way her young friend was learning to think on his feet. Still, this was going to be close.

She watched the indicator on her panel spike. “Captain, I’m reading an energy build-up in the reaction chamber.”

“Mister Kim…?” Janeway said, the rest of her question implied.

“I’ve got a lock,” he said evenly. “Initiating transport.”

Just in time, too, it seemed. “They’re losing antimatter containment,” B’Elanna noted. Tom had barely moved them away when the bridge was rocked by an explosion. It seemed they’d finished their errand of mercy in the nick of time.

“All major systems are undamaged,” she heard Tuvok report. Well, that was a change of pace: they’d been rocked by an energy blast yet nothing had broken down? She made a mental note to double-check the security chief’s readings; Voyager was never that lucky.

“I’ve got them Captain,” she heard Harry say proudly. “All three passengers are in sickbay.”

Torres watched as the captain looked back at her operations officer. “I’m impressed,” Janeway said sincerely before turning to Chakotay. “Commander, have the Doctor give us a full report on the condition of our guests as soon as he’s examined them.” The captain then shot a series of looks between her causally-dressed officers at the conn and at ops.

“Well, I’m sorry I interrupted your afternoon, gentlemen,” she continued. “Can I assume from your attire that you were testing out Mister Neelix’s new creation?”

Tom spun his chair around to answer her. “Yes, ma’am. Neelix even let us make a few modifications. You know, for authenticity’s sake.” B’Elanna noticed that Harry was blushing at the comment and she wondered what in the heck Tom was talking about.

“Well, then,” Janeway offered, “don’t let us keep you. And don’t let me catch you two back here until 1700 hours, is that clear?”

Tom was grinning from ear to ear, obviously grateful for the hour’s delay in starting their shift—no doubt a reward for their performance in rescuing the aliens. “Yes, ma’am!” he said happily. “Permission to be excused?”

“Granted,” the captain said. “You, too, Mister Kim.”

B’Elanna noticed that Tom barely waited for Baytart to make it back to the conn before he was out of his seat and walking toward her. “Why don’t you come by the resort when you’re finished here? We could grab a quick dinner, and…”

“Mister Paris,” they heard the maternal twinge to the captain’s voice, and B’Elanna instantly knew what was coming. “Since Lieutenant Torres is on still duty, I assume this conversation is of an official nature? Perhaps you’d like to stick around here after all…”

Tom was blushing, and B’Elanna felt her own face flush, too. “No, Ma’am,” he said as he headed for the turbolift. “Let’s go, Harry.”

B’Elanna watched until her friends were inside the lift, then glanced up to see Chakotay grinning at her and whispering something to the captain. Suddenly, she felt like a schoolgirl who’d been caught passing a note to a boy during class. After a decidedly nasty glare at her old friend, Torres turned back to her station.

But she quickly checked the chronometer, nonetheless: 1322. She’d be off duty in a little over two and a half hours. Maybe she would stop by the holodeck. Just to check it out. If Tom and Harry were still there and wanted to get something to eat, all the better…

She’d spent the better part of the last two hours reviewing the spatial parameters file for Neelix’s new holoprogram, and B’Elanna was very pleased at what she’d learned: not only was it a public program that any crewmember could access, it appeared to be a tropical beach resort. The ambient temperature was a constant 35º centigrade—probably warmer than many of the others on board would have preferred, but ideal for someone with her Klingon intolerance to cold. And the internal sensors showed that Tom and Harry were still there—no doubt waiting to have dinner. Her boring day was finally showing a little promise.

She decided to make a quick stop at her quarters: if this resort featured a beach, she was sure as hell going to be lounging on it tonight. B’Elanna stripped out of her uniform in record time and replicated a Starfleet issue tank suit, pulling it on quickly. She threw her uniform pants back on over top, grabbed a towel, and was out the door—all in less than five minutes.

When she reached the holodeck, what she saw was…unexpected, to say the least. Sitting on lounge chairs with their backs to her were Tom and Harry—not in uniform or even the civies she’d seen them in earlier in the day. No, they were now wearing t-shirts and shorts—and getting shoulder massages from two tall, holo-bimbos who were wearing next to nothing.

B’Elanna looked down at her own outfit: a regulation tank suit that left everything to the imagination and a baggy pair of work pants. She suddenly felt overdressed.

Torres discretely made her way to the holographic control panel and decided to make a few alterations in her clothing. There were 278 choices of women’s swimwear on file; she narrowed the search parameters to one piece suits (she wasn’t feeling that daring), in the colors she felt she looked the best in (greens and violets mostly), and with just the right amount of skin showing.

Then she saw it: an athletic-yet-sexy suit in a metallic green fabric. It was cut down to there in the front and up to there in the leg, and was revealing without being obvious everywhere else. Three keystrokes later and it was hers.

Two could play this game.

She replicated a few accessories (sunglasses, snorkel gear and a bottle of sunscreen), then scanned the database for the other ‘prop’ she needed for the play she was about to stage. She opened the character parameters file and scanned the stock programs, looking for just the right one. Then she found it: Greco/Roman wrestling. It didn’t take her long to find an appropriately tall, appropriately muscular wrestler, and to stuff him into the skimpiest of bathing suits. ‘He’ll do,’ she thought to herself, as she initiated the subroutine. Poof! Instant date.

She walked over and intertwined her arm with his. “What’s your name?” she asked absentmindedly, scanning the room to keep Tom and Harry in her sights.

“Ricardo,” he answered, with just a touch of a Latin accent.

She’d known a Ricardo once, in the Maquis. Looked nothing like this guy, however. Still, the name suited him. “Well, Ricardo, let’s go.”

Torres plastered on an inane smile and dragged her new toy across the terrace, trying her best to look enraptured by his too-perfect face and definitely oversculpted pecs. She was careful to choose a lounge chair in full view of her friends, but at an angle where she could avoid accidentally catching Tom’s eye. She didn’t want to blow her whole plan by letting a jealous look sneak onto her face.

B’Elanna indicated for Ricardo to sit on the lounge, then she sat right in front of him, in between his legs. She handed her ‘date’ the bottle of lotion she’d replicated and forced a self-satisfied smile onto her face. ‘Let this work,’ she thought to herself.

She was surprised at how quickly it did.

“B’Elanna, what are you doing? I thought we were having dinner.”

She tipped up her sunglasses and feigned surprise. “I’m trying out the resort; what does it look like I’m doing? And, since it looked to me like you’d made other plans, I thought I’d do the same.”

She noticed that Paris was glaring at Ricardo as he answered. “Other plans?” he asked, clearly confused. “Harry and I were just working on our shift reports while we waited for you.” She noticed that Tom’s gaze was wandering from the muscular man sitting behind her; he was now starting a little obsessively at her barely-there bathing suit. “What’s he doing?” Paris asked, the tone in his voice: unabashed jealousy.

“Applying suntan lotion—what does it look like he’s doing? I would have thought a fair-skinned boy like you would know all about it.” She noticed that Tom’s eyes had wandered down to her legs.

He was fidgeting. “But the safeties are on. There’s no way you could get sunburned here.” B’Elanna watched as Tom’s brow furrowed, and his breathing turned quick and labored.

“I know,” she said, an evil lilt in her voice. “But it feels so good when he rubs it on. Besides, I know how much you appreciate authenticity.” At this point, Ricardo’s hands were spreading a handful of cream onto the exposed skin of her shoulder blades, his fingers slipping below the straps of her suit as he rubbed it in. B’Elanna hadn’t realized until that moment exactly how little her swimsuit covered, and she shivered at the sensation of cold lotion on her back.

“Are you okay?” Tom asked when he saw her flinch.

“Oh, sure,” she answered. “It’s kind of exhilarating, actually. You should try it sometime.” She looked over at the blondes in the skimpy swimsuits who were now both attending to Harry. “Maybe one of your friends there could help you out.”

Tom looked over his shoulder to see Harry’s ‘volleyball team’ as they worked on the ensign’s neck and back; he turned back to B’Elanna almost immediately, a look of embarrassment on his now-flushed face. “Oh, um, them. They’re friends of Harry’s,” he said haltingly. “I don’t even know their names.” He turned back to Kim with an expression Torres could only imagine, and the two women abruptly left, walking over to join Neelix and some redhead on the other side of the terrace.

B’Elanna took off her sunglasses and stood up. Trading them with Ricardo for the bottle of lotion, she squeezed a dollop of the white cream onto her finger and looked up at Tom. “Well, then, maybe you should go back and introduce yourself,” she said matter-of-factly, her body almost pressed against his. Then she tapped her finger onto Tom’s cheeks, leaving a white, creamy drop on each one. “And you might want to try this lotion,” she said as she started to turn away. “Your face is getting pretty red. Wouldn’t want it to burn.”

She forced the bottle into Tom’s hands, then bent over suggestively and picked up her towel from the lounge. “Let’s go,” she barked to Ricardo, not waiting for him to answer. “Bye, Tom,” she said confidently, as she walked away, adding just a hint of an unnatural sway to her step. ‘He’s watching my ass,’ she knew for some reason. Mission accomplished.

~~

Tom was dumbstruck. He wasn’t sure if it was the sight of B’Elanna in that very tight, very low-cut bathing suit, or the goon that was following her around like a lapdog, but Paris stood there in the middle of the resort with his mouth open, watching as his dinner date abandoned him. He realized at that moment that he’d never seen her in such skimpy, form-fitting clothing. She had a knock-out body, he now realized, and his eyes were drawn to her derriere and the metallic green fabric that caressed it as she walked. The suit left nothing to the imagination—which was fine with Tom—even though his imagination had speculated about this very subject on more than one occasion.

She was halfway across the room now, talking to Neelix, but he could still smell her, still hear her voice in his ears—still feel the way her chest had grazed his as she leaned up to touch his face. And he felt his body still responding to the impulse he’d had at the feel of her breasts brushing against him: to take her right there on the lounge in the middle of the resort.

“Are you alright?” he heard someone say. Paris tore his eyes away from B’Elanna’s retreating form and found Harry standing at his side.

“Sure,” he said, not entirely convinced. “I’m fine.” His now fully aroused body was telling him otherwise.

“What’s that on your face?” his friend asked, pointing to the dots of suntan lotion B’Elanna had left there only a moment before.

“Egg,” Tom answered sardonically, before wiping his cheeks clean and turning away. “And it looks like dinner is off,” he said picking up his PADD. “I’ll see you on the bridge.” Before Kim could answer, Paris was out the door.

He walked the corridors hoping he wouldn’t run into anyone before he got back to his cabin. There was an image burned in his mind, and he knew it would stay there, taunting him, until he did something to placate his frustrated body.

Once he reached his home, Tom engaged the privacy lock and tossed the PADD onto the table. He didn’t care that it was almost time to go on duty. He didn’t care that his report was going to be late. All he knew was that wasn’t about to head to the bridge in this condition. And—what the hell—he had to change clothes before the shift started anyway.

Tom ripped off his t-shirt and hurled it across the room. He was focused on the smell of the lotion she had rubbed onto his face, and the memory of her in that shiny green swimsuit, her bronze skin, the sculpted muscles of her back. “Computer,” he said as he closed his eyes and dropped onto his couch, “dim the lights.”

~*~*~*~*~

Personal log, Ensign Vorik. Stardate 50383.8:

Somehow, I had come to believe that witnessing a supernova would be the most unusual experience I was likely to have this week; after all, only three Starfleet crews are known to have glimpsed such a phenomena first-hand in the past three-hundred years.

However, Captain Janeway’s encounter with the being known only as “Q” has far surpassed the star’s explosion for curiosity. I am fascinated by the existence of life forms from such a different dimensional plane. I am even more fascinated in the being’s request that the Captain become his mate.

I was always led to believe that the Q were omnipotent, and somewhat invulnerable. The act of mating, however, seems so inextricably biological, that one can only speculate on the purpose of such an action for an immortal, non-corporeal creature like the Q.

On an unrelated note, I was grateful to have been given the opportunity to assist Lieutenant Torres on our recent shield enhancements. The Lieutenant possesses an instinctual understanding of starship mechanics that–for a person with such limited formal training–seems almost illogical. I have come to admire her talent, however, and hope to have the opportunity to work closely with her again, soon.

[Computer, pause recording.]

[Resume.]

As I worked alongside Lieutenant Torres yesterday, I noticed that she was wearing a fragrance–perhaps a perfume–that smelled of lilacs. Strange that I never noticed it before.

[End recording.]

~~*~~

Five days and counting.

Tom lay there awake in his bed and tried to take some comfort in the fact that there was less than a week left in his beta shift rotation. Five more days and he’d be back to his normal schedule. Five more days and he could put his revised plan to court B’Elanna into motion.

Revised because, in the past two weeks, she’d said little to nothing to him. Ever since their little encounter in the resort program, B’Elanna seemed to be busy every time he suggested they have lunch, preoccupied when he passed her in the corridor, and ambivalent when he mentioned that he missed seeing her. Also, rumors were flying fast and furiously about her sunbathing with that holographic gigolo, ‘Ricardo,’ while he and Harry were on duty. It seemed as if every eligible crewman, once realizing there was a beautiful woman underneath the chief engineer’s uniform, had come out of the woodwork looking for a shot at a date.

Considering his own frustrated plans, Paris considered this new competition to be adding insult to injury.

Still, he was clear about his mission: be persistent. Be available. Be ready to seize any opportunity. Oh, yeah: and behave.

The behaving part was especially important at the moment. The captain had informed them last night that she’d had a visit from “Q,” the adolescent immortal best known for vexing the Enterprise’s Captain Picard. For some reason, he seemed to have turned his attention to Captain Janeway—suggesting, of all things, that she mate with him—and it was clear to Paris that one juvenile libido wandering the ship was more than enough. The crew had been given strict instructions: if Q showed up, try to find out what he really wanted. Hopefully, it wouldn’t come to that.

Tom swung his legs over the side of the bed and sat up. Instantly he felt a dull, throbbing pain course down his neck and across his shoulders. He knew he should probably see the Doctor; his upper back had been bothering him off and on ever since he’d taken a bad fall while on an away mission a few weeks earlier. But going in for treatment would have meant running into Kes, and he’d been trying to avoid his friend ever since the mission that caused his stiff neck.

Tom stood up and stretched, hoping the pain would go away. Instead, he felt a twinge that ran clear down his back. ‘Gotta get this looked at,’ he thought as he headed for the shower. He knew that, instead, he’d just let the hot water loosen him up until the pain was tolerable.

As he turned on the shower and stepped into the water stream, he thought about Kes again, and about why he’d been hesitant to see her. The young woman had been through a horrible ordeal. The passengers Voyager rescued from that burning, derelict ship had turned out to be anarchists from a nearby planet called Alaria. The leader of their group had commandeered Kes’s body, killed Ensign Martin, stole a shuttlecraft to make his escape, and then staged a bloody overthrow of the Alarian government.

At the time, Tom had watched Neelix suffering with the news that Kes was—at best—a prisoner inside her own body. Worse, they believed that she might actually be lost for good, the essence of her being driven out when the alien took over. Kes proved to be stronger than they could have hoped, however; she eventually defeated the insurgent living inside her and returned to Voyager, alive and safe—but changed. The final casualties of the experience: Kes’s naïve, trusting nature, and her romance with Neelix, both of which now seemed to be permanently damaged.

Oh, and Tom’s back, which he pulled when an Alarian guard tripped him during their rescue mission.

Still, Paris wasn’t sure why he was avoiding Kes. Maybe he just didn’t know what to say. Maybe his loyalty to Neelix made him afraid he would blurt out something that would hurt her already-wounded feelings.

More likely, he realized, he feared Kes would want to lean on him after her difficult ordeal. They’d gotten to be close friends right after she’d come aboard Voyager. Close enough that Tom had even started imagining that he was falling in love with her once. But—at that time—she and Neelix were inseparable, and Paris knew he would never do anything to interfere with his friends’ relationship.

For some reason now, though, he was afraid to see Kes as an unattached, available woman. Not afraid of his own feelings—his crush on the young Ocampan had been over before it ever really began, and Tom’s heart was definitely elsewhere these days. But there was a part of him that wondered if Neelix would trust that his feelings for Kes were only friendship. The man was already hurting: there was no way Paris would risk compounding that pain with some unnecessary and unfounded jealousy.

So, he’d keep his distance a little while longer. And he’d live with the annoyance of his chronically aching back.

Tom was barely out of the shower when he heard Harry over the com. “Kim to Paris. Aren’t you up yet?!”

He reached for his commbadge, still attached to yesterday’s uniform, and answered his friend. “I’m up, I’m up. So, what’s the plan?”

“Meet me in Holodeck 1,” Kim answered. “Ten minutes, okay?”

He was impatient these days, and it wasn’t hard for Tom to figure out why. “I’m still too sore to play, Harry. And I have a ton of reports to catch up on.”

He expected to hear frustration in his friend’s voice; Tom had been nursing his injuries off and on for almost two weeks, and he hadn’t been able to play volleyball the whole time. Still, he was surprised to hear Harry sound almost upbeat. “Bring your reports with you,” he said, suddenly sounding inspired. “We can work on them there. Besides, I have an idea about how to fix that bad back of yours,” he said. “Now get your butt down there. Kim out.”

Tom smiled and closed the channel. Then he went to his wardrobe and pulled out a t-shirt and a pair of shorts. Harry was up to something, he knew. It was only a matter of time before he’d figure out exactly what.

It didn’t take Dick Tracy to unmask Harry’s little plan. When Tom walked into the resort, he saw his friend in the middle of a ‘therapeutic’ backrub from two of his three ‘Gold Medal winners.’ Paris just shook his head as he took the seat across from his friend.

“So, this is the cure for what ails me, huh?” he asked. “You’re kidding, right?”

Kim just smiled. “I have it on good authority that a massage can be just as effective as conventional medicine in fixing a pulled muscle. And the girls here are programmed with several different techniques…”

“Okay, okay,” Paris said, “I’m not sure I want to know about their ‘techniques’.” As the blonde, um, masseuse moved behind him, Tom held up his hand to stop her, then looked up at the sky. “Computer,” he called out, “locate Lieutenant Torres.”

Harry smiled as they waited for the answer. “Lieutenant Torres is in Jeffries Tube 41 Beta.”

Tom grinned. “Well, I guess it wouldn’t hurt for her to take a stab at it. In the name of therapy.”

Surprisingly enough, her massage seemed to be helping. The pain in his shoulders was slowly melting away, and Tom allowed himself to enjoy the feeling of his muscles slowly unclenching. He made several slow stretches, twisting his head from one side to the other: only to notice Neelix suddenly standing alongside his chair.

“Your back still bothering you?” his friend asked knowingly.

Tom tried to look unconcerned, “Nah, it’s fine. Just a—aahh…” In the middle of his denial, Paris winced as his holographic therapist hit a particularly sore spot.

Before Tom could continue his denial, the Talaxian scolded him. “Don’t you think its time you stopped by sickbay and had the Doctor look at you?” Neelix hesitated for a moment. “And you know, while you’re there—if you wouldn’t mind—maybe you could check in on Kes, see how she’s doing. I think she could use a friend right now.”

Tom smiled, realizing that he’d long ago earned his friend’s complete trust. He suddenly felt a little foolish for not having returned it. “Sure, Neelix,” he said sincerely. “I’ll stop in later and make sure she’s okay.”

As he watched his friend walk back to the bar, Tom wondered what it must be like to have the woman you love decide to move on, knowing you would still have to see her every day, still have to work with her side by side. He wasn’t sure that—if he were in Neelix’s position—he’d be quite so understanding.

But he knew that was the risk they all took. Voyager was a closed community. When something went wrong—with a friendship or a romance—there was nowhere to go to avoid the other person. Somehow he suspected that was why so few of the crew had paired off on any kind of permanent basis. People seemed to be more comfortable with casual involvements, where the stakes were lower if something went wrong.

And he’d tried that route, too—unsuccessfully. But, ultimately, he’d come to realize that he wanted more. Tom Paris—Mister Casual Sex—had already spent too much of his life not knowing or caring about the women who had shared his bed. These days, he wanted a friend and a partner; someone he could dote over and fight with—and make up with. Not surprisingly, he found his thoughts wandering back to B’Elanna.

Yet there was a game in play, he realized: a ritual as old as time. And it was his move.

He saw Nicoletti standing in the corner talking to Jenny Delaney. Voyager’s two biggest gossips were in perfect position to see his little backrub, and Paris decided to up the ante. “Nice work,” he said as he leaned back and looked at the woman rubbing his shoulders. She just smiled, and Tom found himself wondering if Harry had bothered to give the holographic women the ability to speak.

No matter. He picked up his datapad and got to work on his personnel evaluations. Let B’Elanna hear all about it. After all, turnabout was fair play.

~~

There was surreal and then there was surreal. And working with an omnipotent being to solve an unheard of engineering problem was over the top even in the Delta Quadrant. But Chakotay had given B’Elanna an assignment, and she would have to shut up and live through it. Of course, she didn’t have to enjoy it.

Her day had gotten off to a stellar start even before the dueling “Q’s” had shown up. The rumor mill was cranking early, with a call from the off-duty Nicoletti to her roommate and best friend, Kyoto. The whispering had started then; stories of Tom Paris and Harry Kim and their early-morning rubdowns by the vapid holo-honeys Harry had euphemistically called a volleyball team.

Things had progressed from annoying to dangerous, however, when the male Q reappeared and kidnapped Captain Janeway, leaving Voyager in the path of the shockwaves of multiple supernovae, and trapping his female counterpart—suddenly missing all of her Q-like powers—aboard the ship. Hence, B’Elanna’s engineering challenge of the moment: find a way to further reinforce her already maxed-out shields so they could withstand a trip into the Q Continuum. If it weren’t so important to their survival, it would have been ridiculous.

Still, as she worked, B’Elanna thought about Nicoletti’s call, and couldn’t help but wonder if Tom was paying her back for her little show with ‘Ricardo’ a few weeks earlier. She’d been avoiding Paris, she knew—though only because she was cooking up an idea that needed some serious homework. She’d meant what she said after their little side trip to 1996: she wanted to fix what had broken in her friendship with the pilot, at least eventually. And she would, as soon as their schedules permitted.

Of course, a part of her had started to enjoy their new game—intramural jealousy—at least while she controlled it. It had been fun seeing him squirm, watching the look on his face as he saw her with another man. Now, however, if the rumor mill were true, Tom had hit the ball back into her court; she’d have to figure out her next move.

After she finished these shield modifications, of course. Torres took a moment to rub her aching shoulders before moving to the secondary engineering console. She heard the doors from the corridor swish open, and suddenly had the feeling that she was about to get an entirely new and different pain in the neck.

“Well?!” The voice was grainy and whiny and grated on B’Elanna’s already plucked nerves.

She turned her head but barely acknowledged the female Q now standing by her side. “Well what?” she answered flatly.

“Are you finished yet?!” the woman continued.

B’Elanna didn’t bother to look up from her console. “What you’ve asked us to do requires a complete reconfiguration of the shield array. It takes a while—for us ‘mere mortals,’ that is.”

No doubt a woman used to instantaneous fixes to all of life’s problems found waiting more than a second for anything to be too much to stand. “Surely there’s some way you can speed up the process!”

Truth be told, no one was more anxious for this procedure to be over than Voyager’s chief engineer. But B’Elanna didn’t like being ordered around under normal circumstances. Feeling like the flunky of a spoiled immortal was a little more than she could take this morning. “If you’re in such a hurry, why don’t you just snap your fingers and do it yourself,” she barked, snapping her own fingers for emphasis. “Oh, that’s right: you’ve lost your powers and you need our help…”

B’Elanna walked to the shield controller grid in the starboard alcove, ‘Her Q-ness’ right on her heals. “I don’t think you understand: it’s imperative that I get back to the continuum before Q mates with your captain!”

Suddenly the word ‘surreal’ didn’t seem large enough to describe this day. “I understand perfectly. You aren’t the first female who’s ever had a man run out on her.”

B’Elanna wondered for a moment why she felt compelled to rub this woman’s nose in it. Maybe it was her innate sense of justice; maybe a little leftover anger at the mental image of Tom’s latest ‘contact’ with Harry’s holographic friends. Somehow, her antagonist seemed to sense the personal connection B’Elanna had unwittingly suggested. “I hope you’re not comparing some failed romance in your pitiful existence to my eternal association with Q…”

This was getting tiresome. Besides, what was the point of this argument? To prove who was better at getting dumped? Still, this condescending attitude was more than Torres could take. “You know, I have really had it with this superiority complex of yours.”

“It’s not a complex, dear, it’s a fact.”

Finally pushed over the edge, B’Elanna looked up from her console and leaned within an inch of the woman’s face. “Well, here’s another ‘fact’: if you don’t stop pestering me, I’m never going to finish. In which case, your association with Q might not be quite as eternal as you think.”

Torres turned her back and tried to concentrate on her work. She knew she was on the verge of a full-fledged catfight with this…creature…and it was all she could do to hold herself back in front of her crew.

Of course, she should have suspected she’d never get in the last word. “You know, I’ve always liked Klingon females. You’ve got such spunk.” The woman’s tone had changed completely, and somehow B’Elanna suspected this wasn’t a positive development. “Besides,” the ‘Q-ess’ continued, “you’re right. There are plenty of fish in the sea. So to speak. And perhaps Q has the right idea. Maybe I just need to find a little human pet of my own.”

B’Elanna’s back was turned to her redheaded nemesis, and she closed her eyes for a moment, hoping she was wrong about where this conversation was about to go.

“There’s that tattooed man; he’s quite handsome.” Good, B’Elanna thought—she was clearly fishing. “But he’s too bossy. Or that frightened little Ensign boy. Now he’s cute.”

Torres turned around, now confident that her rival’s game was little more than stabbing in the dark—and her first two jabs had been totally off target.

“No, I think maybe the blonde helmboy might be the ticket. He’s tall and meaty, and I like the way his pretty blue eyes wrinkle up at the corners when he smiles. Have you ever noticed that about him…Brianna?”

B’Elanna knew then that she’d been lured into a false sense of security. She was now facing her tormentor who had just delivered a perfect shot right to her emotional solar plexus. “No, I hadn’t noticed,” she lied, not bothering to correct the pronunciation of her name. “Now if you’ll excuse me, there’s something I have to do.”

Torres walked toward the exit without looking back. “Vorik! Finish working on those shield modifications. I’ll be in sickbay.” ‘Getting something for this headache,’ she finished the thought silently.

Okay, so maybe this jealousy game wasn’t so much fun after all.

B’Elanna burst through the biolab doors in a ‘take no prisoners’ mood. She had a headache, her shoulders were in a knot, and her mood was as bad as her blood pressure. She scanned the room for the Doctor, but he was nowhere to be found.

As she walked through the lab and toward his office, the sickbay ward came into view. Torres stopped cold when she saw Tom and Kes, sitting facing each other, Tom on the second of the three biobeds, Kes on a stool at his knees. She couldn’t hear her friends’ conversation, but it was clear from their expressions that it was personal rather than medical. It was also clear that neither of them had heard her come in.

She stopped for a minute, not certain what she should do. B’Elanna had heard rumors that Kes and Neelix were on the verge of a breakup. She also knew from an innocent comment Harry had made to her over a year earlier that Tom once thought he was in love with Kes. If it was true that the young woman was now available, B’Elanna’s ridiculous overreaction to the female Q’s comment was about to pale in comparison.

Before she could make a decision whether to stay or go, she heard the doors to the lab swish open behind her. She turned and nearly walked full force into the Doctor. “Lieutenant, what can I do for you?” he asked brusquely.

“I have a headache,” she blurted out.

The EMH kept walking, forcing her to follow him though his office and into the surgical bay. “Well, there was no need to wait for me. Kes is thoroughly capable of dispensing an analgesic.”

She turned to the Ocampan medic who was now standing by her side. B’Elanna hoped her embarrassment didn’t show on her face. “I didn’t want to interrupt.” She couldn’t bring herself to look at Tom, but she saw his head drop to his chest out of the corner of her eye. She did look at Kes, however; it seemed as if the young woman had been crying. Suddenly, B’Elanna felt a little silly at her reaction to the entire situation.

“I’m sorry, B’Elanna, did you need me?” Kes asked.

She nodded. “I have a pounding headache, and my neck has been sore all morning. I was hoping you could give me something. I have a really busy day, and the pain is a little distracting.”

Kes smiled sadly and moved to the pharmaceutical cart. She picked up a hypospray, then sat it back down. “Doctor, could you help Lieutenant Torres? There’s something I have to do.”

Before the physician could even answer, Kes was walking quickly out of the room. B’Elanna expected some angry or smart-aleck response, but instead the Doctor just looked sadly at the closed doors. He picked up the hypospray his assistant had abandoned, adjusted for the proper dosage, then injected it into B’Elanna’s neck. “If you two will excuse me,” he said quietly before walking back into his office.

Torres wondered what was going on. “Is Kes alright?” she asked Tom, walking to stand next to his biobed and looking him in the eye for the first time since she’d walked in. “It looked like she’d been crying.”

Paris nodded sadly, though he also seemed a little relieved. “This thing with Neelix, on top of everything that happened on Alaria…it’s hard for her. I think she just needs somebody to talk to.” He looked for her reaction.

Surprising herself, B’Elanna just smiled. “I think it’s nice that you were there for her, then,” she said sincerely. “You’re a good friend.”

He looked embarrassed, she noticed. “Well, Neelix asked me to see how she was doing since he knew I was headed here anyway.”

Until that moment, it hadn’t occurred to B’Elanna to wonder what Tom was going in the sickbay. “Did you hurt yourself again?” she asked.

Tom just grunted and shook his head. “Why would you just assume that I hurt myself? I get sick like everyone else, you know.”

Torres grinned. “So, are you sick?”

His face flushed as he answered. “No. I hurt my neck.” She tried to stifle a laugh; Tom Paris was the most injury-prone person she’d ever met. “I tried to work out the kinks this morning, but Harry’s little massage therapy didn’t help.”

For some reason, B’Elanna instantly knew she was being challenged. There was no way she was about to lose this little duel. “Oh, since when does Harry know how to give a massage?” Point, Torres.

“It wasn’t Harry,” Tom continued, his voice getting sultry. “It was one of his…friends. I think you met her a few weeks ago. She has quite a set of, um, hands.” Point, Paris. Tie score.

“She couldn’t have been that great,” B’Elanna countered. “I mean, you still had to come see the Doctor.” Point, Torres.

“Oh, I don’t know,” Tom shot back. “It felt pretty good while she was doing it. Here, let me demonstrate.”

He spun B’Elanna around by her shoulders and pulled back until she was resting against the biobed between his knees. Then Tom put his hands on her shoulders and began to gently knead the knotted muscles of her neck and back. Suddenly she couldn’t remember the score or why she’d wanted to play the stupid game in the first place. “See,” he said, leaning in to whisper into her ear. “Doesn’t this feel great?”

She had to admit it felt wonderful. Not only the way her shoulders were starting to loosen up, but just the sensation of his hands on her. B’Elanna closed her eyes and imagined for a moment that they were no longer in sickbay, but in her quarters. That Tom’s massage was a prelude to…

‘Senior officers, report to the bridge.’ It was Chakotay and he didn’t sound happy.

B’Elanna let out an audible sigh as she wondered why these interruptions never came when she was doing something she hated.

“We have to go,” she said over her shoulder. She noticed Tom had stopped his massage, and was now resting his hands on her arms.

“Yeah,” he said, sounding equally disappointed. “I guess so.”

She started to step away, and he pulled her back toward him. “You still owe me dinner,” he said to her. Don’t think I’ve forgotten.”

She reached up and lifted his hands off of her shoulders, squeezing them slightly as she let them drop. “If we ever get the Captain back and get out of this mess, we can talk about it,” she said, resuming their little game. “In the meantime, Helmboy, watch where you stick out that neck.”

She walked to the door without looking back at him, once again having the distinct feeling he was enjoying the view.

~~

‘Helmboy?’ Tom thought to himself as he watched her walk away. This was new.

And, somehow, it no longer mattered what B’Elanna was wearing; he was picturing her in that tight green swimsuit. The image brought back another memory—more of a fantasy, actually—and Paris wondered if he’d ever get to live it out for real.

“Chakotay to Paris,” he heard his first officer call him for the second time.

“I’m on my way, sir,” he answered as he hustled out the door. His favorite little daydream would have to wait.

~*~*~*~*~

Personal log, Ensign Vorik. Stardate 50420.3:

For the past two days, I have been working almost exclusively on the overhaul of the secondary power couplings, which has required me to spend quite a lot of time working closely with Lieutenant Torres in the Deck 13 Jeffries Tubes. During that time, I took the opportunity to inquire about her time in the Maquis, and found–much to my surprise–that many of her reasons for joining the resistance seem quite logical, and stemmed from her innate sense of honor and justice. Our conversation has caused me to question the Federation’s basic assumptions about the disputed colonies, and I have decided to do further independent research on the topic.

I have also begun to do some reading on Klingon culture and tradition. It seems only logical that a better understanding of B’Elanna’s–Lieutenant Torres’s–heritage would make our working relationship more productive.

Also, at the invitation of Lieutenant Ayala, I have begun to spend some of my evenings in Mister Neelix’s resort holoprogram. The Lieutenant–who has asked me to refer to him as ‘Mike’–was also a Maquis, and seems to know B’Elanna quite well. He and I had an extensive conversation last night about the Chief’s friendship with Ensign Kim and Lieutenant Paris. He believes that, while Ensign Kim seems to have been a positive influence on B’Elanna, in his estimation her association with Mister Paris is “a disaster waiting to happen.” I’m not sure what he was implying, however I noted that the Lieutenants’ friendship seems to be the basis of a wager between Mister Ayala–Mike–and Lieutenant Carey.

One other note: while I was in the resort with ‘Mike’ Ayala, I overheard a conversation between Jennifer Delaney and Alissa Lang–both of whom seemed to believe that it is only a matter of time before the members of the crew begin to, as they put it “pair off,” and that they should be “scoping out” the available men. Until that moment, I never considered that the length of our journey might force Captain Janeway to declare this a generational ship and encourage the crew to produce offspring.

Perhaps I should give this topic some further consideration.

[End recording.]

~~*~~

It was a beautiful, sunny summer evening in the resort—which it always seemed to be—yet Tom Paris’s mood was cloudy and gray. He’d been back on the alpha shift for almost a week, and he was having trouble getting back into the rhythms of his normal schedule. He’d gotten out of the habit of eating in the morning—lunchtime found him wanting breakfast—and dinner…well, dinner was a completely different sore subject.

He’d been trying to arrange a private dinner for two for almost six weeks now, yet somehow the timing was never right. After Starling’s little holoprogram larceny, Tom’s month on the beta shift, Kes’s kidnapping, and Voyager’s detour through a Q Civil War, there hadn’t been much time to tend to their lives or relationships. Now, when Tom’s schedule and this boring expanse of space finally permitted a little real R&R, B’Elanna was nowhere to be found.

Oh, he knew exactly where she was: splitting her off-duty time between the hololab and her quarters. But she’d told him in no uncertain terms that he wasn’t welcome to join her, and he’d felt the disappointingly familiar feeling of wondering what the hell had gone wrong now.

Still, she didn’t seem angry or even distant. As a matter of fact, when he had run into her—at the occasional breakfast with Harry or when he’d made up a phony excuse to walk a conn report down to engineering—she seemed downright mischievous. So he decided not to make too much of it, to let her do whatever it was she was doing, and to keep all of his options open. He’d cut and run too quickly in the past; he wouldn’t make that same mistake again.

Still, he was bored. All Harry ever wanted to do lately was practice his clarinet or play volleyball—and Tom found Kim’s holographic ‘teammates’ more of an unwelcome distraction than a pleasant diversion. These days Harry might be satisfied keeping company with holographic women, but Tom was holding out for the real thing. So—with B’Elanna holed up in self-imposed solitary confinement—that left Tom alone most nights. And he was tired of being alone.

He drained the last of his second Rekkari starburst and decided that drinking by himself while he was feeling lonely was probably a bad idea. He stood up and walked to the bar, trying to decide if he should switch to coffee, when he saw his favorite bartender in a funk of his own.

“Want to talk about it?” Tom asked as he sat his glass on the counter. “I’m a good listener.”

Neelix seemed a little startled, but instantly slipped on his host ‘mask’. “Tom! What can I do for you?”

Paris smiled and leaned his weight on his crossed arms. “Nothing. I was wondering what I could do for you? It looks to me like our morale officer could use a morale officer. I’m willing to volunteer.”

Neelix smiled and let down his mask. “Is it that obvious?” he asked.

“Only to your friends,” Tom reassured him. He poured two cups of coffee and handed one to Neelix, then lead the way over to the closest lounge chairs. “I’ve got two sympathetic ears; tell me your troubles.”

Neelix took a sip of his coffee and made a face. “You know,” he said, sitting the cup on the table next to his chair. “I can’t believe you all actually drink this stuff.”

Tom laughed. “Don’t let the captain hear you say that,” he teased. He took a gulp from his own cup and wondered if he’d even recognize the taste of real coffee if he ever had it again. Unlike Captain Janeway, Paris almost never wasted his precious replicator rations on something so simple—not when Neelix’s concoctions were free and almost palatable.

Tom kicked back and put his feet up, hoping his friend would relax and do the same. But Neelix just sat there on the edge of the lounge looking distracted. “You miss her, don’t you?” Tom asked.

His friend nodded. “Yes. Although part of me has been expecting this day to come. Before we came aboard, I was the only person she’d ever met who wasn’t Ocampan or Kazon. I saved her life and she was grateful. But here on Voyager, she’s meeting so many different people and having these experiences she could never have dreamed of. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that I began to pale in comparison after a while.”

Tom swung his legs back to the stone floor and looked Neelix in the eye. “That’s ridiculous and you know it.” The Talaxian was taken aback for a moment, but Paris kept talking. “You’re a great guy and any girl in this quadrant would be lucky to know you. Besides, I’ve met a lot of women in my life and I can tell the difference between gratitude and love, and she was in love with you, Neelix. And I know it’s killing her now to think that she’s hurting you.” His voice softened, “But she’s not the same person she was two years ago. She’s coming up on the half-way mark in her life, and I think she just needs to step back and take stock of who she is and what she wants. At least that’s how it looks to me.”

Neelix thought for a moment, then got a bemused look in his eye. “So you think she’s just going through some kind of mid-life crisis?”

Tom laughed. “Yeah, I guess so. But it’s not about you. It’s about her.”

Neelix smiled. “Well, I hope she knows that I’ll be there for her. If she needs…a friend.”

Tom could see an opportunity walking into the holodeck. “Maybe you should go tell her,” he advised, nodding toward the door where Kes and Harry were standing. Neelix looked hesitant, but Paris grabbed him by the arm and helped him to his feet. “It’s okay,” he said as he pushed the cook from behind. “I’ll take Harry off your hands. Just be brave and do it.”

Tom walked one pace behind as they approached their friends so that Neelix couldn’t chicken out. “Harry,” he called out, “just the man I wanted to see. I think I’m in the mood for some hydrosailing.”

Kim looked confused. “You told me yesterday that you can’t stand hydrosailing. And frankly, neither can I. Besides, it’s almost sunset…”

Tom stepped behind his best friend and gave him a hard shove toward the shoreline. “Trust me,” he said to Harry as he smiled at Kes. “We’ll have a great time. And we’ll see you two later.”

As they headed to the beach, Tom snuck a look over his shoulder to see Kes and Neelix heading off for a walk along the other side of the lake. He couldn’t help but wonder if what he’d said to his friend had been true. He’d been so sure of Kes’s devotion to the man, so positive that she loved Neelix, that Tom had suppressed his own interest in her a few years earlier. He knew now that his own feelings had been a passing infatuation. But what about hers? Hadn’t Kes and Neelix really been in love? And if so, what had gone wrong?

The thought brought him back to another question—one that the last few weeks’ distractions had allowed him to avoid answering. But as he watched the former lovers sit down on a bench along the shore, he wondered again: how was anyone ever positive they were in love with someone? And how could you ever trust deep down that you were loved back?

“What in the hell is going on?!” Harry suddenly asked, interrupting Tom’s thought.

“I told you,” Paris answered. “We’re going hydrosailing. Now shut up and keep walking.”

They had taken a few more steps when Harry stopped and faced him. “Do you even know how to hydrosail?” he asked.

Tom smiled. “As a matter of fact, no. But I’m sure Neelix programmed someone who can teach us.”

~~

B’Elanna picked up the PADD and began reading. This was harder than she’d thought and she was running out of patience. Still, she’d gotten this idea a few weeks earlier, and she wanted to see it through.

But she was out of her league and she knew it. And the one person who could best help her was the one person she couldn’t ask. So, she scanned the tiny screen once again. ‘Isolating the primary holomatrix from the secondary matrices requires the identification of the focal point of the hologrid…’ She threw the device on the table. Why was it that holoprogramming seemed so much more tedious than ripping apart a warp engine? Weren’t systems just systems and logic just logic? Why was this so hard?

She decided instead to go back to her other research and rifled through the stack of datapads. ‘A roller coaster relies primarily on the principles of inertia and gravity. Early 20th Century models were composed primarily of wood, while the introduction of steel coasters allowed for such features as loops, steep banks, and plunging dives…’

Maybe this was a mistake. Maybe she should just admit to Tom that she had one of his missing programs and let him do the tinkering. But this one was special to her.

It had been roughly one year to the day since he had surprised her with the carnival program on one of their thoroughly-platonic Friday ‘date nights.’ By chance, Harry had been unable to join them, and Tom had introduced her to midway games, to ‘rides’ that tossed her body through the air—and into his—and to an old Earth delicacy called ‘pizza.’ Paris had just survived the Warp 10 experiment—and they had just survived their first serious professional collaboration. Friendship had been a stretch at that point. Anything more than friendship: incomprehensible.

Yet she had thought about it, she now admitted to herself. Or at least thought about thinking about it.

B’Elanna shook her head, realizing that she couldn’t help equivocating even in her musings, and she wondered if she could finally admit that she was thinking about it now.

That night, they’d sat on a holographic beach and talked for hours. He told her about his interest in the ocean, about his father’s insistence on a Starfleet career—and about his shock when Janeway had offered him a way to reinvent himself twice over. She’d talked about her feelings of alienation at the Academy, about her mother’s controlling nature, and how hard it was for her to believe that she’d become the chief engineer on a Federation Starship.

They’d looked out over the ocean, and looked up at the stars, and shared parts of themselves they’d kept hidden for years. Their friendship was christened that night. And, when their time had expired and they were walking out across the midway, they’d made a promise to each other: to finish the program together.

And, from what she could see of the parameters file, he’d actually started without her. On the north side of the beach, set slightly off from the other amusement rides, he’d added something she knew was meant just for her. It was a large, circular steel contraption that held a series of benches between its two giant rings. A ‘Ferris Wheel’ Tom had called it. ‘A ride that you might actually enjoy’ he’d said.

She noticed the time index of the program’s last update. It explained a lot about why they’d never gone back to it. His additions were made right in the middle of his undercover mission to trap Michael Jonas, during a time when he’d been forced to avoid her—when she and Paris were barely speaking. Soon after this last update, Tom had announced his plans to leave Voyager—ostensibly to join a Talaxian convoy, though she knew now that he had made himself the bait for Seska and her Kazon goons. Tom thought he was leaving for good that night, and he’d sent her the program as a goodbye gift.

At the time, she wasn’t sure why she’d kept it. And there were other times over the past year—when their friendship had lifted her spirits or plunged her into despair—that she’d called up the program with the intention of either using or destroying it. But she couldn’t do either. There was something symbolic about this collection of photons and forcefields. Something that suggested the promise of possibilities still unexplored.

Now it was all that was left of Tom’s holographic handiwork. He deserved to have it back.

But she wanted to do more than just return the program; she wanted to return the favor—to make her own addition. Something that would be a sign to him. This would be her way of saying with her actions what she couldn’t bring herself to say with words: that she wanted them to go back and start over. That she’d cherished that time when they were first getting to know each other—when a simple carnival ride and a talk on the beach had helped them to discover each other. That she was ready to begin that process of discovery again.

But the sentiment didn’t miraculously give her Tom’s gifts as a holoprogrammer. And her attempts were doing nothing but wasting precious time—the one year anniversary of their ‘date’ had technically passed almost two weeks earlier, and she was still thoroughly stymied by the roller coaster she’d been trying to create for the last ten days. Hell, she could have easily built two of the damn things for real in that amount of time! But a virtual coaster—getting the holomatrix and the specifics of the inertial dampers synched to give the real sensation of the forces of inertia and gravity on a humanoid body at just the right moments—not to mention making it look and feel authentic when she’d never seen nor ridden one herself… B’Elanna was almost ready to admit that it was beyond her level of skill.

Of course, Harry could help her. He was almost as good a holoprogrammer as Tom. But then the carnival wouldn’t be private any more. And neither would her intentions.

No, she’d just have to keep plugging along at it alone.

But suddenly another thought struck her. The memory of another program, another shoreline—and another chance they’d almost taken but had missed. B’Elanna got up and walked to her desk, calling out as she went. “Computer, access the historical database and call up the construction blueprints for the”—what was it’s name?—“for the Chalfonte Hotel in, um, Cape May, New Jersey. Circa 1943.”

‘He’d better appreciate this,’ she thought; this addition was going to require some serious work. Then she smiled. So what if it took her a few more weeks to get it right? This was important, and too symbolic to do haphazardly. Besides, when it was finally ready, B’Elanna knew that she’d have to be ready, too. Until then, she’d keep him just interested enough to stick around, but not so close that he’d catch on to her plan.

‘Senior officers, report to the briefing room.’

B’Elanna sighed, threw the new PADD onto her already cluttered desk, and pulled on her uniform jacket. ‘Dammit, Chakotay!’ she thought as she headed for the door. At this rate, the damn program would never get finished.

~~

“Saved by the bell,” Tom said to Harry as they made their way to the holodeck exit.

“Damn right,” his friend said. “Two more minutes with that creepy Talaxian hydrosailing instructor and I would have dumped you right in the lake. What the hell was that about, anyway?”

They had almost reached the terrace where Kes and Neelix were obviously waiting for them. “I just think you need to learn a new sport,” Tom lied, deciding to keep his conversation with Neelix private. “Volleyball is getting boring, don’t you think?”

Harry glanced over his shoulder at his friend. “Who are you, and what have you done with Tom Paris?” he asked, only half-jokingly. “Or has there been a development with B’Elanna that I don’t know about?”

Tom ignored his friend’s question. “I wonder what Chakotay wants at this hour,” he said, trying to change the subject. They had reached Neelix and Kes, and Tom was just as anxious to find out how his friends’ conversation had gone as he was to steer his own conversation away from his on-again, off-again friendship with B’Elanna. He tried to catch Neelix’s eye, but soon realized he didn’t have to.

“After you, Kessy,” Tom heard him say gently as they waited for Kes to lead them out. The hints of smiles on their faces suggested that they’d started the hard work of cobbling their failed romance into a new friendship. Somehow, the thought made Tom both relieved and a little sad.

They all walked together to the turbolift, Harry prattling on about hating hydrosailing, Neelix and Kes looking both embarrassed and relieved, and Tom contemplating complexities of friendship and love, and feeling even more confused about the difference.

Then lift doors opened, and he saw B’Elanna standing there, looking a little surprised to see them.

“Hi,” Tom said as he stepped in and stood next to her.

“Hi, yourself,” she answered, once again showing the hint of a sly grin. “Having a nice night?” she asked.

“Not until now,” he answered truthfully, knowing he was flirting and totally unable to control it.

“Oh, is that so?” she asked, flirting right back. “And why is that?”

He leaned closer to her, but kept his gaze straight ahead. “Must have something to do with the company.”

When she didn’t answer, he looked over at her, and continued. “What about you? How’s your night so far?”

Tom saw the corners of her mouth turn down. “If you must know, it’s been an exercise in frustration. And this interruption isn’t helping.”

He was dying to ask what she’d been doing—and was afraid to know, all at the same time. “Well,” he said casually, “if there’s ever anything I can help you with…”

“Thanks,” she interrupted. For a moment, he thought she might snap at him, but her voice turned soft instead. “But this is something I need to do for myself.”

The doors opened and they stepped into the aft corridor behind the bridge. Neelix, Kes, and Harry walked ahead, and Tom was glad to see that Neelix’s mood seemed to have improved considerably. Maybe things would be okay between him and Kes after all.

Paris lingered for a moment, looking around as if he’d dropped something, making any excuse he could think of to spend a few extra seconds alone with B’Elanna. “Are you missing something?” she asked as her eyes followed his across the floor.

Tom stopped his search and looked at her, deciding in a split second to answer her honestly. “Only you,” he said matter-of-factly. Then he winked at her and smiled a sad smile as he headed for the briefing room.

~~

B’Elanna lingered for a moment as Tom walked away—just a step or two behind him, but enough that she could sneak a smile without him seeing her. So, he missed her, huh? Well, she missed him, too. But if her little side project worked out as she planned, they’d be spending a lot more time together soon.

Of course, she was kicking herself that she’d never taken him up on his offer of some free tutoring in advanced holographic imaging. It would have come in handy right about now.

As they entered the briefing room, Torres took her now-customary seat next to Paris and waited for the captain to start. “Neelix,” Janeway began firmly, “I need you to tell me everything you know about the Tak Tak…”

~*~*~*~*~

Personal log, Ensign Vorik. Stardate 50423.1:

I had the strangest dream last night. I was on Vulcan–in front of my father’s home–when I saw him walk past me. He was talking with Salesk and didn’t seem to see me standing right in front of them. As they approached, I could hear my father release her from our pledge. “My son is lost.” I heard him say. “It is time for you to choose a new mate.”

When I woke up, it occurred to me that my subconscious was most likely trying to prepare itself for the inevitability that I will not be able to reach Vulcan should I begin…

Of course, there is no reason to believe that…

I am exhibiting none of the physical symptoms at this time.

No doubt, the last few days are to blame for these strange dreams. I have been working additional duty shifts and my sleep patterns have clearly failed to adjust to my new schedule.

Voyager is currently operating at sub-light speeds while the Captain and Mister Neelix are away on a diplomatic mission. Lieutenant Torres has decided–since the warp drive is not currently in use–that we should take this opportunity to do some routine maintenance on the engines. She is concerned about a small misalignment I detected in the warp coils several weeks ago, and insists that we “seize the day” and try to effect repairs.

Never one to push this sort of responsibility off on her staff, the Lieutenant has been working double shifts, as well. Yesterday, she complimented me on my progress as an engineer and suggested that we work together on a plan for a long-term refit of the warp coil assembly. She said that I have a “knack” for warp engine repair, and that she was glad to have me on “her team.”

I also happened to notice that she has been spending less and less time with Lieutenant Paris these days. A wise move on her part, I believe. Last night, I overheard Lieutenant Nicoletti tell Lieutenant Ayala that Mister Paris has been interested in the Doctor’s Ocampan medical assistant for quite a while, and that he was sure to “drop B’Elanna like a hot potato” now that Kes is available once again.

I’m not sure of the significance of being “dropped,” but it does sound unpleasant.

[End recording.]

~~*~~

The recipe was his grandmother’s: a classic American pot roast. So what if the meat was replicated, the carrots were airponic hybrids, and the potatoes were really Talaxian tubers? Tom knew that this was his chance to prove that decent food was just as easy to make as the culinary cartoons Neelix was known for. But—more importantly—if he was on mess hall duty all afternoon, odds were he’d be there when B’Elanna came in to eat, and they might be able to have a meal together. Finally.

He’d volunteered to cover for Voyager’s chef and morale officer after the briefing a few nights earlier; Captain Janeway had asked Neelix to accompany her on a trade mission to the Tak Tak homeworld. The captain relied on their resident alien’s vast knowledge about the region, and Neelix had heard stories about the mercurial nature of this race. Their gestural language was difficult to master, he’d said, and they seemed to be easily offended. But they also had a reputation for fairness and generosity—if one could negotiate their quirks and biases.

Tom could tell at the time that Neelix was flattered and anxious to accept the assignment. But, as was his nature, Voyager’s ‘father hen’ worried about who would take care of the crew’s needs while he was gone. He seemed shocked—and grateful—when Tom volunteered to pitch in.

But the past few weeks had been hard on Neelix, Paris knew. He realized this trip might be a chance for his friend to put some distance between himself and Kes, and maybe be reminded that he had more to offer than just his recipe for pleeka casserole.

Besides, if Tom got some time with B’Elanna out of it as a reward for his thoughtfulness, all the better.

Paris had prepared this meal three times before. His cousin taught him to make it when he was twelve and staying with his grandparents over a winter break. He’d tried it again when he was seventeen and home alone—well, not exactly alone—while his parents were away for the weekend. The last time was at the Academy when he was trying to impress—damn! what was her name?—Alice! Alice Batistie. Tom quickly realized that—other than the initial cooking lesson with his cousin—he’d used this meal to impress women.

His success rate? Fifty percent. Paris laughed at the thought of his diametric results: at seventeen, the meal had ended with a romantic if less than stellar romp in his bedroom as he lost his virginity with Angela Dempsey. Four years later, he hadn’t been quite so lucky; Alice Batistie didn’t even bother to show up for their date. And, in fairness to her, she’d never said she would. It was wishful thinking on Tom’s part to invite a woman who wouldn’t say more than two words to him over to his dorm for a private dinner.

In the middle of seasoning his latest creation, the question popped into Tom’s mind: was B’Elanna going to turn out to be an Angela or an Alice?

Neither, he realized. B’Elanna wasn’t like any woman he had ever known. Still, there were parallels to his current situation: to whatever extent one could reclaim their virginity, Paris certainly felt like he had, and he constantly seemed to be propositioning a woman who, in her own way, never showed up.

Following Neelix’s instructions to the letter, Tom fired up the burner on the galley stove, placed his perfectly spiced pot roast into the roasting pan, then moved over to the cutting board to start chopping the vegetables that would help flavor it. No more than five minutes had passed before he began to feel the heat on the back of his neck. When he turned around to wonder why, Paris could see the metal pan start to glow a faint orange and watched helplessly as his carefully-tended pot roast instantaneously turned into a shriveled hunk of coal.

He used a long slotted spoon to turn off the stove, then let himself groan loudly. This was a huge annoyance. More than that: the first diners had started to arrive. There wasn’t time to fix the stove and start his preparations all over again. Tom knew he had no choice now but to cheat.

He moved to the replicator—grateful that Neelix had allotted him the cook’s daily ‘grocery’ rations—and tried to keep his voice down as he asked for what he needed. “One Yankee pot roast, medium well,” he said softly.

Nothing happened.

He looked around to see the starboard doors to the mess hall open and a dozen hungry crewmen pour in. Paris turned back to the replicator and began punching in codes, trying to get something—anything—edible out of the machine.

For a man who felt such an affinity for gadgets, Tom wondered why it was that the mess hall replicators seemed to have it in for him—since the first day he set foot aboard Voyager. That was a question for another time, however. It wouldn’t take long for the crew to figure out that there was nothing to eat, and who was to blame. “Paris to engineering!” he said as he slapped his commbadge.

“Ensign Vorik here.” Tom was grateful to hear the Vulcan’s voice. Vorik was the least-likely engineer to spread the news of his little culinary disaster around the ship.

“Vorik, you need to get somebody up to the mess hall right now. The stove is on the fritz, and now the replicators are down. I need an engineer up here on the double.”

“Aye, sir,” he heard the polite reply. Tom walked back to the galley to see if there was any chance his roast could be salvaged. One close-up look answered his question: it was a cinder. And raw potatoes and onions were hardly a decent lunch.

‘Come on Vorik,’ Paris thought as he tried to look busy. ‘Rescue me.’

~~

B’Elanna had just come back to Main Engineering when she thought heard a familiar voice over the com. She walked over to Ensign Vorik who seemed to have taken the ‘call.’

“What’s wrong?” she asked, a little concerned at the panic she’d detected in Tom’s tone.

If she didn’t know it was impossible, she’d swear the young Vulcan was nervous. “Lieutenant Paris called. There’s an emergency in the mess hall. I was about to go assist him.”

“No,” she said more stridently than she’d intended. “I’ll take this one.”

The ensign took a step back and nodded solemnly. “As you wish, Lieutenant.”

She was a little worried, now, and hurried out the door without remembering to grab an engineering kit. Still, she couldn’t quite figure out what kind of engineering emergency Tom would be having in the mess hall.

She’d barely seen him in the past two days. With the captain and Neelix away, and Voyager cruising at impulse until their return, B’Elanna had decided to take the opportunity to do some routine maintenance on the warp drive. Nothing was really wrong with the engines, but she’d come to have a sixth-sense about her warp coils, and something was telling her she’d be wise to act before a minor misalignment turned into a disaster in the making.

So she’d been pulling double shifts and sneaking in a little work on the carnival program’s brand new hotel during any free moment she could find.

But, as she headed to his rescue, B’Elanna couldn’t help but think about something Tom had said a few nights earlier: that he missed her. The feeling was completely mutual, though part of her knew she had been going out of her way to avoid him the past few weeks. If he knew why, she thought, he’d relax a little and be patient. She wasn’t pulling back or withdrawing from him. In fact, she was making a concrete plan to start their friendship over—only this time, on the right foot. She knew exactly how she’d do it, too: make some excuse to get him to meet her on the holodeck, then surprise him a special dinner for two in his own forgotten program. He’d understand, then, that she hadn’t been rejecting him. She’d just been waiting for the perfect moment.

If she ever finished the damn additions.

Until then, she was enjoying the way their flirtation had started to kick into higher gear. And, like the intermix formula for matter and antimatter, she’d have to keep the temperature of their interaction just right until she was ready to reveal her plans. And her feelings. She hoped they could both find the patience to get them there.

Of course, at the moment, B’Elanna knew she could stand to have a little of that patience herself. Because she was in a hurry, no doubt, the lift ride to Deck 2 seemed to be taking forever.

When she finally made it, she was relived not to smell smoke or see hoards of fleeing crewmen pouring out from the mess hall doors. On the contrary: her keen nose wasn’t detecting any odors—including this deck’s customary aromas of cooking food.

She walked in to find the room packed with people who didn’t look too happy to be there. She was surprised to find Tom behind the counter. “B’Elanna! Thank god you’re here. The natives are getting restless.”

This still didn’t make any sense. “What’s the emergency?” she wondered.

Tom’s expression turned sour as he reached behind him and retrieved what looked like a black brick on a cooking skewer. “I volunteered to help out while Neelix is away on the trade mission. The heating array overloaded; it incinerated a 12 kilo pot roast and all the food replicators went offline.”

She had a sudden urge to laugh in his face. Tom Paris cooking lunch for the entire alpha shift was a mental image she’d never imagined she’d have. Instantly, she pictured him in Baytart’s cookout program, standing at the old fashioned barbecue grill in a poofy white hat and Pablo’s silly apron that said, ‘kiss the cook.’ It was endearing and hysterical all at the same time.

“Umm. Looks delicious,” she said, eying the charred meat. She turned around to smile so he couldn’t see her face, then headed over to check out her faulty equipment. “Maybe there’s a problem with the bioneural gelpack in the replicator panel.”

She knew she’d struck a nerve when Tom’s voice got loud. He was defending his honor in front of his hungry patrons, she realized, as he strutted over to where she was standing. “Actually, I’m a pretty good cook—when engineering is doing its job!”

This was a dangerous tactic for a desperate man to take. “Oh, so this is my fault?!” she shot back at him. He was asking for it, now, she thought.

His public performance continued. “Well the gelpacks are your department, aren’t they? Besides, what was I supposed to tell all these hungry, irritable people?”

His embarrassment and wounded pride had caused him to make a crucial tactical error, she realized. B’Elanna knew that she was the only thing standing between Tom and full-fledged, hunger-induced riot. “You know, I think that there’s a plasma relay on Deck 7 that really needs repair…” she teased as she pretended to head for the door.

Tom’s arm flew up against the bulkhead in front of her, blocking her way. “Oh, no! You can’t leave me now, Lieutenant!”

‘He called me lieutenant.’ Then she knew she was right: they were flirting big time, now. “Oh, you need me,” she teased him, suspecting it was all too true. “I’m touched.”

She saw Tom look for a moment like he was about to give her a zinger of a comeback, but the ambiguity of her words seemed to sink in, and he smiled instead.

B’Elanna bent down and pulled the service panel off of the replicator. “What’s going on here?” She didn’t need her tricorder to see why the unit wasn’t working. “It looks like this gelpack has an infection. Half the neurodes have been burned out, and the pack is filled with some kind of mucilaginous compound.” She pressed gently on its transparent skin. “Tom call the Doctor and tell him…”

As she spoke, the gelpack burst and squirted a thick stream of mucous all over her hand. Startled, she pulled back and stood up, jerking her hand out of the unit and looking at the mess that was now covering her fingers.

“B’Elanna,” Tom gasped as he saw her hand. He didn’t wait to react. “Paris to sickbay. We need the Doctor in the mess hall right away.”

He was supporting her arm and guiding her to the nearest table. B’Elanna wasn’t sure if Tom was overreacting or not. “Kyoto,” she heard him call. “Grab me a towel from the galley.” As soon as he had it, he began wiping the viscous gel off her hand. “Sit down,” he said gently. “Let me get this stuff off of you. Are you burned? Does it hurt?”

B’Elanna couldn’t help but notice that her angry fencing partner had almost instantly turned into her gentle medic. “No,” she said, still a little taken off guard, “it’s sticky and disgusting, but it doesn’t hurt. Though my hand is starting to tingle a little.” She realized, at that moment, that the contaminated gel had gotten on Tom’s hands, too. “You should be careful,” she said, too late for it to matter. “That fluid is infected. It could be a biohazard.”

Paris looked at his own fingers for less than a second. “Don’t worry about me. What’s sharing a few germs between friends?” He tried to make light of the risk, but she could see the concern in his eyes. “Besides, the Doc is on his way.”

He was right, she realized. There was nothing they could do at the moment. Still, the temperature in the room felt like it had gone up by ten degrees and she could sense a rumbling starting in her abdomen. Could she be infected this quickly, just by touching the stuff?

B’Elanna looked over and saw a bead of sweat start to appear on Tom’s forehead, and his face was turning pale. Dammit, she was getting sick, and he was, too. He tried not to show it, though. Instead, his face was a knot of concern, and she hated seeing him so worried about her.

“I’m fine,” she forced herself to say. “Besides, it was probably inevitable. So what difference does it make if we all get sick from this stupid goo instead of from your pot roast?”

Instantly, the fire was back in Tom’s eyes, with a barely-concealed laugh right behind it. “I told you, I’m a good cook,” he said defensively. “And maybe a better engineer would have known not to poke a hole in an infected gelpack.”

He was still wiping her hands with the kitchen cloth, and she felt him squeeze her fingers as he spoke. They both knew they were teasing, and she felt better knowing he was willing to return her fire.

Before their sparring match could continue, though, the Doctor showed up. “What’s the problem?” he asked as he walked to them. “Or did someone actually try to eat Mister Paris’s cooking?”

B’Elanna started to get worried when she saw that Tom let the insult go unanswered. “Over here, Doc,” she heard him say.

She turned her head to look at the EMH, and the room started to spin. Only then did she notice that the rest of the crew were starting to look like she felt—horrible. Her next clue that something was really wrong: the Doctor’s jokes suddenly stopped.

The physician walked to stand beside her. B’Elanna noticed that Tom was now propping himself up by his arms as he waited for the results of her examination. She wasn’t sure, if he felt as bad as she now did, how he could even stay standing. “One of the replicator gelpacks is infected and the fluid got all over B’Elanna’s hand,” he was explaining to the EMH.

She could hear coughing and groaning from all over the room, then the whine of the Doctor’s tricorder as it scanned her. “Oh, no!” she heard him say—never a good sign in the middle of your medical exam. “Doctor to the bridge. The macrovirus is aboard Voyager and appears to be…airborne. I suggest a Level 4 quarantine of the mess hall and all adjoining sections.”

Tom struggled to stand upright. “What’s going on?” he asked. “Is she gonna be okay?” It didn’t slip B’Elanna’s notice that in a room full of sick people—himself included—Tom’s biggest concern was whether or not she’d be alright.

The Doctor spoke to the room as he answered. “Don’t worry, everyone. I’m familiar with this virus and have already begun working on an antigen. Just stay here and try to stay calm.” The EMH then quickly collected a sample of the gel from the replicator and headed back to sickbay.

B’Elanna could tell now that she was developing a high fever, but it was the pain in her abdomen that was really killing her. She wondered how long it would be before she lost consciousness.

They’d been waiting for almost a half-hour and there was no word from sickbay. B’Elanna’s neck was aching now, and she could feel a knot forming below her right ear. It didn’t hurt, but it itched liked crazy. Unfortunately, she didn’t have the strength to scratch it.

Tom was sitting next to her now, but with his chair turned to prop up his head. She could tell that he was trying to find a comfortable position that would let him keep watch over her. It was sweet, but a waste of his strength; she knew there was nothing he could do to help her.

“So,” he said between groans, “we have to get quarantined together before I get to spend more than five minutes with you these days. Is everything okay?”

It was an ironic question considering their medical situation. “Everything’s fine. Really.” She took a shallow breath and suppressed the urge to vomit. “I’ve just been working on a project that’s been taking up most of my time.” She panted now, afraid that a deep breath might cause her to lose her grip on whatever was left over of her breakfast. “I should be finished soon.”

An odd look crossed Tom’s face and B’Elanna wasn’t sure if it was his stomach turning or his reaction to her reassurance. “So, after you’re done with your secret mission,” he gasped. “Maybe we can finally have that dinner you owe me.”

She didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry. “Dammit,” she croaked. “If you mention eating again, I’ll drag you by your boots into the corridor…”

Tom chuckled—then sucked in a shallow breath. “Point taken,” he said. Being Tom Paris, however, she knew he wouldn’t be able to leave it at that. “Well, so much for lunch.”

She wanted to smack him for teasing her. But that would have required moving, and it was everything she could do to hold her head up. “I may never look at food again,” she said honestly.

Tom hesitated for just a second, then kept up their game. “I thought Klingons didn’t get nauseated. You have a redundant stomach.”

Something about his knowing that made her just as uncomfortable as the damn virus she was struggling to fight off. Had he been studying up on her anatomy?

The thought took her mind to places she was in no condition to go. “Well, right now they’re both unhappy,” she grunted. Still, she wondered…where had that comment come from? Not that it mattered at the moment.

B’Elanna arched her back and stretched. She was losing her battle to stay conscious, she knew. Her neck tickled now, and she noticed that the mess hall lights seemed to be getting dim…

~*~*~*~*~

Personal log, Ensign Vorik. Stardate 54037.2:

I am almost completely recovered from the viral infection that debilitated most of the crew. There seem to be some lingering effects, however: sleeplessness, a lack of interest in food…and a few others not worth mentioning here. But the sickbay has been overtaxed the last few days and I have decided to forego any additional treatment at this time.

I have been giving some further thought to the issues surrounding the potential need for Voyager’s crew to procreate, and have come to believe that some sexual pairings make more sense, logically, than others.

For instance, it seems only logical that crewmen of the same race would be the first to forge partnerships, if only to avoid the complications of interspecies abnormalities among their offspring. This presents the least difficulty to the humans, who make up the greatest percentage of Voyager’s complement. The more difficult questions arise with those personnel with a unique genetic background. There are several Bolians and Bajorans, a Betazoid, and, of course, Mister Neelix and Kes are the only crewmen of their species at the moment. Then there’s B’El…Lieutenant Torres. She is the only person aboard with a quasi-Klingon genetic make-up, and therefore–despite the fact that she is half-human–I believe she might find it a challenge to select a partner who could withstand the rigors of Klingon intercourse–as I have come to understand it from my research–much less appreciate the subtleties of her changing moods and complex character.

My own situation presents a few unique challenges as well. While there are two other Vulcans aboard Voyager, only one of which is female, both have long-term mates to whom they have already bonded. Of course, this entire subject is irrelevant until I begin to… Well, suffice it to say, it is currently irrelevant.

I must end this recording now, as I have volunteered to join the team making repairs to Holodeck 1. It seems the Captain’s antiviral bomb blew a considerable hole in the hologrid.

Perhaps B’Elanna would like to have dinner with me after our work is finished.

[End recording.]

~~*~~

To Tom Paris, the damage to his favorite holodeck only added insult to injury. This was as close as the helmsman came to a chapel aboard Voyager, and he hated seeing his temple desecrated. Not that he had any reason to spend time here lately; his own programs were all deleted and Neelix’s resort hadn’t been bringing him the best of luck since it opened.

Still, when the captain asked for volunteers to repair the damage she’d done while ridding the ship of the macrovirus, Tom was among the first to raise his hand. Of course, he knew it had as much to do with the woman who would be co-leading this effort.

B’Elanna would oversee the group charged with the physical repairs to the deck, grid and emitters. Tom’s team—himself and Ensign Tabor—would make repairs to Neelix’s resort matrix, the program that was running when the bomb went off, and restore the character parameters file, which Janeway had been forced to alter. Paris was grateful for the break from the helm and for the rare chance to work side by side with his favorite engineer.

Today, however, he was relegated to the holoimaging lab, as he and Tabor called up the resort’s holographic residents one by one, and reset their personality subroutines. Since there was no longer a need for the ‘entertainment directors’ to shy away in fear of giant viruses, they could go back to their blissful photonic ignorance, and bubbly personalities.

They’d been at it for almost an hour when Tom saw the name of the next character in the file. Before Tabor could punch in the sequence to bring him to ‘life,’ Paris held out his hand. “Hey, Tabor, look, could you do me a favor?”

The ensign looked up at him quizzically. “Sure, Lieutenant. What do you need?” Tabor was a nice guy, Tom knew, but he was a serious kid who probably would have some serious questions about what his partner in this project was about to do.

“I need you to run down to engineering and run a quick diagnostic on the power relays to the lab,” Paris lied. “I just saw a nasty spike on this console and I think we should make sure this room didn’t take some collateral damage from the blast.”

Tabor had been a Maquis, and he wasn’t stupid, but he also seemed to have the sense not to question an order from a superior officer. “Yes, sir,” he said curiously, before heading out the door.

Tom busied himself at the console, a concerned look on his face, until he was finally alone in the lab. With the punch of a button, the next sequential character appeared before him.

Ricardo.

Tom could see from the file’s annotation that this character wasn’t originally a part of the resort. He was a wrestler from an obscure athletic program, who had been transferred into the resort’s character file by Voyager’s chief engineer. So, B’Elanna hadn’t just come across her little holographic blow-up doll; she’d requested him and even altered his clothing.

Well, Tom realized, better photonic competition than the real thing.

Still, he wanted to make sure this little game only went so far. “Computer,” he called out, “open the character parameters file.”

‘Working,’ he heard the machine say.

“Adjust the personality subroutines on Resort Character 9-9-Beta-2. Restore the default settings.” He considered stopping there. But only for a second. “And give him an aversion to Klingons.”

‘Specify,’ it asked.

“Make him afraid of Klingon women,” Paris clarified. “If he sees a woman who even remotely looks Klingon, have him excuse himself and head to the far side of the resort.”

‘Acknowledged.’

Still, Tom wasn’t sure that was enough. “Computer, raise the pitch of the character’s voice by, oh, say, 0.5 octaves, and decrease the size of his…” No. He couldn’t do that. Could he? No. “Of his pectoral muscles by five centimeters.” Close enough.

‘Acknowledged.’

Of course, this would all be for nothing if B’Elanna ever caught on and restore the file. “Computer, save this character’s parameters and restrict all changes to my voiceprint, authorization Paris 7-Gamma-2.”

‘Acknowledged.’

“See ya’ around, Ricardo,” Tom muttered as he moved on with his task. This day was getting better and better.

~~

B’Elanna hated running late, but today it just couldn’t be avoided. She’d finally finished the design specifications for the historic hotel she would add across from the carnival site, and had to save her changes before she could get dressed. This simple project had grown to consume every free hour of the past month and a half, and she knew she had to get it behind her before she followed Starling’s lead and deleted the damn thing herself.

Besides, she hadn’t really wasted her time on the research she’d done on old amusement parks. There were still plenty of things they might ultimately want to add at some point. In fact, she’d developed a fondness for some of the more permanent fixtures—a roller coaster, for instance, was one of the more thrilling rides she had come across—even though they generally weren’t found at a traveling carnival.

Of course, a contraption that complex was outside her programming skills, she now realized, and so she’d settled on the hotel instead. Sure—technically—it wasn’t supposed to be a part of this program, but it did represent another equally meaningful night she and Tom had spent together near the ocean. A night when she’d been sure that he was going to ask her out for the first time.

And, since he’d been hounding her to have dinner with him for almost two months now, what better place to take him than to the veranda of a historic hotel in the middle of a 1940’s USO show, where they could have something to eat, listen to some music of the period…maybe even dance.

‘You’d better be sure you’re ready for this,’ she thought to herself, equally excited and afraid of where this dinner might lead. But she was ready. Wasn’t she?

Now all she needed was to position the hotel properly in the holomatrix, adjust some of the streetscaping to make room for it, and reset the inertial damper settings so that the rides she’d moved still ‘felt’ authentic. That was the tricky part, she knew.

She arrived at Deck 6, still thinking about her morning’s handiwork—and ran right into the Vulcan pacing the corridor just outside the turbolift.

“Vorik!” she said startled. “What the hell are you doing standing here like that?”

The ensign looked uncharacteristically flustered. If she didn’t know it was impossible, Torres would have sworn he was blushing.

“Excuse me, Lieutenant. I became…concerned…when you hadn’t arrived for our scheduled appointment. I was considering whether or not to wait for you here or in the holodeck, or perhaps meet you at your quarters…”

Her eyes got wide. “Well, I’m sorry I’m late, Vorik, but it couldn’t be avoided.”

He was following her down the corridor now, and B’Elanna noticed that he seemed to have a kind of bounce to his step she’d never seen before. On any other crewman it probably wouldn’t have registered, but—for some reason—it seemed odd in a Vulcan. “That’s quite alright,” he said. “I just place a great value on punctuality—as I know you do—and I was concerned that…”

“Whoa!” They were just passing the holoimaging lab, when Tom walked out the door—and right into B’Elanna. He grabbed her shoulders to steady them both. “Where’s the fire?”

What was it today with these near collisions with men in the corridor?! “Lieutenant Paris,” she said subtly nodding to point out the junior engineer standing over her shoulder. Still, she couldn’t conceal the lilt in her voice. “How’s the programming coming? Are all the women still fully clothed?”

She watched as Tom squirmed in front of her. “Women?” he asked, blinking his eyes innocently. “Are there female characters in the resort program? Cause the only woman I can remember seeing there looked pretty real to me.”

She loved that he was flirting with her. She hated that he was doing it in front of Vorik. But the Vulcan was harmless, she knew. Things like this sailed right over his head.

“Actually,” Tom kept smiling, but got back to business, “I just finished restoring the default parameters and I’m waiting for Tabor to get back from an errand. I thought I’d come see how you two were doing. Maybe lend you a hand.”

It was B’Elanna’s turn to squirm. “Sure…” she said slowly, “we’re just getting started. I was running a little late this morning. But we can always use a spare pair of hands.”

“Well, then,” Tom said as he looked at her, “you just tell me where to put my hands, and I’ll get right to work helping you out.” He started walking away from her toward the holodeck.

She couldn’t see his face anymore, but B’Elanna knew—all too well—that he was smirking.

~~

They’d been at it non-stop for most of the morning: soldering deck plating, repairing sections of the grid, and installing new holoemitters. Tabor had joined them, and with four people on the job, the work was going quickly. But they were all still a little weak after their bout with the virus, and the Doctor had ordered all crewmembers doing manual labor to take a rest break every four hours.

Vorik looked unusually green, Tom noticed, and he nudged B’Elanna then nodded at the young Vulcan. “Maybe we should rest for a while,” he said as she looked up. “It’s almost lunchtime.”

She saw the surprisingly pained expression on her young engineer’s face and nodded. “Fine. But let’s replicate something; I don’t want to lose time going all the way up to Deck 2.”

Tom didn’t say anything, but he suspected B’Elanna’s decision to eat in the holodeck had more to do with her last experience in the mess hall. Or maybe it was just him. They’d been trapped there—unconscious and violently ill—for almost a day before the captain had eradicated the virus. Somehow eating in a place where you almost died of what felt like a stomach flu was less than appetizing at the moment.

“Fine,” he answered her. “But we can’t eat here. Let’s go to the lab.” He called out without waiting for a response. “Tabor, Vorik, take five,” he said to the two young men. They both looked grateful for the interruption. “Actually,” Tom corrected when he had their attention, “take twenty. Let’s go replicate ourselves some lunch.”

Tom led them down the hall to the hololab and walked over to the control panel. With five quick flicks of his fingers, Paris called up two square tables, each complete with place settings for two—and carefully spaced a good three feet apart. Then he headed over to the replicator and waited for the others to finish.

Luckily, their time unconscious—and the queasy feeling that had lingered after they were cured—meant most of the crew had rations to spare, including, uncharacteristically, Tom Paris. He took advantage of his windfall and ordered a cheeseburger and a glass of flavored carbonated water.

When he turned around, Tom’s jaw dropped to see Vorik taking the seat across from B’Elanna—leaving one empty chair halfway across the room with Tabor. This wasn’t exactly what he had planned.

Paris walked over to the empty place setting, dropped his tray with a conspicuous thud and grabbed the edge of the table. “Get that end, will ya?” he said to Tabor, barely giving the young man enough time to stand up and get out of the way before dragging it across the room. He let it bang into B’Elanna and Vorik’s table with enough force to spill some of the Vulcan’s tea—and to make a point to everyone else in the room. Then he retrieved his chair and sat down to eat…next to Torres and diagonally from a very surly looking ensign.

“No point in eating alone,” he said, as if he hadn’t been the one to arrange the room in the first place. Then he took a big bite of his cheeseburger and pretended that the others weren’t staring at him.

B’Elanna looked like she was going to laugh, so Tom knew a distraction was called for. “So, Lieutenant,” he said to her. “I think—once we get the second holodeck back on line—I’ll start working on some new holoprograms. Any preferences?”

She took a bite of her salad as she considered the question. Tom thought for a moment that she looked a little nervous, but her voice was surprisingly playful. “What, getting tired of volleyball?” she asked pointedly.

He picked up his glass up before he answered. “That was Harry’s program,” he said wryly. “And, personally, it never did much for me.”

Tom took a long drink, and used the opportunity to sneak a look at the woman by his side. He thought for a moment that he saw the corner of her mouth turn up in a smile. “Well, we never did get to go rock climbing,” she said. “But, I don’t know. You’re the expert programmer. Make whatever you want.”

“Well, you know…” he started to answer just as…

“I hold a Class 4 expert’s certification in Advanced Holoimaging,” Vorik blurted out, as if this conversation had anything to do with him.

“How nice for you,” Tom snapped, “Now about those programs…”

“Really?” B’Elanna was answering the ensign. She suddenly seemed to be riveted to the young Vulcan. “You can do high-level holoprogramming? Matrix integration, too?”

Tom wondered for a moment why she suddenly seemed so impressed by a topic he knew she knew very little about. “Class 4, huh?” Paris said defensively. “I was a Class 4 once. In my junior year.”

No one seemed to be paying attention. Including Tabor, who seemed to be spending most of this meal staring at his tray.

“I’m very experienced at matrix integration,” Vorik continued. “Is there a specific project I can assist you with?”

Suddenly, B’Elanna got very quiet. “Um, no,” she mumbled, before remembering that there were two other people in the room. “Tom, did you say something?”

Paris raised his eyebrows and sighed. “Nothing so interesting as Mister Class 4, here,” he said snidely. He grabbed his cheeseburger with both hands and finished off the rest in three bites. Then he downed his soda in two gulps, threw the napkin on his tray and let his fists smack the table.

“So,” he said as he pushed away from the table and stood up, “isn’t it time we got back to work?” Then he picked up his tray, tossed it into the recycler and hit the button. In a second, he was out the door.

~~

The two ensigns turned to B’Elanna with puzzled expressions on their faces. She just smiled as it slowly dawned on her what had just happened. ‘He’s jealous,’ she realized. For some strange reason, the thought made her feel good.

“Finish your lunch,” she said as she looked at them both. “Then get rid of this furniture and meet us back in Holodeck 1.”

Torres took two more quick sips of her coffee, then stood up and headed out the door.

~~

“I guess the rumors are true,” Tabor said evenly as he picked up his fork. He’d never seen two senior officers flirting and fighting so openly in front of the junior staff.

“I don’t know what you mean,” Vorik answered, nibbling off a piece of bread before throwing it down on the table.

‘Fine,’ Tabor thought as he retreated into his thoughts. ‘I never wanted this damn assignment anyway.’ But he knew he’d finally have a story to tell Jor and Ayala at this week’s poker game. And Tal Celes now owed him a day’s worth of rations.

~~

B’Elanna walked slowly into the holodeck and looked around the room. She quickly saw Tom in the corner to her left, banging away at a piece of the grid with the end of a laser welder. He was using the wrong tool for the job, but somehow she suspected that he wasn’t really intending to fix the grid, just relieving some tension instead.

This was cute, she thought. Tom’s eyes were green more often than blue these days, and a part of her enjoyed thinking that he’d get jealous of someone as harmless as Vorik—or as imaginary as a photonic wrestler. Still, she wasn’t intentionally trying to hurt him.

She walked over to the grid where he was working and handed him a hyperspanner. “Here,” she said gently, “I think you might get better results with this.”

He didn’t even look at her as he took the tool from her hand. “Thanks,” he said evenly. Still, she could see that his face was bright red.

“Listen,” she said gently, “I should be finished my little project soon. And, if I’m not mistaken, I think you owe me a dinner.”

Tom stopped his banging and finally looked down at her. “Yeah,” he said quietly. “I do.”

“Good,” she said as she bent down to pick up a length of grid pipe. “How about right here, a week from Friday?”

He looked afraid to smile, afraid to believe she was actually accepting his fiftieth invitation. “Sure,” he finally said, a hint of the old Tom Paris starting to shine through. “Maybe you’ll get lucky and I’ll decide to cook for you.”

B’Elanna relaxed. An opening like that must mean he was getting over his anger. “Don’t threaten me,” she teased, before handing him the pipe. “Besides, this dinner is on me. Now, Lieutenant, give me that hyperspanner before you hurt yourself.”

She could see the tension drain out of his face. “Yes, ma’am,” he answered sarcastically. She knew then that they’d be fine.

As they got back to work, B’Elanna couldn’t help but think that they were on the verge of something—something that had been churning under the currents of their relationship for well over a year. ‘A week from Friday,’ she thought with just a touch of panic, knowing it was only dinner, but secretly hoping it was the start of much more. She just prayed that when the time finally came she’d be ready.

~*~*~*~*~

Personal Log, Ensign Vorik. Stardate 54039.9:

B’Elanna called me this morning and asked if I would assist her with a personal project. She’s apparently trying her hand at holoprogramming, and needed the assistance of someone with an advanced level of skill.

I find it interesting that she asked for my help, considering the way Lieutenant Paris tried to imply that he was the more experienced programmer, and in light of B’Elanna’s rumored friendship with him. Personally, I don’t put much stock in those stories any longer. If the lieutenant is interested in a romantic relationship with her, I am now convinced it is one-sided. Perhaps he should take the hints she seems to be constantly dropping and move on to another conquest.

It occurs to me that B’Elanna needs someone who will help her tame and manage her more aggressive impulses, someone superior to her in physical strength, and a complimentary counterpart who can help her find a way to suppress and control her volatile Klingon nature. Lieutenant Paris is too weak, too unstable, and seems to be determined to antagonize her. Frankly, the very thought of him near her…

Well, suffice it to say, I think they make an illogical choice of potential mates. I only wish he could see that as clearly as she and I do.

[Pause recording.]

[Resume.]

I have begun to wonder if…

I am almost at the age when I should expect the onset of…

I find that I am becoming distracted when left alone with my thoughts in the evening. During the day, I have my duties and my projects and my colleagues around me as a distraction. At night, however, when I know I should be deep in meditation, I find my thoughts wandering back to her, to her face, her hair, the smell of her. I tell myself that it’s my fatigue, an after-effect of the virus, or even the random wanderings of an over-taxed mind. But the truth is out there, circling me like a vulture. And I know that soon I will have to consider the possibility that none of these reasons are at the heart of my problem.

Until then, however, I will increase my efforts at meditation, and consider the alternatives should my fears prove true…

[End recording.]

~~*~~

Tom was having a good week. He’d had a surprisingly friendly conversation with Chakotay on an away mission the day before, and the first officer had suggested that he and Harry join some of the former Maquis at the resort after they got off duty tonight. Chakotay even insinuated that B’Elanna might be there in a way that made Tom think he knew something about their ongoing flirtation.

Not that he felt like he needed Chakotay’s permission to flirt with her. But it had become fairly clear over the past two years that B’Elanna’s former captain thought of himself as her big brother, and that anyone interested in ‘joining the family’ would have an easier time with the man’s blessing than his opposition.

In a way, Tom thought, the progress in his relationship with Chakotay was almost more remarkable than the inroads he’d made with B’Elanna. Only a year ago, he’d spent a month baiting the man, trying to pick any fight he could—going so far as to deck the first officer in the middle of the bridge. He wondered, at the time, if Chakotay would ever forgive him once the plan was revealed. Or if he’d ever forgive the Captain.

And the process was slow-going. Until New Earth turned the two commanding officers’ lives on end—and until Tom rescued the crew from Seska and the Kazon on Hanon IV a few weeks later. They never talked about it openly, but Paris knew Chakotay felt responsible for their capture, and that he credited Tom with fixing his mistake. After that, they’d developed a distant, but mutually respectful professional relationship, and had even shot an occasional game of pool together in Sandrine’s.

All things considered, Tom realized, it was probably a good thing he’d done so much to reclaim his reputation. Paris had found out that morning that there had been a murder on the space station they were now orbiting and that a Federation phaser had been used in the crime. There was a time, he knew, when his name would have been the first one to occur to anyone looking for a potential criminal among the Voyager crew. This morning at the briefing, he’d spent a few anxious seconds watching the faces of his senior officers, looking for some sign that he was under suspicion. But it never came. In fact, afterward the first officer had reminded him of their plans to try out the newly-repaired resort program and coordinated a meeting time for tomorrow’s trip back to the station to pick up the supplies that had bartered for.

So, with Chakotay’s absolution, Paris was finally starting to feel that the ghost of the screw-up he had once been was behind him for good. He could devote his energy to looking forward instead of back—and that included a long-awaited dinner on the holodeck. ‘One more night,’ he thought to himself, wondering how something so simple as a dinner had begun to take on such mythic proportions.

Still, this time it had been B’Elanna’s idea. And Tom felt reassured that she really had been busy lately and wasn’t just avoiding him. And he wondered what the heck this project was that she’d been working on for so long…

The doors to the storage room opened, snapping Tom’s attention back to the task at hand: looking for a needle in a haystack.

He looked over his shoulder to see Voyager’s newest ambassador, a position the captain had created after their successful trade mission with the Tak Tak. “Hey, Neelix! What’s up?”

He could tell right away that his friend was out of sorts. Tom wondered if something had happened with Kes. “Oh, nothing.” He was downright glum. “I just thought I might give you a hand with…whatever it is that you’re doing.”

Paris hoped that maybe his own good mood might help lift his friend’s. Still, there was nothing exciting about this particular project. “You may regret that. Chakotay and I have to pick up a supply of biomimetic gel tomorrow morning, and I am trying to find the container that’s listed as the proper transport device.” He looked down at the PADD in his hand and read off the specifications. “Starfleet standard issue L647X7.”

Neelix made a mental note of the number, and started looking around the room. “Oh, sounds like another set of eyes wouldn’t hurt.”

This was a pretty simple task that hardly required two people. But Tom sensed that his friend was searching for more than just something to do. He kept looking, though, and decided to let Neelix get around to the point in his own time.

“Tom, if it’s not too bold of me, I was wondering if I could ask you something?” Finally.

“Sure. Anything.” He meant that. There was nothing he wouldn’t do for this man who had been so kind to him for so long.

Still, Neelix looked more uncomfortable than Tom had ever seen him. In a second, it was clear why. “I’ve heard you were in some trouble in the past…spent time in prison.”

For one instant, Paris’s mind went to the worst possible place: Neelix had heard some rumor about the murder on the station. A rumor that implied Tom was involved. “That’s right,” he said cautiously, now worried about where this conversation was going.

But his friend looked more preoccupied than accusing, and Tom decided that there must be something else going on. “Do you… Would you tell me how you got in trouble?”

Tom stopped his search for the container while he answered. “I’ve thought a lot about that and it comes down to one simple fact: I didn’t tell the truth. I made a mistake—which happens to people—but if I’d admitted that mistake, it would have been a lot better. But I lied about it. And it nearly ruined my life.” Of course, this was the short version of the story. The long version—the details of what had happened that day on Caldik Prime—that he’d never told to anyone. He wasn’t sure that he ever would. He looked up at Neelix and tried to figure out what this was all about. “Why do you ask?”

His friend looked like he’d been punched in the gut. “Oh, no reason. Just wondered.” Tom wasn’t sure what to do, so he went back to the task of looking for the box.

A second later, Neelix stumbled upon it. “Here’s your container.”

Paris laughed. The box was sitting right on top of a pile he’d checked ten minutes earlier. He must have been too distracted to notice it.

It struck him then how sad his friend looked. This was totally out of character for Voyager’s morale officer, and Tom was starting to get downright worried. He suddenly had the impulse to try and do something—anything—to lift the man’s spirits. “After I’m done here, a bunch of us are gonna go down to the resort. Why don’t you come along?”

Neelix barely mustered a smile. “Thanks. But I’m going to turn in early. Maybe another time.”

Tom watched as the door closed and wondered if he should go after his friend, but thought better of it. Sometimes there were things you just needed to work out on your own, he knew. He grabbed the container and headed off for Chakotay’s office, his mind quickly jumping back to his favorite preoccupation: B’Elanna and that dinner. ‘Twenty-three hours and counting,’ he thought. Somehow he knew it would seem like much, much longer.

~~

B’Elanna was glad she’d had the whole day off. She still held out some small hope of finishing the stupid carnival program in time for tonight’s dinner with Tom, but there were some key changes she wanted to make and she was glad to have had these uninterrupted hours to get most of them done.

She checked the chonometer: 1722 hours. Just a little over two hours to go. Three more command sequences, a quick shower, and some meaningful conversation with the replicator were all that was left on her ‘to do’ list. She just might make it.

There was a beep at the door and she checked the time again to make sure she hadn’t misread it. No, it was too early to be Tom. “Come in,” she said, curious to know who would just show up unannounced at her cabin.

She was surprised to see Vorik. “Ensign,” she said, “what can I do for you?”

The Vulcan looked at her for a long moment, then averted his eyes. Only then did B’Elanna realize she’d spent the day working in a pair of shorts and a tank top. Still, she was hardly in her underwear and she found the ensign’s embarrassment kind of, well, endearing.

“I was just wondering if you required any further assistance,” he asked, skill looking off to the corner of her quarters. “With your holoprogram, of course.”

B’Elanna walked over to her couch and picked up a bathrobe, pulling it on as she answered. “Actually,” she said as she walked back to her desk, “I think I’ve almost got it. I just need to activate the command sequence you wrote for me yesterday and reinitialize the matrix.”

She looked again at the young man she’d barely known a few months earlier, and thought for a second how grateful she was that he’d been transferred to the alpha shift. So many of the junior engineers were unfocused with poor work habits. She was glad to have found a rising star among her ranks, and looked forward to helping the ensign develop his skills. And he was different from the other Vulcans she’d known. He wasn’t so overbearing or distant. As a matter of fact, in the last few weeks Vorik had been almost, well, friendly.

“Well, then,” he said, turning back to the door, “perhaps I should be going.”

She nodded and watched as he walked away. “Vorik,” she called after him as the doors opened, “thanks. Really. And this is our secret, right?”

She thought for a second he was going to smile. “Of course,” he said flatly. “Good night.”

“Good night,” she echoed back. And she certainly hoped it would be.

B’Elanna took off the robe and threw it back on her couch. “Computer,” she said as she walked toward her wardrobe, trailing a pile of clothes she was removing one by one. “Activate subroutine Torres Omega 3.” Then she headed into the bathroom to take a shower.

Five minutes later, she walked to her wardrobe and pulled out her clothing for the evening. There was no question in her mind what she’d be wearing tonight; she draped the short purple dress across a chair, then walked to her desk to check on the program.

She couldn’t believe what she was seeing. The subroutine she had activated was systematically decompiling the entire carnival program, line by line. “No!” she yelled to no one. “Computer, halt subroutine Torres Omega 3 and undo.” She held her breath.

‘Unable to comply,’ she heard in that damn flat unemotional voice. Didn’t the stupid machine know what it had just done?!

But it was too late. The entire program—Tom’s original code as well as the hotel she’d added and all the other changes—it was all gone. She put her head in her hands and evoked a name she rarely called upon. “Kahless,” she said out loud, “tell me this isn’t true.”

Of course, a few quick checks told her it was. She felt a horrible knot in the pit of her stomach. Months of work were gone.

Before she had time to think about what had happened—or what she was going to do about the fact that she was supposed to meet Tom in less than two hours—her commbadge sounded. “Kim to Torres.”

She found her tank top on the floor and yanked off her communicator, barely caring that she’d almost ripped a gaping hole in the fabric. “Yeah, Harry, what do you want?” She knew she wasn’t being very friendly at the moment, and—frankly—she didn’t care.

“B’Elanna, I think you’d better get up here,” he said with a hint of panic in his voice. “Captain Janeway and Tuvok just called from the station. Tom and Chakotay have been arrested. For murder.”

She stood there for a moment, stunned. Suddenly the silly carnival didn’t seem like such a big deal. “I’m on my way,” she said as she frantically pulled on a clean uniform. “Torres out.”

Before she left, she picked up the purple dress and looked over at her desk. ‘Is this a conspiracy?’ she wondered, suddenly feeling numbed by the way her day had turned around so quickly.

But she didn’t have time to even think about it as she threw the dress down and rushed out the door. Tom was in jail. Again. And this time Chakotay was with him…

~*~*~*~*~

CREDITS:

“Warlord,” story by Andrew Price and Mark Gabeman, teleplay by Lisa Klink.
“The Q and the Grey,” story by Shawn Piller, teleplay by Kenneth Biller
“Macrocosm,” by Brannon Braga
“Fair Trade,” story by Ronald Wilkerson and Jean Louis Mathias, teleplay by Andre Bormanis

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