That Which Does Not Kill Us

RATING

PG

SUMMARY

An original short story set in the days following the Season 7 episode NATURAL LAW. Tom has been spending every night on the holodeck, but this time he isn’t playing games. See how the “ghosts of those three dead officers” learn a lesson of their own, when Tom must finally come to terms with his greatest failure.

SPOILERS

“Natural Law” and Season 7 in general

CODES

A Tom Paris story, P/T, P&J, a hint of J/C

DISCLAIMER

Tom Paris, B’Elanna Torres, their unborn baby, and their senior officers are the property of Paramount Pictures and its parent corporation, Viacom. This story and the new characters I introduce, though, are all mine.

NOTE

Despite the general embracing of Jeri Taylor’s Pathways, it isn’t canon (in fact, it outright contradicts canon in some places), and I’ve never liked much of the history she tried to establish for my favorite characters. Therefore, I came up with my own version of certain events in Tom Paris’s past. You should feel free to do the same.


“Warning: impact in thirty seconds–pull up.”

‘Dammit,’ he thought as he punched in a new control sequence. ‘This should be working. We should be climbing.’

“Warning: impact in twenty seconds–pull up.”

He was getting dizzy now, not only from the churning view he could see clearly through the cockpit windshield, but from a rising panic that threatened to overtake him. It wasn’t supposed to be happening this way. Not again.

“Warning: impact in ten, nine, eight…”

The shuttle was spinning, now–the inertial dampers off line. They were going to hit hard, he knew it.

“Brace for impact!” he heard the first officer yell out to their friends in the aft compartment. He could see the commander’s disbelieving face out of the corner of his eye, but he couldn’t spare a second to look away from the helm. Still, the accusation was palpable. “Lieutenant! What the hell happened…?!”

Their angle was steep and he could feel his body being forced out of the pilot’s seat–fighting his efforts to hold on to the console–as the ship’s dive came to its inevitable end. In two seconds, they’d be a pile of rubble on the frigid planet’s surface. There was nothing he could do now. Nothing except wait for the impact.

“Computer, freeze program!”

Tom Paris felt himself sinking back down into the chair as the holodeck forcefields gently handed him off to Voyager’s artificial gravity. As soon as his weight settled, Tom tipped his head back and closed his eyes, his heart slowly backing away from its threat to jump out of his chest.

‘This should have worked,’ he thought as he reviewed the simulation in his mind. ‘I should have been able to pull out of it.’

The helm controllers had been reset, the anti-gravs adjusted for the weight of their cargo, and he’d personally checked the EPS relays four times. He had run a diagnostic of all the normal control systems. He was thoroughly rested and didn’t feel distracted in the least. So why couldn’t he stop the ship from crashing? None of this made sense.

“Torres to Paris.”

He opened his eyes–relieved for the comforting distraction of her voice–and slapped his commbadge. “Tom here, B’Elanna. Is everything okay?”

“Other than the fact that I’m eating alone, everything’s fine,” she answered, sounding a little sarcastic, but not at all upset. “I know you like cold pizza, Tom, but this is getting ridiculous. Are you trying to make a point, or something?”

Paris smiled. His workaholic wife usually had to be dragged away from her duty station. More often than not, he sat alone at their dinner table, resisting the temptation to com her every five minutes until she took the hint and headed home. He, on the other hand, usually left the conn as punctually as he’d arrived. While Tom enjoyed his work–even the now-regular sickbay shifts–his personal life was his priority at the moment. And he was rarely late for dinner.

“Sorry,” he said sincerely. “I just lost track of the time. I’ll be right there.”

“Bring your appetite,” B’Elanna said with a hint of mischief. “And make it quick. Our daughter is trying to convince me to eat your half, too.”

He laughed then closed the channel. B’Elanna had just passed her six-month check-up, and they figured they had another month or two before their baby would arrive. The Doc was doing everything he could to keep tabs on the progress of their child’s development, but the mixed genetics of both mother and fetus made guessing their due date a bit of a roll of the dice.

He did have moments of wondering if they were doing the right thing, exposing an infant to the dangers of their day-to-day existence in the Delta Quadrant. But they hadn’t planned on this exile–or this pregnancy, come to think of it–and didn’t see any reason to put their lives on hold forever. They’d watched some of their shipmates with husbands or wives back home–and their captain, for that matter–make that choice: to view Voyager as one huge waiting room for their uncertain futures, and had vowed not to do that. No, they’d just have to make the best of it and trust in themselves. So what if Voyager was an unconventional place to raise a child–it was still their home.

Tom stood up from the helm and took one last look around the shuttle, not at all sorry for his wife’s interruption, but wrestling with his unanswered questions all the same. As had become his habit, he stared into the faces of the officers in the simulation. Commander Creighton, one of his father’s favorite students, who’d asked for him specifically on this assignment. Ensign Kytsetch, the Ktarian engineer who looked great in a miniskirt and who made the best spaghetti sauce Paris had ever tasted. And Lieutenant M’Benna–Tony–who’d been the closest thing Tom had to a best friend on the Exeter. Their expressions were frozen in horror–just as they’d looked before their shuttle went down on the cold, barren surface of Caldik Prime.

Tom hadn’t seen their faces that night. He’d been too busy wrestling the nose up, managing only to slow their descent–probably the only thing that had stopped him from dying, too. From the pilot’s chair, he’d been fixated on the rocks that seemed to be spiraling up to meet them–then the blinding white light as he lost consciousness. But, he looked at his friends now–more than ten years later–and did what had become a ritual for him during the past three days. “I’m sorry,” he whispered, looking at each one in turn.

Then he turned his back and looked away. “Computer, end program,” he said softly, before heading home to a late, cold dinner.

~*~*~*~*~

“Paris, don’t try to hustle a hustler.”

That was wishful thinking, Tom knew. Tony couldn’t bluff worth a damn, and the man’s jealously of Paris’s perfect poker face betrayed M’Benna just as surely as the three kings Tom knew he was holding.

“Well, then,” Paris said without revealing a thing about his own hand, “put your credits where your mouth is.”

There was a hint of hesitation in his friend’s eyes. The moment of truth was near. “Okay, then.” M’Benna was salivating like a Ferengi at Fort Knox, but he was hesitating. Wait. Wait. Here it came. “I’ll see you and raise you twenty.”

Like taking candy from a baby. Tom let the moment linger before he answered the challenge. He wanted to savor the moment of his triumph. “Alright,” he said, finally throwing in his chip. “Let’s see ‘em.”

There was a look in Tony’s eyes–a flash of fear as he waited to see if he’d played all the angles. A determination to–just this once–beat Paris at his own game. “Read ‘em and weep,” he said with a totally false bravado, laying down his hand. “Triplets.”

Tom almost felt guilty at what he was about to do to his friend. Almost.

He let a look of disappointment cross his face, then took a deep breath. “Wow. And me with only two pair…” He waited for the smile to cross M’Benna’s face and for his friend to reach for the pot before he revealed his cards and finished his sentence, “…of twins.”

Tom laid the four queens out ceremoniously, kissing each card before he slapped it down. “The ladies like me, Tony, when are you going to learn that?”

‘Scientists,’ Paris thought as he scooped up his winnings. ‘They’re all such chumps.’

~*~

Tom lay there–wide awake–listening to B’Elanna’s steady breathing and replaying the last simulation in his mind.

He couldn’t figure it out. The first time, he knew what had gone wrong: he’d been distracted–angry at a message he’d received from his father, tired from staying up all night playing poker, and more than a little frustrated at having spent months prepping shuttles instead of flying them. So, he’d miscalculated the deceleration vectors and put the shuttle into a tailspin–an over-correction he should have been able to fly his way out of with his eyes closed.

He hadn’t been able to recover control, though. Not back then and not now. Each time, the shuttle crashed and his three passengers died. There had to be something he was missing.

He’d graduated from the Academy with a passable academic record and a slew of awards and trophies for his skills at the helm. And, though his father seemed disappointed, Tom wasn’t sorry he’d drawn the relatively low-visibility posting on the USS Exeter. Their assignment: assist a group of Federation colonists displaced by the Cardassian War as they moved into a new settlement in the Caldik system. The Exeter’s captain had a reputation for rewarding unconventional thinking, and Ensign Paris was looking forward to learning from someone he respected. The fact that Captain Lightoller had never met (and had seemed unimpressed by) the ubiquitous Admiral Owen Paris was just icing on the cake.

And Tom had done well for himself–promoted to lieutenant (j.g.) faster than anyone in his class. Soon afterward, though, he began to draw duty assignments that smacked of someone trying to teach him a lesson–shuttlebay deck crew, a stellar cartography rotation, and even field medic training. As a young man who’d been on the receiving end of these sorts of ‘lessons’ his whole life, Tom had started to become bored and frustrated. He was hardly ever flying anymore, and the rumor going around the ship was that Commander Creighton–the Exeter’s first officer, and a former protégé of his father’s–had been asked by Admiral Paris to make sure his son got a ‘well-rounded’ experience.

That was the last straw. Whether Creighton knew it or not, Tom recognized his father’s attempts to avoid the appearance that an Admiral’s son was receiving some sort of special treatment. Tom knew then, once and for all, that there was nowhere he could go in Starfleet without being under his father’s control.

“Not there you idiot…!”

Tom heard B’Elanna start to mumble something and he rolled over onto his side to make sure she was all right. When he realized what she was saying, he smiled. “Vorik, dammit I want that assembly realigned! Plasma injectors… Plasma…” Then she drifted back out.

She did this every now and then: rebuilt the warp engines in her sleep. He wondered, sometimes, between her over-long shifts and her dreams of plasma injectors, how she got any rest at all. And his tossing and turning couldn’t be helping.

He swung his legs over the side of the bed–careful not to jostle the mattress as he stood up–and walked to their desk on the far side of their tiny quarters. “Computer,” he said softly as he sat down, “call up Starfleet JAG file Exeter Theta-2-2-5. Resume.”

It was clear he wasn’t going to get much sleep; at least if he kept digging he might get some answers.

~*~*~*~*~

Kathryn Janeway had a standing rule: no coffee, no conversation. Literally, unless Voyager was under attack, she didn’t want to hear anything besides “Good morning, Captain,” from anyone–even her first officer–until she’d felt the first boost of caffeine starting to course through her veins. Only then did the understanding woman fight off the growling beast she knew she could be in the morning.

Most days, this presented no problem. She’d stumble out of bed and head straight for her replicator, barking the words, ‘Coffee. Black,’ as she walked. Recently, though–more often than not–she was met by the silent disobedience of her temperamental ‘glorified toaster,’ and she’d find an empty space where her steaming cup should have been. On those days–days like today–she’d hurry through the sonic shower, throw on a uniform, and stomp up to her ready room, hoping all the while that she’d avoid running into some impressionable ensign who might think his captain had gone off the deep end.

And this morning, she’d been mostly successful. But as she stepped off the turbolift and into the Deck 1 aft corridor, she ran headfirst into Commander Chakotay. “Just the person I wanted to see,” he said, smiling. “Good morning.”

She shot him a look and a growl, then motioned for him to follow her. In a minute, she knew, she’d be amused–even charmed–by the way he was grinning at her. In a minute–after coffee.

There was a time once when her morning glowering would have intimidated her first officer. But after almost seven years together, Chakotay knew to say nothing, to clear a path to her ready room door if necessary, and to reign in his impulse to tease her mercilessly about her out of control addiction.

She was barely inside the room when she bellowed in a tone now familiar to the gamma shift bridge crew on the other side of the door, “Coffee. Black.” By the time her feet hit the raised deck of her seating area, the cup was waiting for her. She scooped it up with both hands and took a long, slow drink.

As soon as it had settled in her stomach, she felt almost human again. Before turning around, she completed the ritual with another command to her replicator. “Coffee, cream, two sugars.” Then she picked up the second cup and turned around to hand it to the man standing patiently behind her. “Good morning, Commander,” she said smiling. “Sleep well?”

He chuckled as he took the cup she offered. “Very well, Captain. How about yourself?”

“Like a baby,” she smiled. “Have a seat.”

They walked to the couch and got comfortable. “What’s on your mind?” she asked, realizing that it was unusually early for their regular morning meeting.

“I’m concerned about Tom Paris,” Chakotay answered, his eyes darkening. “He’s spent every evening this week alone in the holodeck–not that it’s all that unusual for Tom to spend a lot of time there. But take a look at what he’s been running.”

Kathryn took the padd he offered and began to scan it. It was immediately clear why her first officer was concerned. “How did you find out?” she asked.

“He had to call up classified files to create the simulation,” Chakotay answered. “Tom has the proper clearance to access them, but a record of his download appeared on Tuvok’s security report. I thought maybe you’d want to know.”

Janeway nodded. “Yes, thank you. I’ll look into it,” she said softly.

The commander seemed to sense the impact of this news, and stood to excuse himself. “I’ll come back after you’ve finished your coffee,” he offered.

She stopped him just as he reached the door. “Chakotay,” she called out, “how’s B’Elanna doing? Is there anything…? How is she feeling?” There was a line between protecting her crew and invading their privacy, and Kathryn wanted to be careful not to cross it.

“She’s fine. Great, even,” he answered. “No complications, she tells me.” He paused for a moment. “Medical or otherwise.”

The captain smiled. Of course, he’d intuited her meaning. And, as far as Chakotay knew, the Paris/Torres marriage was doing just fine. “Thank you,” she said. “One more thing. Did you know, when you hired Tom to fly for you in the Maquis? Did you know about what he’d done?”

The commander paused for a moment before he answered. They almost never talked, really, about those days anymore. About Chakotay’s time as a Maquis captain. About Voyager’s original mission to hunt down and capture the Liberty and her crew. “I’d never put my ship in the hands of a pilot without knowing his background. And neither would you.” He smiled then headed onto the bridge.

Kathryn turned to look out the viewport. Voyager was traveling at high warp, and the distortion of the stars’ light gave the appearance of an ongoing meteor shower as she momentarily lost herself in thought. At another time, Tom’s behavior might have made sense to her. It had taken Paris a while to make the transition from prisoner to observer to officer, she knew. Even longer to progress from loner to life-of-the-party to responsible husband and soon-to-be father. Why now, when the young pilot’s life was finally coming together, would he revisit the scene of his most painful failure?

A thought occurred to her at that moment. Something she’d had in her possession since before Voyager left spacedock. She stood up and walked to her desk, then called up her private database. “Computer,” she said, “access encrypted file Caldik Commission Omega-3.” In a second it appeared on her display.

She scanned the words she’d first read so long ago. After she was finished, she closed the file and drained the last few drops of coffee from her cup. Maybe it was time, she thought, to tell her helmsman what she knew. Maybe, she considered, he had earned the right to hear it.

~*~*~*~*~

“Rise and shine, Lieutenant!”

If this was a joke it was a bad one. “Buzz off, Tony,” Tom mumbled under his breath. “Before I deck you.”

“Wake up, Paris!” he heard again, followed immediately by the sensation of a pillow smacking him in the face. “Captain wants to see you in his ready room on the double.”

It occurred to Tom then that the voice he was hearing wasn’t the squeaky tenor of his roommate, but the deep baritone of his now very annoyed XO. Paris sat up quickly, his feet hitting the floor at the same instant his head smacked the underside of M’Benna’s bunk with a thud. If he wasn’t awake before, he was now.

“Oww,” he said under his breath as he rubbed his temple. At almost two meters tall, Tom always wondered how he’d drawn the lower berth when Tony was a head shorter and could barely climb up onto the top bunk. It was almost a moot point: as the Exeter’s newest lieutenant, the next available private quarters would have his name on them. And not a moment too soon, if his forehead had its way.

“I’m sorry, sir,” he said as he stood up and acknowledged his senior officer. “I must have slept through the alarm.”

As he blinked the cobwebs out of his eyes, Paris could see the grin forming on Creighton’s face. “Relax, Tom,” he said, laughing. “You’re not late. The captain asked me to wake you up. There’s an assignment he thought you might be interested in. Unless you’d rather get your beauty sleep instead.”

Tom resisted the temptation to roll his eyes. These kinds of comments about his appearance were an all-too familiar part of his freshman hazing aboard the Exeter. “No, sir,” he said, grinning back at the man. “I’m beautiful enough as it is, don’t you think?”

The commander laughed. “Well try being beautiful in uniform, Lieutenant. The captain is waiting.”

Tom nodded and pulled a clean singlet out of the wardrobe. “So, what’s this assignment?” he asked, trying not to get his hopes up as he dressed. “Somebody need the cargo bay swept?”

Paris turned around to see a strange look on the older man’s face. It was the same look his father used to give him on his birthday when he was a kid, as Tom tried to guess what was inside the carefully wrapped packages. “I guess you’ll just have to wait and see,” Creighton said, evoking the Admiral’s standard answer. Tom tried not to let the coincidence get to him.

“Yes, sir,” he said, running a hand through his regulation haircut. “Let’s go.”

“Let’s go, Tom.” Her voice barely registered. But it didn’t fit, somehow. It was like something out of a dream.

Paris opened his eyes to realize that the voice in his dreams was, in actuality, the very real voice of his very pregnant wife. “Come on, Tom,” she said as she let the pillow sail toward his now groggy face. “Time to get up.”

Surprised by his own reflexes, Tom caught the pillow within an inch of his nose, then swung his feet onto the floor–feeling a strange sense of déjà vu. “What time is it?” he said, noticing that B’Elanna was already in her uniform and downing the last swig of her orange juice.

“0730,” she said as brought him a cup of coffee. “You’ve got a half hour to get up, get a shower, grab some breakfast, and get to sickbay. You’d better get moving.”

Tom took a sip of the lukewarm liquid and made a face. “Why didn’t you wake me earlier?” he said, since it was clear his wife had been up for a while.

“I tried to,” she answered, sorting through a stack of padds on the dining table. “You grumbled something about decking me then rolled over and went back to sleep.”

He realized, now, what he’d been dreaming and wondered exactly what else his wife had heard. “Sorry,” he said, deciding not to ask. Instead, he stood up and walked to the table, putting his arms around her shoulders from behind. “I didn’t take a swing at you, did I?” he asked, only half joking.

B’Elanna turned around without breaking his embrace–though her belly scraped his in passing–and she put her hands on his waist. “You’re smarter than that, Flyboy,” she said as she leaned toward him. “You know I can take you in a fight.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Tom said as he smiled and leaned down to kiss her. It was true–she probably could take him–though even B’Elanna would have to admit she wasn’t exactly in fighting form these days. Not that he had any intention of challenging her to a wrestling match. Not for a few more months, anyway.

She started to step away, to reach for her stack of reports, when Tom pulled her back to him and rubbed his hand over her belly. “How’s she doing?” he asked gently. “I usually get a good morning kick.”

“She’s probably exhausted,” B’Elanna answered as she put her hand over his. “Your daughter was doing back-flips all morning.” His wife looked up at him, taking his hand into hers. “She’s fine, Tom. Everything’s fine. You worry too much.”

He resisted the urge to say ‘look who’s talking.’ They were cut from the same cloth, he knew. Actually, more like a patchwork quilt of overlapping insecurities. But she was right: where B’Elanna’s pregnancy was concerned, he was worried. The most important thing that would ever happen to him was totally out of his control. What else could he do but fixate on it? But his fears and insecurities were the last thing B’Elanna needed to be dealing with right now–even if he was having a hard time concealing them.

“Are you feeling okay?” she asked. “You’re not coming down with something, are you?” Her palm immediately moved to his forehead.

Tom laughed. “Will you look at us? I’m turning into some over-protective father and now you’re starting to mother me. What the hell happened to that fire-breathing Klingon I married?”

B’Elanna pulled her hand away and smiled. “She’s standing right in front of you,” she laughed. “And, as I recall, you can still be quite the dare-devil pilot.”

Something about those words: dare-devil pilot. He flinched, then tried to cover. “I’d better get moving,” he said, pulling away. “The Doc has a golf game this morning and he’ll never let me hear the end of it if I’m late.” He leaned down and gave her one last kiss before heading into the bathroom.

Tom pulled off his t-shirt and shorts and adjusted the controls on the sonic shower. Then he let his arm catch him as he leaned on the wall and dropped his head to his elbow. What in the hell was happening? Why where these memories suddenly haunting him again? Why now?

B’Elanna’s words came back to him. “As I recall, you can still be quite the dare-devil pilot.” He knew she didn’t mean anything by it. Still, it was sticking in his craw. Say what you want about his skills as a medic, his lowbrow taste in entertainment, or his twisted sense of humor, Tom knew deep down that he was a good pilot–maybe the best pilot in the Delta Quadrant–despite the Ledosian government’s assertions a few days earlier.

It occurred to him then: his ‘moving violation.’ He’d been burning off a little tension at the end of a long mission with no one along for company when he was stopped by some bureaucrat scanning the skies over Ledos. The maneuvers were hardly dangerous; he’d never risk his neck or the Delta Flyer–a ship he almost thought of as his ‘first born’–on something as reckless as showing off. But he’d been ‘pulled over’ and cited, nonetheless, and forced to endure the humiliation of remedial flying school.

As ridiculous as it had been, maybe that experience had awakened some insecurities he’d buried years earlier. Buried with the remains of three officers who’d been his friends–and his victims–when the shuttle he was piloting crashed on Caldik Prime.

Still, what did it matter? What bit of difference did it make why this particular nightmare had come back to haunt him? It was here, and he knew what he had to do.

~*~

He’d been on Voyager for less than ten minutes and already it was starting.

“Ah, yes. Mister Paris. The ‘observer.’” The doctor was looking at him with open disdain, and somehow Tom realized that his past was never really going to be behind him. He wondered for a moment why he thought it would be any different here than it had been anywhere else in Starfleet.

Still, he wondered, did the whole damn crew know what he’d done? Were they warned to stay clear of him? If so, this second chance was over before it had even begun. “That’s right,” he answered, throwing the condescension right back at the physician. This jerk wasn’t going to make him squirm. “As a matter of fact, I seem to be observing some kind of problem right now.”

The doctor barely looked at him as he explained. “I was a surgeon at the hospital on Caldik Prime at the same time you were stationed there. We never actually met…”

Well, that sealed it. For however long this little detour into the Badlands lasted, Tom was sure now that it was the end of any dreams he might have had about reclaiming his life. He could never go back and undo his mistakes, he realized. And some people would never let him forget.

~*~

While he would never have admitted it to the EMH, Tom was coming to enjoy his shifts in sickbay. He’d become a proficient medic, he knew, and while he never seriously considered a career in medicine, he liked that he could help the Doc save lives when need be.

Maybe it was a way to make up for those he’d cost, he thought, not for the first time. Still, he’d never have gotten this chance if Voyager’s original physician hadn’t been killed during their unscheduled trip to the Delta Quadrant. That doctor–hell, Tom couldn’t even remember his name–had been gunning for him since he came aboard. Both the CMO and–Cabbott? Cavick?–Cavit. Commander Cavit. Voyager’s original first officer. They’d barely been able to stomach looking at him, Paris knew.

It occurred to Tom to wonder, then, how differently things might have turned out if so many of the original crew hadn’t been killed in that first incident. What would he, B’Elanna, and Chakotay be doing right now if they hadn’t been called upon to replace Janeway’s dead officers? And the Doc–his daughter’s godfather-to-be–would probably be a surly series of inactivated subroutines instead of his friend, mentor–and soon-to-be co-author.

Paris laughed. It wasn’t like him to be this introspective. And he knew he shouldn’t obsess over things he couldn’t change–didn’t want to change. But still, building his new life on the corpses of those dead crewmen wasn’t sitting well with him these days.

He checked the chronometer. The Doc’s golf game should be just about over, and it had been a slow morning. Maybe he could cut out a few hours early. Maybe if he tried the new maneuver he’d been practicing in his head all night long… Maybe then, he could finally put the ghosts that were haunting him to rest once and for all.

~*~*~*~*~

“Meester Paris,” she called him. He’d never found Ktarians particularly attractive before, but he was considering making an exception. Kytsetch had legs that went up to her chin, and a way of flirting with him at the most inappropriate times. He liked that in a woman. “I heard you might be at the stick today. Long time no see.”

“Ensign Kaytouched,” he said, intentionally bastardizing her name. “Don’t tell me you’re riding shotgun on this little pleasure cruise. I thought they were sending me an engineer, not a chef.” She’d cooked a mean pasta dinner for their poker posse a few nights earlier, and Paris wondered if the woman hadn’t missed her calling.

“Oh, Tommas, you’d better watch that smart mouth of yours if you ever want to taste my spicy sauce again.”

Tom caught a glimpse of Creighton appearing through the hatch and decided to censor the comeback that he’d been on the verge of launching. Too bad, he thought. A guy didn’t get an opening like that everyday.

“Finished that preflight checklist, Lieutenant Paris?” the commander asked as he took his seat.

“Almost,” Tom lied as he rushed through the list. “We’ll be ready to go right on schedule.”

He heard Tony’s voice from behind him. “You sure you remember how to fly, Paris?” his friend teased. “Cause rumor is you’re a little rusty.”

Tom laughed. “Well then, I guess you’d better hold on tight,” he joked back. “If you value your life…”

The flight had been by-the-book, as it always was up to this point. He and Tony traded jokes, Kay told them all about her new snorkeling holoprogram, and Creighton pretended to look annoyed that his three junior officers were spending more time socializing than working–all the while throwing in his own pointed zingers just to keep them off guard.

They were coming up on the graviton flux, Tom knew. He pulled himself out of the personal chitchat and focused on his console. In a few seconds, they felt the surge in the inertial dampers and the ship began to list to port.

“What was that?” Creighton asked casually.

“We’re caught in some kind of spatial eddy. Attempting to compensate.” Tom punched in the series of command sequences he’d been practicing in his mind the entire day. A little burst of thrusters, a little reinitializing of the helm controller, and a final shove from the deflector and they should be…

Why wasn’t it working? Dammit! They were being sucked down.

“Warning: impact in thirty seconds–pull up.”

This didn’t make any sense. He’d calculated the variables, replayed the scenario over and over in his head. There should have been six different ways to recover from this kind of dive. Why the hell weren’t any of them working?!

“Warning: impact in twenty seconds–pull up.”

He felt the dizziness once again, only this time–instead of panic–he felt angry. Angry that no matter what he tried he wasn’t skilled enough to pull out of it. Angry that three decent people–all of them friends–were about to die again at his hand. Angry that he couldn’t undo this, no matter how hard he tried.

“Warning: impact in ten, nine, eight…”

“Brace for impact!” he heard Creighton yell. The ground was spinning up toward them. Any second now he’d hear those words–the commander’s last words–the accusation in his voice… “Lieutenant, what…?”

“Computer, freeze program.”

That wasn’t the voice he was expecting. Tom turned around to see Kathryn Janeway standing in the aft doorway, a padd in her hand and a look of concern in her eyes. He’d seen that look before. “Hello, Tom,” she said carefully.

He stumbled up from his seat. “Captain, what are you…?”

“At ease,” she said gently, as she took a step toward him. She looked around at the shuttle, at the terrified expressions on the faces of its passengers, at the icy field clearly visible through the viewport. The ship was at a steep forward pitch and she had to hold on to the bulkhead to steady herself. “I thought I might find you here,” she said evenly.

Tom was embarrassed and confused. “I was just running a simulation. Practice, you know…” His voice trailed off. He wasn’t lying. But it was hardly the whole truth.

Janeway smiled sadly. “Billy Creighton,” she said, nodding at the frozen image of the Exeter’s first officer. We went to the Academy together. He was two years ahead of me–had a reputation for being a compulsive rule-follower. We butted heads a few times.” She grinned. “But I hear he was a decent fellow.”

Tom nodded. It was clear to him now that his captain knew exactly where she was and what she was watching. He didn’t know what to say.

“I understand you and Mister M’Benna were roommates,” she said carefully. “That must have been very hard for you…”

“Captain,” he interrupted her. “Is there a reason why you’re here?” The last thing he wanted was some reassurance and sympathy for what he’d done.

She took a deep breath before she answered. “Chakotay noticed that you’d opened some classified files. He was worried…”

“I have level eight authorization,” Paris said defensively. “I’m allowed to…”

“Tom.” She silenced him with one word. “He was worried that you’d become obsessed with reliving this accident. You’ve run this simulation fifteen times in the past four days. He and I were just wondering…why?”

Paris was embarrassed. They weren’t accusing him of anything; they were worried about him. He should have known better. Still, it was too easy to remember that feeling of not being trusted. Of being a suspect in every crime. It was all too easy to feel like he’d done something wrong. Again.

“I just needed to…” He didn’t know how to explain it. “I wanted to try and bring them in safely. Just once. Just to prove that I could do it. I mean, I know it won’t bring them back. I know I can’t undo what I did. But I needed to know I was good enough to save them. I needed to prove it to myself.”

She nodded her head in understanding. “How’s it going?” she asked. It was clear from her expression that she already knew the answer.

“I haven’t been able to do it,” he said, looking at the floor. “I can’t seem to stop the ship from crashing.”

She nodded again. “I know. And you never will.”

Tom looked up at her. What the hell was that supposed to mean? “It was a simple gravity eddy. A first-year cadet could pull out of that.”

She took a few more steps toward him and balanced herself on the copilot’s seat. “A first-year cadet could have pulled out of it. With a shuttle in proper working order.” She extended her hand and nodded for him to take the padd she’d been holding ever since she arrived.

‘Caldik Commission, Starfleet Core of Engineers, Flight Safety Division…’

“What is this?” Paris asked.

She looked up at him. “It’s the report of a special commission empanelled to determine the cause of a shuttle accident on Caldik Prime.”

Tom’s head was spinning. “What do you mean ‘determine the cause.’ They did that in the initial investigation. ‘Pilot error.’” Those words. Even today, he couldn’t hear them in any context without getting a cold chill up his spine.

“Actually,” Janeway said, “that investigation’s results were inconclusive. They couldn’t prove a cause, as you’ll recall. And they closed the case.” She waited until she caught his eyes. “Until a young lieutenant came forward and admitted he’d lied in his testimony. That he hadn’t gotten the mandated sleep before taking the helm. That he’d skipped several steps of the pre-flight safety checklist. That he’d lied about misaligning the helm controls as he tried to free the ship from the eddy. That he’d overcompensated and sent the ship into a fatal dive. With no other logical explanation for the crash, they took this pilot’s testimony as fact. That’s how they came to rule the accident ‘pilot error.’”

She took the last step and sat down on the front console next to him. “An Admiral at Headquarters wasn’t satisfied with that explanation, though. He used his influence to have the investigation reopened. He said he was sure that ‘Lieutenant Paris was too skilled a pilot to have lost control that easily.’ It took a long while and the twisting of more than one arm, but eventually they reopened the case.”

Tom didn’t have to ask who his mysterious benefactor was. “My father,” he said matter-of-factly.

“He had trouble believing that you could have made such a careless mistake. I read his letter to the accident reconstruction engineers. He said that the boy he raised could have flown his way out of Level 3 ion storm without breaking a sweat. He didn’t believe a little gravimetric shear could have caused you to lose control–no matter how tired you were. That you were just too talented a pilot and that there had to be some other explanation.”

“So they reopened the investigation?”

“Yes. They used the Exeter’s maintenance records and the sensor readings from your shuttle and created a simulation just like the one you made here. They put Starfleet’s best flight instructors in the cockpit. None of them could land it safely.”

Tom put his head in his hands and tried to make sense of what he was hearing. “So my father knew this accident couldn’t be avoided and he let me go on thinking I’d killed those people? That their deaths were my fault?”

Kathryn pointed to the padd in his hand. “Take a look at the date,” she said evenly. Tom scanned the screen. Of course: the commission’s findings were released the day his Maquis scout ship was captured. Having his son arrested and convicted of treason probably took some of the urgency out of the Admiral’s quest to clear his name, Tom realized.

“There’s something else you should know,” the captain said as she took the padd back from him. “I ran into your father at Starfleet Headquarters just after I’d received my orders to take Voyager into the Badlands. He was asking me how comfortable I felt negotiating those plasma storms with an untested helmsman. I told him that I had every confidence in Stadi–which, of course, I did.”

She was quiet for a moment. Tom knew how personally Janeway took the loss of any crewman serving under her. It had been a long while since he’d thought of the young lieutenant whose job he now held. He got the impression, though, that his captain thought of her and the other casualties of this mission all too often. When she spoke again, her voice was softer. “Ten days before we were to leave spacedock, a file mysteriously appeared in my personal database. It held three different reports: your Academy record, the commission’s findings that cleared you of responsibility in the crash on Caldik Prime…and a report from the Auckland Rehabilitation Commission that called you a model prisoner. I never knew who sent me that file. Not for sure, anyway…”

This was all too overwhelming. “Why didn’t you tell me this before?” he demanded.

The captain nodded as if she’d been expecting his question. “What purpose would it have served, Tom? To remind you of everything you’d lost? To rub your nose in a mistake you’d already paid for? You were trying to build a new life for yourself. I didn’t see the point in torturing you with something you couldn’t change.”

He shook his head. “Still, you knew that I’d thrown my entire life away over nothing. That if I hadn’t lied, if I hadn’t taken Chakotay’s offer and joined the Maquis, if I hadn’t been caught…”

Kathryn turned and put her hand on his shoulder. “Then you might be living a life of blissful ignorance in the Alpha Quadrant? Perhaps. And every person on this ship would probably be dead right now.”

Tom didn’t need to ask what she was talking about. His skill at the helm had gotten Voyager out of more than one scrape in the past seven years–not to mention his foolhardy heroics in rescuing the crew from the Kazon, his role in uncovering a spy in their ranks, or any one of a dozen times he’d risked what he’d felt was his worthless life to try and protect his new family on Voyager.

His new family. Suddenly his mind flew down the five decks to Main Engineering, and the woman he knew was probably giving her crew hell at that very moment. Suddenly, it all started coming into perspective.

If only he hadn’t lied. If only he hadn’t joined the Maquis. If only he hadn’t been arrested…then he would never have met B’Elanna. Or Harry Kim. Or any one of the people who were now so totally indispensable in his life. He wouldn’t be counting the days to the birth of his daughter–this baby daughter he had fought so hard for before she was even born. He wouldn’t have lived the seven best years of his life on the new home he’d made for himself halfway across the galaxy from every mistake he’d ever made.

Could it be possible, Tom wondered, that the worst thing that had ever happened to him had turned out to be the best thing–in disguise?

He leaned his head back against the shuttle’s bulkhead and closed his eyes for a moment. When he opened them, he saw his captain’s outstretched hand. “Here,” she said firmly. “It’s the tertiary thruster relay. A failsafe part, I’ve been told. I think you’ll find that it actually has a hairline fissure that causes the ship to fly erratically.”

She lifted his hand and put the damaged part into it, then closed his fingers around it. She smiled at him then and headed for the hatch before turning around one last time. “You know, life is going to get hectic for you and B’Elanna once that baby comes. Maybe you two should take the Flyer out tonight. Catch a few hours together before you become a threesome.”

She smiled at him, then left him alone with his thoughts.

After a moment, he looked down at the transparent relay in his hand. “Computer,” he said firmly, “Reset simulation to time index 2142. And replicate one tertiary thruster relay for a Class 1 shuttlecraft. Scan for defects and install.”

“Acknowledged.”

The room around him shimmered, the deck leveled under his feet, and he saw the faces of his passengers change from terror to calm professionalism. Tom stared at them for a moment, then took his seat at the helm. “Resume,” he said firmly.

Fifteen minutes later, the shuttle landed with no fanfare on the frozen field in the middle of the settlement. Tom closed his eyes and let the reality sink in. He’d done it. Overtired and fighting through a mean last-minute gravity eddy, he’d still landed them safely on Caldik Prime.

He turned around to see Commander Creighton record their arrival in the flight log. Tony was checking his survey gear and teasing Kytsetch about her accent. She was laughing at a joke she’d made about M’Benna’s gullibility. It was all so…normal.

He watched as the three officers gathered their things and started to head for the hatch. “Waiting for an engraved invitation, Paris?” Creighton asked as he turned around. “Are you coming with us, or what?”

Tom sat there for a moment. “No sir,” he said quietly. “I can’t come with you.” Before the commander could answer, Paris called out, “Computer, freeze program.”

He sat there for a moment, looking at this past that might have been, remembering all the sleepless nights he’d spent praying he could have seen this moment for real. He looked at Tony and Kay and Creighton, whose faces had populated his nightmares for so long, finally imagining that they were resting a little more peacefully now.

Tom stood up slowly and closed his eyes. “Computer, delete program,” he said with conviction. When his eyes opened, he saw only the gray steel hologrid in front of him. He headed for the door without looking back.

~*~*~*~*~

The End

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