Chakotay appeared a short time later, a limp betraying the bruising he'd taken. He waved off the Doctor's scanner. From the filled biobeds, there were far worse injuries than his for the EMH to tend to.
"What happened?" asked the commander, looking at the filled but apparently peaceful sickbay.
"I requested Lieutenant Paris' assistance since, during a red alert, my other assistants are often assigned elsewhere." Underneath the factual nature of the statement, Chakotay could hear the sharp slice of irritation.
"That was a good idea," concurred the first officer. He looked around the bay again, but the ex-pilot was nowhere in sight. "I will make sure someone is available to cover Sickbay in the future."
“That would be appreciated, however, that is not why I requested someone come down here." The EMH crossed his arms. "Apparently having Lieutenant Paris assist me was not, as you put it, 'a good idea.' He was triaging Megan Delaney. She was suffering from massive radiation poisoning. By the time the sensors alerted either of us, it was too late."
Chakotay bowed his head. Another crewman lost. Another bit of bad news to relay to the captain. Another stone in the cairn he was building nightly while a wolf's eyes watched.
"Lieutenant Paris views it as his fault," continued the Doctor. "He ran out of Sickbay."
The first officer nodded stolidly at the additional piece of distressing news. A bronze thumb activated his comm badge.
The Talaxian struggled to sound cheerful but the exhaustion that tinged all their voices touched his as well.
"Yes Commander, what can I do for you?"
"I need you to report to Sickbay. The Doctor needs an assistant."
"But I've just started skinning the kalaw fruit for tonight's entree."
Kalaw fruit. The pulpy lime melon made leola root sound like a tasty alternative. The exhausted crew would thank him for this.
"The crew will just have to use their rations tonight, the Doctor needs you."
"I'll be there in a minute. Just let me put the kalaw fruit into stasis."
Chakotay sighed and signed off. Then he palmed the commbadge again.
"Computer, locate Tom Paris."
It wasn't an airlock, but the door whooshed open when he approached it, still somehow recognizing his status, now useless, as an officer and he stumbled into it, knowing only it was somewhere he could collapse unseen. He didn't want to be seen, not when he could only feel the eerie sensation of being watched. When he couldn't return the gaze.
Tom reached a hand out into the unknown space, hitting, then recognizing - even in the blackness - the familiar heft of a phaser rifle. Fate directs the blind.He almost laughed at the proverb, then he turned to the right-hand cabinet where the less wieldy hand phasers would be.
The corridor was empty by the time Chakotay reached it, wincing at the pain that had moved from his swelling ankle to encompass his knee.
"Computer, where is Lieutenant Paris now?"
Unperturbed by the commander's breathlessness, the computer replied in its usually pleasant tones.
"Lieutenant Paris is currently in the Deck 3 weapon's locker."
The answer drew the first officer's skillfully tattooed brow together in a frown. The pilot was mercurial compared to most other Starfleet officers, but not given to extreme emotion. Not even, it was said, at the court martial where he'd faced the tribunal with a quiet stubbornness that both disturbed and impressed the observers. He'd faced the blindness with the same impassivity.
Most likely, he reassured himself, Tom had just stumbled in there, wanting to be alone and finding it a safe refuge.
Chakotay reached it in four limping steps then stopped as the fears that he'd managed to push aside returned as he focused with alarm at the phaser held in the lieutenant's too white hands.
"Glad somebody finally came in here." There was a disquieting tonelessness in the younger man's voice. "Couldn't tell if it was set to kill. I was afraid I'd just stun myself and wake up strapped to a biobed."
"Tom, it's me." Chakotay found he had raised his hands in a useless gesture that couldn't possibly be seen. "Put down the phaser."
An attempt at a grin twisted the pilot's lips macabrely.
"Not this time Commander."
"Tom," as he edged closer, Chakotay noticed the white-knuckled grip on the weapon's body only tightened. "Please it's not an order."
"I never wanted to be here . . ."
"Then put the phaser down."
"Did you ever hear the story about the Admiral's son who ran off and joined the circus? Flying circus actually. 'Halley's Barnstormers.' I was fifteen. They didn't find me for six weeks. I was doing loops in a reconstructed biplane. Best six weeks of my life. Then my father's goons caught up with me and I was doubletracked into the Academy."
Chakotay crouched, trying to ease the ache in his injured leg and Tom tensed.
"I'm not coming closer. I'm just sitting down. We got knocked around a bit on the bridge. Tell me some more about the circus."
"Don't patronize me Chakotay. I took Basic Psych too. It will just be easier this way, before I hurt someone else."
"I talked to the Doctor. Megan had been exposed to nearly a thousand millirems. No one can survive that level of contamination. It wasn't your fault."
Immediately Chakotay realized he'd said the wrong thing. Tom's face, its expression vague since the accident, twisted in pain and anger.
"That's right. It's never my fault. No, I'm too hapless or idiotic or blind . . . it can't be my fault. . ."
"Tom this wasn't your fault."
"Like Caldik Prime? That's what my father said. I'd just come to, hadn't even realized what had happened and he says, 'It's not your fault.' For a minute there I even believed him."
He fingered the weapon almost lovingly.
"I'm sure, when she thinks about it, that she'll be relieved. Klingons don't have much patience with the 'differently abled.'"
"Tom, I know that's not true. You've made a big difference in B'Elanna. I should know."
"Yeah, and if you hadn't been so taken with Seska, you might have noticed the Klingon-sized crush she had on you."
"Had is the operable word. B'Elanna was looking for a father-figure. That happens some time in command."
"I wouldn't know. I seem to have the knack for getting those in my care killed." He pressed the weapon's point into the center of his chest. "It stops here."
Stun or kill, this close the effect should be about the same, but his hands were shaking so badly that he finally lowered the weapon. "Except that I'm a coward."
A spasm wracked the pilot's frame and Chakotay eased forward, willing the moment to last until he could wrap his hand around the downed phaser.
"You're not a coward. That's why it's always so difficult for you."
Dropping the weapon, Tom pushed himself further into the small room's corner, wrapping his arms around his trembling legs. He bowed his head, pressing his useless eyes into the rounded arch of his knees, wishing, as he had after his father's scoldings that the universe would take pity on him and wink him out of existence.
Tom let the first officer's strong arms envelope him and then, doing what he couldn't allow himself in front of B'Elanna or the Captain or Harry, Tom Paris cried.
"Janeway to Chakotay."
The fragile sanctity of the weapons room was dissolved by the captain's voice. Tom straightened away from the commander's comforting grasp as if suddenly burned by the touch.
Stowing the phaser carefully behind him, Chakotay raised a hand to the comm badge, his gaze fixed on Tom's red-rimmed eyes.
"We've picked up another Pictan attack group on long-range sensors. It's either them or the Timeless Sea. I think it's time we took a swim."
"Understood. I'll be there."
Frowning with indecision, Chakotay rose to his feet and replaced the weapon in the storage bin. Then he reached and locked a hand on the pilot's arm as if the previous breakdown had never happened.
Tom's mouth moved wordlessly.
"You're a member of the senior staff. We may need you."
"Chakotay," began Tom, unsure why he should need to point this out. "I can't see."
"No, but I can. You feel the ship. I've seen you do it. In the Earon Nebula you couldn't see anything. Viewscreen was down. Your console was barely on-line and you did some damn fine flying. If we need you, I'll be there. Trust me, the Captain won't let you run her ship into anything."
Kathryn didn't say anything when Chakotay appeared, his arm grasped too tightly by Tom's hand. She didn't even notice the pilot's swollen eyes. She was too intent on Harry's audible tally of the rising radiation readings. The ensign’s voice called out a steadily rising radioactive bombardment that only increased the tripping of Tom's already staccato heart. The floor beneath him rose and then dipped and the pressure on Chakotay's arm increased.
Tuvok sounded characteristically unaffected by any of the surrounding events. "As Mr. Neelix predicted, there is a chronomic effect. The ship's internal clock is now running backwards. We may find computer response time to be slowed by this phenomenon."
Another jolt knocked Tom to his knees and Chakotay came with him, trying to steady the lieutenant. The buffeting was quickly followed by another more intense shaking of the bridge.
"Can't we anticipate the shock waves?" asked the Captain as she gripped her chair tighter.
"Trying," acknowledged Jan Baines. "The helm is slow to respond."
Beneath her fingertip hold, the ship seemed wieldy and stiff. Give her a small fighter any day rather than the mass she now tried to shift to ride through the increasingly forceful energy surges. Her fingers played over the controls as she tried to take the ship to each of the crests before it. Ride it down to the next building of motion, but it bucked and reared, fought her like a living creature.
Baines spared a second to glance at the first officer and realized, somehow gratefully, that he was relieving her of duty. "You're quite welcome to try, Sir."
"Not me, Lieutenant." Chakotay had no doubts that Baines was doing far better at the tiring job than he could ever manage.
So Jan Baines turned over the helm to Tom Paris.
It took some time before Tom settled into the waves, coaxing the ship forward, then letting the momentum carry them, then repeating the process to the softly whispered instructions of the first officer.
The bucking didn't stop, but it eased. No one landed on the deck. Occasionally Chakotay repositioned his fingers but he didn't reach for the forward thrusters and accidentally put them in reverse. And he didn't run the ship into anything.
God, this seemed surreal. Twenty minutes before he had been crouched with a phaser in hand pointed at his own chest. Now the felt the familiar response of the ship reaffirming him. Beneath his hands the controls grew less rigid. Chakotay softly counted off the properties of each wave and he fell into the rhythm of his words. The ship no longer fought the motion, instead it rode with the force, carried along like a schooner of old. Then the waves diminished, flattening, growing further apart. Space becalmed and Chakotay stopped counting.
Before them on the viewscreen lay a dead world revolving around a single star.
"Chakotay?" whispered Tom, not knowing the meaning of the crew's silence.
The first officer motioned Baines back to her post.
"We have found the source of the radiation," observed Tuvok.
Standing up, Tom felt the captain place her hand on his back. "It's a planet."
"Class M," advised Harry. "Reading no lifesigns. There are structures of some kind down there, Captain."
"I thought we were just going to put our toe in." Chakotay observed.
"The Timeless Sea had other ideas," Kathryn nodded toward the viewscreen. "I suggest we go see what's going on."
She had a look on her face like she already knew which one of them was heading the landing party and Chakotay opened his mouth to protest. He didn't get a chance as the turbolift doors snapped open and Neelix staggered onto the bridge, a spotted hand clutched to his heart. "Tell me all that bobbing around did not mean we entered the Fgeina."
"Did your legend mention anything about a planet?" inquired Kathryn.
"Don't tell me." The Talaxian hobbled down to the lower decking. "The clocks ran backwards and you found yourself drawn here."
"And here is?"
"The Guardians are said to reside on a planet of some kind. I assume this would be it. But surely Captain, you're not planning to go down there."
"Oh, yes I am, Mr. Neelix and I'm hoping you'll accompany me."
"Um . . . well . . ." Neelix looked around and gave up all hope the bridge crew was going to come to their senses. "If you insist, Captain."
"I do. Tuvok, you'll come too, and Tom, you got us here, if you'd like to go down . . ."
The structure - if that was what you should call the form of metal and mineral before them - was old. Old enough that the tricorder beeped frantic readings Tuvok could not fully decipher. He took in the paradox of the results, of a structure older than the planet through which it sunk its metallic roots, a structure older than the sun around which this world revolved.
Kathryn could not resist the impulse to touch the burnished gray mass. "What is it?"
Tom jumped in surprise, but from the rustling around him, the others had been startled aswell. The voice, if it was a voice he'd heard, was deep and resonant, the sound pressing him in the same waves he'd coaxed the ship to ride.
"It has been many revolutions since we have heard a question."
The sound waves did not match the translation in his ears, yet he somehow doubted it was the universal translator providing the decipherment.
"Who are you?" Kathryn looked toward the center of the vaguely circular monument, originally clear and now roiling with shadow and smoke.
"We are that are. Since before your sun burned hot in space, before your race was born, we were."
"What is this place?"
"One where the lines of Forever meet. A gateway. To the future. To the past. Beside it we sleep. We wait."
"For what?" inquired Tuvok.
"For the End. The Beginning. We hold the door open."
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