Empty Sky by Rocky and Seema

Authors' notes: Takes place immediately after the events in "Act of War." Feedback welcomed at roq@iname.com and seemag1@yahoo.com

Disclaimer: Characters and places belong to Paramount. Unfortunately.


The Starfleet Academy Flight School was located at the southern end of the campus. Just beyond the gleaming, three-story glass-and-duranium structure were the landing strips for the sleek training crafts. Manicured green lawn surrounded the building, and it was obvious to any observers, even one as preoccupied as the former Voyager EMH, that the flight program was one that was richly endowed by alumni and other benefactors.

The Doctor hurriedly disembarked from his shuttle cab, barely pausing long enough to hand over the appropriate number of credits, and took the stairs to the main doors two at a time. Through the glass, he could see the lobby, well-appointed with comfortable sofas and wall portraits of famous captains and pilots. Two large monitors, at the moment tuned to the Federation News Service channel, were positioned near the main seating area. A group of students were clustered in front of the screens, watching with rapt attention. The Doctor barely missed bumping into a passing cadet, too intent on the day's developments to pay much attention to his surroundings. Muttering an apology, he made a beeline to the directory of instructors on the wall. He found what he was looking for almost immediately. Thomas Eugene Paris, office 132A. He set off down the corridor.

As the Doctor passed the seating area, the words "Breaking News" flashed in red text across the monitors. An anchorwoman, a serious expression on her face, said, "We now have official confirmation of the destruction of two Federation ships in the area of the Romulan Neutral Zone, the Amherst and the Minuteman." The anchorwoman turned to look at the gentleman sitting next to her. "If I understand correctly, Russ, these two ships are Mars-class, the most technologically advanced vessels in the 'Fleet. Doesn't it seem incredible to you that the Romulans could pick these ships off so easily?"

The Doctor hesitated, torn between staying and hearing more, or meeting with his former colleague as soon as possible. The urgency of his mission won out, however, and he continued on his way. A group of cadets still dressed in flight gear approached from the opposite direction, talking and laughing carelessly. The Doctor glared at them; what right had they to be so relaxed and happy when the Federation was on the brink of war? No, he immediately corrected himself--it was no longer the brink; fear had become reality, in more ways than one.

He turned the corner. The identifying numbers on the wall panels inched upward as he quickened his step down the hall. 126, 128, 130...132A was towards the end of the long corridor. Even as he approached, the door to office 132A swung open. A cadet was just leaving, several PADDs tucked under his arm and a distraught expression on his face. The Doctor moved aside to let him pass and then pressed the door signal.

"Come in."

The Doctor stepped across the threshold with alacrity. "Hello, Mr. Paris."

Tom rose from his seat, surprise evident in his features. "Doc-"

"I came as soon as I heard-" the Doctor began, unable to contain himself.

"Heard?" Tom interrupted. "What are you talking about?"

"The Minuteman, of course!" the Doctor said, favoring Tom with a puzzled look of his own. His hand, which he'd held out in an automatic gesture of greeting--or sympathy--dropped to his side. Didn't Tom *know* what had happened in the Neutral Zone?

"Yes, of course," Tom said. He shuffled some papers on his desk. "You'll have to excuse me. I just had to break some bad news to one of my students. He won't be passing the flight module this term; it was a devastating blow for him."

The Doctor nodded, though he was more than a little taken aback so see Tom so wrapped up in work-related issues. "Is-- is this a good time for you? I don't want to interrupt anything if you are busy."

"I don't have any classes this afternoon, or any scheduled appointments with students either," Tom said. He cleared his throat as he tapped in a series of commands on his computer. The Doctor stared in bewilderment. He didn't know what he had been expecting when he had decided to drop everything and rush to see Tom, but he certainly hadn't anticipated Tom's cool and stiff demeanor. "And for what it's worth--" Tom lifted his head to stare at the Doctor- - "I appreciate you coming to see me. It's been a -- difficult morning and I could use a friend."

The Doctor nodded, relieved that yes, Tom was aware of the deadly events which had taken place earlier that day in the Neutral Zone. It was one thing to come and offer comfort to a friend, it was something else entirely to have to be the one to break the news. Even though he'd come a long way with his bedside manner since his program had first been activated, the Doctor wasn't always comfortable with delivering bad tidings. It was even worse when the news concerned people he cared for deeply. "Wasn't the Minuteman -- wasn't that B'Elanna's ship?"

"Yes, it was," Tom said quietly. He sat back down in his chair and picked up a PADD from the desk, studying it for a second before looking back at the Doctor. "My father confirmed the news just a couple of hours ago." He tossed the PADD carelessly aside; it hit the edge of the desk and slipped to the floor. Tom didn't appear to notice.

"I was in a staff meeting when we heard the news, that there had been weapons fire along the Neutral Zone," the Doctor said excitedly, hoping to elicit some type of reaction from Tom. This stoic demeanor was unnerving to say the least. "Admiral Ng--she's the Deputy Commander for Sector Defense--excused herself right away, but then someone else said surely the new Mars class vessels were involved and given B'Elanna's extensive work on those ships, I knew that she must have been there." The realization that B'Elanna was in the line of fire had momentarily stunned the Doctor as he had pondered the implications of the news. He had excused himself from the meeting as soon as etiquette permitted. And now the Doctor pulled himself up short as a thought occurred to him. "What are you doing here?" he asked, frowning.

Tom's attention remained focused on the work spread out before him. "I had a class to teach. The cadets' Level IV flight certifications were scheduled for this morning, and I didn't want to delay that test. Preparing for this exam is stressful enough as it is under ordinary circumstances; no reason to prolong the agony." He paused, taking a second to glance up at the Doctor. "I thought it was best to continue the class as planned."

The Doctor sat down heavily in one of the 'visitor chairs' without being invited to do so. "But your wife -- I called your home and whoever answered told me you were out. I thought for sure you were over at HQ, but when I tried to track you down over there, they said they hadn't seen you! I took a chance that you might be here."

"You must have talked to Jenni, our babysitter," Tom said flatly. "At any rate, I don't think it really matters where I am, does it?"

"It certainly does!"

Tom smiled, but it didn't reach his eyes. "The news is still the same, regardless of my physical location. 'There was an exchange of fire in the Neutral Zone and casualties are assumed to be high.'"

"That's what they were saying more than an hour ago! There could be new developments now!" the Doctor exclaimed. He reached over and turned on the desk comm unit, tuning it to the Federation News Service. "There, you see?"

Onscreen, footage played of a ship exploding in space. Minuscule blips came flying outward from the center of a huge fiery ball; they could have been debris or escape pods or both. Several Romulan warbirds were seen advancing in an attack formation. As the images repeated, a voice-over narrated: "Apparently acting on the provocation of at least one Starfleet ship crossing into the Neutral Zone, the Romulans opened fire. The Amherst was completely destroyed, and a second ship, the Minuteman, sustained severe damage and was forced to eject its warp core before it exploded as well."

Tom reached over and flicked the comm unit off. "I've heard and seen enough, thanks."

"New information is being reported as it comes in," the Doctor said, turning the screen on once more. "We have to know what's going on."

Tom took another look at the perky brunette anchorwoman, Katie Cook, who was saying something about the presence of Ponzi raiders in the vicinity, and shook his head. "I've heard about all I can take for right now, Doc. If you don't mind--" he turned off the comm once again. "My father has promised to give me any important updates as they become available and frankly, I'd prefer to hear the news from him than anyone else."

"Or maybe you'd prefer not to hear anything at all." The words came out in a more accusatory tone than the Doctor had intended, but he was beyond caring. In an angry motion, he turned the comm unit back on, issuing a direct challenge to the other man.

"That's a little harsh, isn't it?" Tom said. His knuckles whitened around the stylus he gripped.

"Is it?" the Doctor shot back. "It seems to me--by your hiding here in your office, by avoiding any news--that you're pretending there's nothing wrong!"

Tom took a deep breath. "Now that's unfair. I'm not 'hiding' and I resent your implication that I'm some kind of coward because I'm sitting here trying to be productive. In case it's slipped your mind, I have a job to do. You know as well as I do that B'Elanna wouldn't want me to neglect my duties." He attempted a more conciliatory tone. "Sitting around and watching the news for the latest developments won't change what has already happened, Doc. Like it or not, there's nothing we can do now but wait. And if I choose to 'wait' by working, then that's my choice."

The Doctor's gaze shifted to the shelf behind Tom's desk. Just above the shelf was a wide window, affording a panoramic view of the landing strips beyond and then the gray-blue hills of Marin. The sky that day was gray, the air hazy, but the Doctor suspected on a clear day, Tom had a beautiful view of the churning slate-colored waters of the Bay. In the distance, he could see the graceful arc of a fighter jet as it rose into the sky, disappearing from view within seconds.

His gaze shifted downward, to the holographic photos crowding the shelf - photos of Tom with B'Elanna, and of their children, along with pictures of various members of the Voyager crew. The Doctor recognized the one of the entire senior staff as having been taken at the reception commemorating the one year anniversary of their return home. There was even a shot of 'Captain Proton' and 'Buster Kincaid', both grinning hugely as they stood next to their 'space rocket.' Outwardly, Tom Paris didn't share much of his feelings--something that had driven the Doctor crazy on more than one occasion when they had shared Sickbay shifts on Voyager--but it was obvious from the proliferation of photos that Tom had no problem displaying symbols of what really mattered to him.

"I'm sorry," the Doctor said, feeling guilt sweep over him. "I didn't mean to imply--"

Tom interrupted. "Look, Doc, let's just drop it, all right? I appreciate your concern, but the truth of the matter is that when I go home tonight, I've got one hell of a daunting task waiting for me. I'm going to have to explain to my children why their mother isn't coming home. So don't presume to judge me."

The Doctor nodded slowly. With sudden clarity, he thought of the two Paris children, and the cheerful havoc they had wreaked in his office when he'd given them their most recent check-up just a few months previously.

//Within the space of just a few minutes, Miral had managed to spill her juice all over the main diagnostic computer console, and Joey had upset a row of tissue cultures and disabled the Doctor's mediwand, and one of them--he couldn't recall who--had gotten hold of the osteoregenerator. Fortunately it hadn't been fully charged.

B'Elanna knelt on the floor, an arm around each of her children, as she said in a gentle yet firm tone, "Miral, it's okay. You didn't mean to short out the relays, and by the looks of them they probably needed to be replaced sooner rather than later anyway." The Doctor gave her an outraged look, but B'Elanna smiled slightly and shook her head at him. "And I promise, if the office replicator doesn't have any more apple juice, we'll stop and get some on the way home. Joey..." here B'Elanna fell silent, apparently at a loss for words. The Doctor agreed wholeheartedly. What *did* you say to a rambunctious toddler who felt compelled to take apart every piece of equipment he came across? "Joey," B'Elanna said finally, "you know it's not nice to touch someone else's toys without permission."

The Doctor fought back a grin as he picked up Joey and placed him firmly on the biobed. "Now then, young man, if you sit still long enough for me to check you, I promise to show you something *really* 'neat' before you go." He winked at B'Elanna over the boy's curly head.

Later, as B'Elanna glanced around once more to make sure she had all of their possessions in her large shoulder bag prior to leaving, the Doctor smiled. "I'm always amazed at how patient you are with those children, B'Elanna, no matter what they do. You're a wonderful mother."

Instead of thanking him for the compliment, however, B'Elanna laughed till tears came to her eyes. "Patient? Me? Have you forgotten who you're talking to?"

"I admit that I didn't always think you had it in you," the Doctor observed dryly. "But seeing is believing."

B'Elanna scooped up a sulky Joey, positioning him on her hip, and then took Miral's hand. "Trust me, Doctor, this was one of those days when I would cheerfully give these kids away to the lowest bidder. As much as I love them, there are times I'd just love to escape from it all." She smiled at him. "See you in a few months, Doctor."

The Doctor nodded as he started the clean-up process. "I'll look forward to it, B'Elanna," he said sincerely. But Joey had been crying and the Doctor couldn't be sure that B'Elanna had actually heard him.//

"What about escape pods?" the Doctor said suddenly. "Even if the ships were destroyed, surely there are some survivors? Once the battle's over--"

Tom didn't react to the hopeful note in the Doctor's voice. Instead he shook his head and said, "Initial reports say that escape pods were launched from the Amherst prior to its warp core breach, but none from the--" he broke off abruptly.

Onscreen, Katie Cook said, "We have confirmation that a total of five Starfleet vessels were in the area of the Neutral Zone at the time of the attack, including the Livingston. Admiral Kathryn Janeway has been on board the Livingston for the past two months, engaging in shuttle diplomacy with the Romulans, hoping to avert exactly this type of situation."

"Sorry to interrupt, Katie," her partner said, "but we're now receiving word that Admiral Janeway had transferred over to the Minuteman shortly before the attack."

"My God," the Doctor said, staring at the screen. He looked up to meet Tom's eyes. "The Admiral was there, too? Then she's also..." his voice trailed off in disbelief.

Tom nodded slowly, almost unwillingly. "My father heard rumors that both Janeway and Harry Kim were both onboard the Minuteman when it was attacked. Apparently, Janeway had some matters to discuss with Captain Phillips. I think her plan had something to do with offering humanitarian aid to the Ponzi as a way to stop their raids on Romulan colonies and she felt it was best to discuss it in person rather than over channels which could be intercepted by both the Ponzi and the Romulans."

The Doctor turned his attention back to the comm unit. He hadn't even considered that Janeway and Harry would be in the Neutral Zone; his first thoughts had gone immediately to B'Elanna. He gripped the armrests of his chair tightly as he listened to the Federation News' anchorwoman continued speaking in a voice tinged with urgency.

"There has been no confirmation, repeat, no confirmation that the Admiral returned to the Livingston prior to the attack. A message from Captain Johnson to Starfleet, received at 0700 PDT, states that Admiral Janeway and at least one other member of the Livingston crew shuttled over to the Minuteman and had not been heard from since," Katie Cook reported. "Meanwhile, the U.S.S. Constantinople, on patrol in a nearby sector, has been dispatched to the area along with the Pasteur, a medical support vessel. A Vulcan Science Academy vessel, the Sarek, is also en route."

The Doctor gazed out the window, speculatively eyeing a shuttle coming in for a landing in the quad beyond, and came to a decision--one that had been fermenting since he'd first heard the news; now he knew it was the only option. "This waiting is intolerable. Come on." He came around the desk and pulled at Tom's arm.

"What are you doing?" Tom yanked his arm free of the Doctor's grip.

"We have to get out there!" the Doctor said impatiently. Surely he didn't need to explain this? "With your connections, you can get us on a ship that will take us to the Neutral Zone."

Tom stared at the Doctor. "Are you *crazy*? Connections or not, it would take an Intrepid class ship a little under a week at maximum warp to get there. And when we would finally arrive, just what do you think you'll do?"

"Do? I'm a doctor, and you are a skilled field medic, Mr. Paris." Ordinarily, the Doctor would not have praised Tom's medical skills to his face. But it went without saying that this was no ordinary time, and he needed to persuade Tom as quickly as possible. "They're probably swamped with casualties, and any trained medical personnel in the area will be in short supply." He paused, but could not quite keep the bitterness out of his voice. "Though I hardly expected that you of all people would need an *excuse* to head out there."

Tom's head reared back as the insult hit home. "I can't say that I wouldn't prefer to be there," he said heatedly, "but I also have to be realistic. You heard them--medical ships in the area have already been dispatched. They'll get there more quickly than we possibly could and do more good in that respect." Tom took another deep breath, and his expression grew pensive. "The Minuteman has been reduced to a debris field covering nearly a thousand square kilometers. I- I don't think I could look."

The Doctor stared at Tom in dismay. What happened to the impulsive young pilot from Voyager? The man who didn't hesitate to rush in when someone he cared about was in danger? "This is no time to get emotional, Mr. Paris! My medical database contains over 5 million possible treatments, with contingency options and adaptive programs. I am an expert at triage situations. I have information from 2,000 medical references and the experience of 47 physicians, wrapped up in 80 million gigaquads of computer data! I have to be there!"

The next thing he knew, Tom had grabbed him and slammed him against the wall. "Didn't you hear me? There is *nothing* left of the Minuteman or the Amherst! Who the hell do you expect to triage anyway? Genetic remnants?" Tom's voice grew increasingly louder. "And yes, maybe you do have the experience of '47 physicians wrapped up in 80 million gigaquads of computer data', but that doesn't change the fact that there is *no one* alive to triage." Tom released the Doctor and turned away, his fists still clenched at his sides, his shoulders shaking. "I'm sorry, Doc, but I don't see the point of traveling all that distance."

"But there *is* a point! The reporters just said escape pods had been released," the Doctor insisted frantically. "There's got to be someone still alive--they can't all be gone! Those Mars-class ship carried 60 people each. That's 120 people! But if I don't get out there, their chances of survival will be that much less! Every second we waste here arguing is time that could be more profitably spent saving lives!"

Tom didn't answer. He remained standing, his back to the Doctor, as he hunched over his desk, seemingly very interested in the scattered PADDs. The Doctor took a deep breath, instinctively rubbing the back of his head. He opened his mouth to speak, but his attention was drawn back to Katie Cook of the Federation News Service; she was speaking directly to the camera now as the words "Conflict in the Neutral Zone" flashed in red at the bottom of the screen.

"Recapping our top story, a battle was fought in the vicinity of the Romulan Neutral Zone early this morning. We have received confirmation that a Starfleet vessel, the Amherst, fired the first shot, hitting a Romulan freighter. At this time, there is no indication of why the Amherst fired, or what role the Ponzi may have played in that action. There's a lot of confusion here still, Russ, as we're getting spurts of raw information from the main Starfleet feed, some of it conflicting."

"The fact that a major communications array was damaged in the battle isn't helping any on that score, Katie. The later reports are sketchy at best. But we do know that the Amherst and Minuteman were destroyed--there's no question of that. Captain Johnson of the Livingston reported the destruction before the array failed. We also know that there were a total of five Starfleet vessels were involved in the battle, the Livingston--"

A quiet voice by his side made the Doctor jump. "The escape pods were launched from the *Amherst*, not the Minuteman. There is no evidence that anyone left the Minuteman between the time it was attacked and when it exploded. You're hoping for a miracle that didn't happen." Tom clenched his fists. The Doctor glanced at Tom, startled; so caught up in the recap himself, he had been unaware that Tom had been paying attention to the newscast as well. "And the three remaining ships from the battle have their own medical staffs and sickbays," Tom continued. He took a deep breath, obviously trying to compose himself. "I think it's terrific you want to help out, but I honestly don't see what you can do that the people already out there can't."

Peripherally, the Doctor was aware of footage of a ship ejecting its warp core, and the ensuing explosion, being replayed for perhaps the tenth time in the last hour. As before, Romulan warbirds were seen moving in an attack formation. But this time, there were additional images of other Starfleet vessels taking hits. The name Livingston was visible on the side of one ship as it inexplicably moved closer to the attacking vessels and locked a tractor beam on what appeared to be pieces of wreckage.

The images--and what they *meant*--were seared deeply into the Doctor's mind. He cleared his throat, hoping to explain to Tom that watching those images over and over again was like reliving the deaths of his friends, the people who had meant the most to him. But unless he saw the wreckage for himself--not sterile news vids-- the Doctor had to believe that the people he cared about could still be saved.

"Don't you see? I *have* to be there! I *have* to..." the Doctor slumped forward. "They can't be gone, not B'Elanna, or the captain or Harry." He bowed his head in defeat. "It's my job to take care of them, to make sure that they're all right. I can't lose them. I can't." He'd come too close to that once before...

//B'Elanna and Janeway, both unconscious, lay on adjacent biobeds. Their Borg prosthetic devices and implants stood out in stark contrast to their unnatural pallor. Tuvok was in another section of Sickbay, behind a security forcefield. For some reason, the neural inhibitor all three of them had been injected with prior to their beaming over to the Borg cube hadn't been as effective in preventing the assimilation process in his case.

His voice sounding unusually loud in his own ears, the Doctor said, "Well, let's get started. Their vital signs are as stable as they're going to be. No sense in delaying any further." A medical assistant moved forward with a tray of instruments and the EMH began the process of removing the captain's cranial implants. It was a slow and painstaking process. One false step, and she would die. The Doctor didn't flinch; he *knew* he was capable of saving her. Of saving them all.//

Tom put his hand on the Doctor's shoulder. "Believe me, *I* understand." He smiled, but his eyes were suspiciously bright. "You asked why I came to work instead of staying home or going to HQ. The truth is, I *need* to be busy. The chances are very good that my wife, along with two of my closest friends, died out there and I'm not ready to face life without her yet. It's easier to guide my cadets through their flight maneuvers than it is to wonder how things are going to be without B'Elanna. There will be plenty of time for that in the days, months, years to come." His voice cracked slightly at the end.

The Doctor looked at Tom's hand, then up at his face, and it was as though he was seeing him, *really* seeing him, for the first time. He had been so intent on pushing his own concerns to the forefront that he had been unable to even contemplate what this must be like for Tom. "I'm sorry. I've been terribly selfish, not even thinking about what you must be going through." The Doctor resolutely pushed away all thoughts of those who had been onboard the Minuteman on this fateful day. "I don't know how you have the strength to stand there and carry on."

Tom shrugged, but it was beginning to be evident just how much it cost him to appear calm. "Strength has nothing to do with it. We both knew and understood the risks before B'Elanna went out there." He pressed his lips into a thin smile. "We spoke last night, you know--she wanted to say goodnight to the kids. She told me her engineers were coming along fine and that she was proud of them. She also said that she felt the situation in the Neutral Zone was easing a little and she hoped to be home soon." Tom inhaled. "She doesn't get a chance to call every night, but she always tries. Joey, he was too sleepy to talk to her last night, but Miral, she couldn't stop chattering about the pony she had seen on a field trip to the farm and B'Elanna promised to take her again when she came home. It was getting late and so I told B'Elanna I'd talk to her tomorrow evening - um, that would be tonight. I guess it'll hit me then. When I sit down at the comm unit to talk to her, and she won't answer." Tom looked down at his hands. "I keep replaying our conversation over and over in my head. I wish I had known that this was the *last* time we would ever talk because then I would have said more, told her more than what I'd done all day. I hope--I think I told B'Elanna I love her, but I'm having a hard time remembering clearly now."

The Doctor nodded, but said nothing. Tom Paris seemed intent on his own thoughts and the Doctor instinctively understood that perhaps Tom needed a few seconds to himself. Instead, the Doctor focused his attention back to Katie Cook and the Federation News Service feed.

"The Romulans appear to have moved off for now--at least there doesn't seem to be any more exchange of weapons fire--and rescue operations are proceeding unfettered. We still have no indication as to why the Romulans called off their attack. The Livingston, Ticonderoga and Concord have all sustained varying amounts of damage. It is unknown if the Ticonderoga has full warp capability. Complete casualty reports from all five vessels will not be available until the rescue operations have been underway for at least another hour, possibly longer. But there are rumors starting to trickle in that the number of survivors may be greater than originally thought."

Almost to himself, Tom said, "The last time I saw Harry was about half a year ago, at a conference. You should have seen him, Doc--you'd have hardly recognized him. Lieutenant Commander Harry Kim, on the fast track to command. A far cry from the green ensign he was when I first met him all those years ago on Deep Space Nine, when Voyager was first setting out. Though we always knew he had it in him--remember how the two of you almost single-handedly took back our ship from the Hirogen?" Tom ran his hand over his face tiredly. "It just doesn't seem right, does it, to have come all the way back from the Delta Quadrant, only to lose them now."

The Doctor did not know what to say. He reflected privately that Tom was no stranger to tragedy, had had a lot of losses in his life. The EMH, too, remembered a young man from Voyager's earliest days, one who was cocky and abrasive as a way of protecting himself from being hurt, and who was reckless precisely because he had nothing further to lose, no one to care about.

How much had changed since then--and Janeway had been the catalyst, giving them all a chance to show her what they were capable of. Tom, B'Elanna, Harry--and himself. He thought of how the captain had allowed, even encouraged him, to exceed the original parameters of his programming. Oh, they'd butted heads on more than one occasion. Janeway had never hesitated to dress him down when he deserved it, but by the same token, she had been an experienced enough leader--and a big enough person--to admit when she was in the wrong.

Tom's voice broke in to the Doctor's reverie. "We've lost Harry before, but somehow we've always managed to get him back. Until now." Tom bit his lip. "And as for Janeway, this is what she would have wanted, to go out fighting. " He inhaled sharply. "B'Elanna and I had ten great years together. I can't believe how lucky I was--and still am--to have been with her."

"Yes, you've been very lucky, Tom," the Doctor said softly. "The two of you had something very special. If only--I just wish that there was some way--"

The door to the office opened suddenly. Tom jerked his head up in surprise as the Doctor twisted around to see who the visitor was. Admiral Owen Paris stood in the doorway, a PADD clutched in his hand.

Tom blanched at his father's appearance. The Doctor felt a tingle of anxiety as well. He couldn't help but feel the senior Paris's coming in person did not bode well, a premonition reinforced by Admiral Paris's decidedly somber expression as he entered the room.

"Dad?" Tom said, his apprehension etched clearly across his face.

Admiral Paris's eyes flicked over at the Doctor for a moment, then he turned his attention back to his son. "I came as soon as we had official confirmation--I wanted to tell you this myself."

Tom took a step forward. Gone was the attempted nonchalance, the efforts to keep his emotions in check. Raw fear showed on his face as he said, "Oh God, B'Elanna, it's true then. She's--" Tom paused, his lower lip quivering slightly.

The Doctor swallowed hard. Confirmation, he thought. Just as they had feared, there was no one left to save. Irrationally, he felt as if he had personally failed B'Elanna, Harry and Janeway.

"Dad--" Tom's voice cracked. "Go ahead. Tell me."

"I'm having trouble believing it myself." The Admiral started to hold out the PADD, but opened his arms instead. "It's a miracle, Son. About a dozen survivors were rescued from the Minuteman just minutes before it exploded. B'Elanna was one of them. She's coming home, Tom."

Tom stared in disbelief. "B'Elanna? Coming home?"

The Admiral nodded. "She should arrive in a few days."

The Doctor could not bring himself to turn away at first as Tom collapsed against his father's shoulder. But after a few moments, he quietly slipped out the door to give them some privacy.

~ the end

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