Author's note: Part of the "Lines in the Sand" series; chronologically, it comes after "A Fugue in Blue Minor, part I", though it's placed after "The Solitary" in this listing. This has been a long time coming. Thank you for your patience. Also, my gratitude to Rocky for her wonderful beta.
Disclaimer: Characters belong to Paramount. No profit or infringement intended. No break even point, for that matter. Just good, old fashioned fun.
You get to the point where you realize the life you're living isn't the one you want to be living anymore and you need to pick a new direction. We all get to that poetically clichéd fork in the road sometime and I thought I'd reached it years ago in prison, where I spent 23 hours a day in a cinder-block walled room, pacing eight meters by five, and for one hour in the afternoon, I got the chance to turn my face towards the sky. Notice I didn't say sun, because weather didn't matter. You took your hour whether the clouds were heavy with precipitation, whether it was hot or cold; a typhoon could blow through the place and it wouldn't matter. You took your hour because if you didn't, you would have to wait another 24 hours until you got another one.
I don't know when I made the decision to join B'Elanna. Since I've been back, that's the question everyone wants to know, as if I've done something extraordinary, as if I've finally -- years after the fact -- broken out of prison in a spectacularly clever way. "When did you know? When did you decide? How long were you planning this?"
I don't have an answer because nothing I did that night was clever and there's certainly nothing spectacular about getting on a shuttle and *going*. There was just this moment when I realized, when I looked up and saw the crowd around me, heard the tinkling of glasses, the bits and pieces of conversations, and thought, "I've got to get the hell out of here." And when I thought 'here', I meant Starfleet, I meant the gala, I meant my current location, I meant 'here' in the sense of my circumstances at that pivotal moment; I wasn't by any stretch of the imagination thinking about leaving the planet.
And so I left. I didn't say a word to Harry because I was intending to come back. In retrospect, I should have at least told him what I was thinking, how particularly alienated I was feeling at that moment. And I know he would have understood and the two of us would have probably left together and this whole mess could have been avoided. But you know what they say about hindsight. So even though Harry's the only person I can talk to, the only one I can trust, I didn't say a word to him. I certainly didn't say anything to Janeway, because I can't tell what side she's playing, and there's a part of me that's just a little bit pissed off at her.
I might have said mentioned something in passing to my mother, a casual "I need to get some air." She might have smiled at me, faintly and painfully, saying something conventional like "All right." She certainly didn't ask me where I was going or why. She didn't ask me if everything was all right, and even if she did, I would have lied and told her I was fine, that I just needed some space to clear my head. I don't think wanting clarity is a crime.
I meant to just go out to the veranda, take a look around, inhale deeply, and then come back in. But I looked up at the sky and I thought, "B'Elanna's out there. She's out there and I'm here." I felt this pressure against my chest, this tightening in my throat, and the next thing I knew, one step turned into two and two into three, and suddenly I was off hallowed Starfleet ground.
Yes, again, I know I could have said something to someone at that time, but remember, I didn't have a plan. I knew I wasn't going home (if you could call a Starfleet dormitory room 'home'), but again time and destination were still in flux. I walked quickly because I was afraid someone would see me and call me back in and the last thing I wanted was to be surrounded by my father's old colleagues and hear stories about just how wonderful and great he was. I had heard enough stories that night that I could finally understand the way the skin pulled tightly across my mother's face as if it were a great effort to just attempt the thinnest of smiles.
I found respite at a joint called The Flying Saucer. It was a beer place, something like 200 different kinds on tap, and a popular hangout for Academy students. It hadn't been in business when I was at the Academy, which was probably a good thing. After the shuttle accident, I probably would have commandeered a stool at the counter and not left until graduation. Even this night, I licked my lips thinking about what a nice, cold beer would taste like. Bad habits come back with a vengeance unforgiving.
I took a seat at the bar and kept my head down until the bartender asked me what I wanted. It'd been so long since I'd had a real beer. I wanted something that would blunt the edge of the champagne I'd consumed at the Starfleet gala, so I told him, "Surprise me."
"You like Belgian?"
"How about something off-world? Blood-wine or Saurian brandy?" The bartender stared at me blankly. I sighed. "Forget it. Beer will be fine."
"You like something with a lot of hops?"
"I'm not that picky."
The bartender looked at me. "You want something off-world and you're not picky about the hops?"
"I just want a drink," I said. "I don't care."
Five minutes later, he put a foaming mug in front of me and stood there, his expression expectant. I took a sip.
"I like it, thanks," I said. "I'll take the bottle. You can put it on my tab." And that, you see, was my first mistake. He asked my name and credit number, I gave it to him instead of paying cash, and voila. And this is of course what I've been arguing all along, that none of my actions were premeditated. If they were, would I really have given a bartender my name and address? I wasn't even *trying* to hide my tracks at that point.
The bar wasn't that full -- just me, a couple in the back corner, and a pouty lipped waitress -- and so the bartender came back to check on me every now and then. He tried to make conversation, but I didn't have much to say. I was still thinking about the night sky, the stars, and all of the planets that couldn't be seen with the naked eye. I thought about B'Elanna and wondered what she was doing at this moment. I wonder if she felt that same twisting pain in her gut every time she woke up alone. I thought about how many times I'd seen someone from the back with her build, her hair, her (old) uniform, and how hard it was to restrain myself from calling her name.
"Want another one?"
I shook my head. "Nah, I'm good. Already had more than I should have had."
"Ah." The bartender glanced up and down my uniform. "I heard there was a big gala event at Starfleet tonight. Something about Voyager? You know something about it?"
"I was there."
"Yeah? I wonder about those. Fun?"
"No, not really. A little too formal for my tastes." As an afterthought and a nod to the slight headache taking hold behind my right temple, I added, "Lots of good quality champagne though."
"Ah." He put an olive into a martini glass. "I thought about going to the Academy years ago. I wanted to be a pilot."
I leaned forward. "What happened?"
He shrugged. "Not everyone can be in Starfleet." He put the martini glass on a tray and the waitress came and took it away. She was wearing a short plaid skirt, dark stockings pulled up to her knees, and a t-shirt with the words 'Beer Knurd' printed in white block letters stretched tight across her ample bosom. Fatigue rimmed her dark eyes. She let out a puff of air between her pursed lips, blowing her hair out of her eyes. Neither waitress nor bartender acknowledged the other. I just knew, somehow, that once upon a time they had slept together.
"Life's been pretty good for me though," the bartender said. His tone was casual, light, but his gaze followed the waitress as she bent to set the drinks down on a table just a few meters away. "So maybe I don't get to go out and be a hero like everyone else, but someone's got to be around to listen to the stories, right?"
"Yeah. They come in here, boasting of their exploits, sometimes take over the whole place with the tales they tell. Can't always separate the truth from the fiction. It all sounds foreign to me, this whole other life taking place that I can't even fathom. Even so, when I listen, I get the feeling that maybe I ought to be doing something other than pouring, that my life isn't worth anything until I've taken on six Cardassians by myself and in the process, saved the Federation from the scourge of the Dominion. That's when I start thinking about what I could be doing, should be doing, and it always comes back to the same thing: someone's gotta listen to the stories."
The door opened and a fresh breeze blew in, momentarily minimizing the dank odor in the place. I didn't turn around, but a couple minutes later, the pouty-faced waitress dropped a PADD on the counter. "I need three beers and one shot of whiskey," she said, turning away immediately, as if reluctant to even make eye contact.
The bartender offered me a faint smile as he checked the PADD and started efficiently filling them. "You sure I can't get you something else?"
"No, I'm good, really. I should be going--" I paused. The warmth of the alcohol was spreading through my body and the headache was getting worse and I couldn't quite think. Where I was I going? Back to the gala? Back to my square and sterile room furnished with items that look liked they'd come off Voyager? Oh hell, as long as we're being honest, that bar was just as much home as the standard issue Starfleet housing. I settled back on my stool. "I'll take another bottle of whatever it was you gave me before. I got time."
"No one waiting for you at home?"
"It's a long story."
"Always is. Like I said, someone's got to be here to listen." He gave me a piercing look. "If you want to talk, that is. I'm here." His dark eyes were round, sympathetic, and I felt like he'd used that line so many times before and maybe he even believed in it a little bit.
I shrugged. "I've been talking a lot lately. Too much. Nothing makes sense any more. I spent so much time thinking about Earth, about coming home, and now that I'm here, it doesn't feel right."
"Heard that one too," he said. "Were you in the war?"
"The Dominion War? No."
His hand shook slightly as he pushed another glass towards me. The foam spilled out over the sides and trickled down to the scratched countertop. "You weren't there? How'd you manage that? Wow, you're one of the lucky ones."
"Depends on how you define 'lucky'," I said.
"The stories I heard, man. Night after night, the survivors came in here. Some of them had just been patched up at Starfleet Medical and were getting ready for their second or third tour of duty. They looked fine and when they were with their own kind, they were full of bravado. They couldn't wait to get back out, and they'd boast about what they'd do if and when they saw a Jem'Hadar or a Breen. When they came face to face with me, it was another story. I guess they knew I wouldn't tell on them, that I knew they were afraid. They knew I'd listen and that I'd pour, and that's all they needed." The bartender smiled faintly. "And when they were afraid, it was like they were actually ordinary, like not so much the heroes we kept reading about, the ones whom we could never quite live up to, in stature or deeds."
I didn't say a word. What was there to say, after all? The Dominion War was very much like the World Wars or the Eugenic Wars -- something I'd learned about in history books, but never experienced. Still, we had our own battles in the AQ -- the Borg, the Hirogen, the Kazon; we were the David to the Goliaths in the DQ and we prevailed against excruciating odds. Yet, when compared to the Dominion War, our experiences somehow paled, as if what we'd endured and triumphed over was minor. I wasn't going to apologize for missing the War, not ever. Finally I said the only thing I could think of. "I'm sure the soldiers appreciated what you did for them."
"Maybe, I don't know. I got something out of it too, you know. I got a chance to listen to a life that I never experienced and so maybe I haven't made the best choices, maybe I'm not anyone's hero, but when they're sitting in front of me, they're not much different. They just got better stories to tell." He pushed a tray again towards the waitress and she gave him a sullen look before walking off, the tray balanced expertly on the palm of her upturned hand, her hips swaying jauntily as she moved. "So, you got out of the Dominion War. How did you manage that? Medical excuse?"
"I was in the Delta Quadrant."
A beat passed and then another. Finally he said, "You were on Voyager."
He shook his head. "Wow. I mean, you did say something about attending the Voyager gala, but I just assumed you were one of the guests. I didn't realize...."
"It's all right."
"Hey man, I'm sorry," he said.
"For assuming you were one of the guys who skipped service on a technicality."
"It's all right," I said. I downed the last of my bottle and tapped it lightly on the counter, the universal gesture for "another one, please." I felt warm all over. It had been a long time since I'd had real alcohol and I liked the way it felt going down my throat.
"So I read." Another pause. "How much of what happened on Voyager is real? You never know these days, you know how the media sensationalizes stuff. Anything to get a good story. So?" He glanced at me expectantly. "How much of it is for real and how much of it is just a really good story?"
I pressed my lips into a thin smile. "You can't believe everything the media tells you."
"Well, it's not just the media. I hear it in my bar too. Not so much anymore, but right after Voyager got back." The bartender shook his head. "Did the Captain really strangle a Borg with her bare hands?"
"No. That is definitely a tall tale. Though," I said, thinking about Janeway and the way her eyes would harden and her lips would tighten as her jaw clenched. I knew that expression well, having been on the receiving end of it so many times, and I had no doubt, given the right circumstances, Janeway was more than capable of strangling a Borg with her bare hands. "Good story though." I pushed my beer back. "One more, and then I've got to hit the road."
"Back to the gala?"
"It'd probably be a good idea," I said. I looked at the glass of courage he'd just poured me.
"You're probably missed," he said.
There was something about his cloying tone that really got to me at that point. I wanted to tell him that we weren't friends, that I hadn't come there looking for a sympathetic ear. Maybe he was in the listening business, but I wanted to get out of the talking business. But then I saw him glance at the waitress and this expression in his eyes, it got me. So yeah, I'm a little bit of a romantic even though my own romance has been thwarted by a chilly rock in the middle of nowhere. I watched him watching her. The softness at the corner of his eyes, the thin pressed wistful curve of his lips, the way his cheek puckered in so I knew he was biting the skin. So I said to him, "Don't you ever get tired of listening? Don't you have your own story?"
He shook his head, a little sadly, or maybe that was just my own projection. "Everyone's got a story," he said with a bitter-edged laugh. "But most people aren't interested in mine. I guess one of these days I gotta get out of this bar and do something with my life that'd be worth listening to."
I downed the remainder of the beer in one long smooth gulp. "So what's stopping you?"
He shrugged. "Don't know. Anxiety, I guess, about what other people think I should be doing, the rules others create but I find myself obliged to follow whether I think it's a good idea or not. It's a holding pattern, circling and circling, and I can see where I want to go, but I don't know how to break free." He reached for a rather dingy washcloth and started listlessly wiping down the bar. "The question is, how long do I wait for the pieces to fall into place?"
"I don't think you can wait," I said. The minute I said those words, I knew what I had to do. Waiting wasn't going to get me back to B'Elanna. She was stranded (by choice, no less) on a big rock in the middle of the galaxy with no way to get to me. If I wanted her back, if I wanted us to be together, I needed to get to her. Waiting for Starfleet and the Federation to pardon the Maquis, well, that could be a lot of moments with B'Elanna I'd be missing. As far as I knew, there was nothing stopping *me* from going out to Alonius Prime (well, other than the mandate that said we Voyager officers were under quasi-house arrest, but that was just a detail and I could deal with details later). "Don't wait," I said. I leaned forward. "Life shouldn't just happen to you; you should make life happen." I glanced over my shoulder at the waitress. She was standing near the window, her back to us. "Don't wait, just go." I slid off my bar stool. "You can close out my tab."
"Sure, Mr. Paris," he said. Then he looked closer at my collar. "I mean, Lieutenant," he said. He seemed curiously proud of himself, but I could see why. Pip count and corresponding rank is one of those things few outside of Starfleet seem to have straight.
"Have a good night," I said.
I was halfway to the door when he called out, "I'm Brad."
I turned and smiled. "Nice to meet you, Brad."
"Come back soon."
"Maybe the next time I'm in the neighborhood."
I headed out into the night. It was cooler now, the breeze stronger. I walked for about 20 minutes before stopping at the edge of the Starfleet campus. It's at this point where the media reports about what happened next diverged from what I did. A lot of the early accounts said I caught a shuttle to Jupiter station around 1 am, which would be shortly after I'd left the bar. My guess is that they'd got that information from Brad and went with it, even though there's no record of my transport to Jupiter Station until much later that morning, around 0600, and any good reporter worth her salt would have known that the 0600 was the first transport out. So for the first time, I'll tell you what I did with those five hours.
I went back to my dorm room at Starfleet Headquarters and got out of my dress uniform. I changed into comfortable slacks and a floral print shirt (blue, for those of you who need those kinds of details, and oh, the pants were brownish). I left my dress uniform on the bed, all nicely laid out, right down to the communicator on the chest. I touched the pips lightly because I wanted to feel a connection to Starfleet. After all, I'd gotten married in that uniform. I stood there for several minutes, my fingers pressed to the material, paralyzed into inaction. Go or stay, go or stay, go or stay. I thought about B'Elanna, thought about the pouty-lipped waitress and Brad who was in the business of listening. I thought about Harry at the Starfleet gala, thought about the way he looked at Seven, wondered what would happen with Libby, and realized chances were pretty good I wouldn't be around to find out how that story ended. I didn't really think about Janeway.
I stuffed a few items into my pack, checked the schedule for Jupiter Station and connecting shuttles to other parts of the galaxy. I could only go as far as Cestus III on the shuttle, and then I'd have to depend on the kindness of a freighter captain or maybe even a smuggler to actually get me to Alonius. I wasn't really worried about that though. I'd already lived the planet hopping life and while I was much more domesticated now, I was sure I'd find my rhythm soon enough. After all, B'Elanna was waiting. I hoped.
I could just see the two of us drifting from planet to planet in search of adventure, going where we wanted to go, when we wanted to, free of regulations. You see, even after all we'd been through and seen, I was still a little naive. In my mind, nothing had changed. Or maybe it was the alcohol running through my system, the alcohol that made me feel warm all over.
By a stroke of luck, I didn't run into anyone as I left the dormitory. I stuck close to the shadows and kept my head down as I left the campus. I passed a couple of people on my way, but they didn't pay much attention to me and I quickened my pace in case they did decide to turn around. Paranoia, by the way, is something I do really well these days. I blame Starfleet, but more to the point, I blame my father. Nothing was as it should be, all upside down and sideways, and I didn't recognize a damn thing in my life, all shadows and shapes, shifting in and out of my line of vision.
I went by my childhood home and stood outside for a long time, my hands shoved deep down into my pockets. I knew I could have knocked and woken my mother up so I could look around, but there was this part of me that simply didn't understand the life I had lived within those four walls anymore. I had never quite understood my father, but for different reasons than recent events had revealed. And I thought it was time to make a clean break. You see, I didn't actually expect to ever come back to Earth.
As I said before, all the other reports got it wrong and you're hearing the truth -- boring as it is -- right here: I caught the 0600 shuttle to Jupiter Station, booking the ticket to Jupiter Station and then on to Cestus III in my own name (it did cross my mind very briefly to write down 'Captain Proton', but the ticket agent didn't seem like she had a sense of humor). In retrospect, I made it really easy for investigators to track me down.
I sat in the back of the shuttle, in the second to last row. I was about to get settled in, when I felt a kick delivered to the back of my chair, hard and fast. I ignored the first kick and then the next three, but when the fifth one landed a strong jolt to the small of my back, I realized it was going to be a very, very long trip to Cestus III if I didn't say anything.
I twisted around and saw a woman and her four year old son. She had brown hair, shoulder-length, like B'Elanna, and eyes a beautiful golden-brown. Her chin ended in a point, her cheekbones swept up to a rather wide forehead, her nose long and flat at the end. I thought (with some guilt) that she, like B'Elanna, was beautiful in an unconventional way.
"Hey," I said. "Could you please tell your son to quit kicking my chair? I'm trying to get some sleep here."
"I'm so sorry, this is his first shuttle ride, he's so excited," she said to me, rather breathlessly, and at the same time, catching the boy's foot in mid-kick.
"I understand," I said. The little boy squirmed, obviously eager to kick again. The mother looked exhausted, and I figured she probably wouldn't be awake for the whole shuttle ride and at some point, the white knuckle grip she had on her son's ankle would loosen and he'd be up to his old tricks again. I scanned the back row across the aisle from them and saw it was empty. I got up and switched seats.
"There," I said, with as bright of a smile as I could manage, "he can kick to his heart's content. He can't bother anyone anymore."
"Thank you. That's very nice of you." The mother brushed some hair out of her face wearily as she released her son's leg. "He's never been on a shuttle before."
"So you say."
"My husband, he's a pilot. Me, I prefer the ground to the stars," she said. "I don't like the feeling of falling."
"Flying isn't falling."
"There's nothing to catch you if something goes wrong."
"Shuttles, starships, they're perfectly safe. Nothing goes wrong." I leaned my head up against the curved shuttle wall. My head was aching, no doubt from too much alcohol and not enough water and food. The hum of the engines was mildly comforting and if I hadn't been feeling so godawful, I would have loved to be behind the shuttle controls.
"You sound like you know a lot about shuttles," the woman said. "Jack, stop *that*."
I didn't open my eyes see what crime the little urchin was committing now. Without doubt, this was going to be one of the longest shuttle rides of my life, maybe even longer than the journey back to the AQ. I was half-asleep when the woman leaned over and said, "I have some muffins. It was so early when we woke up to get to the station and we didn't have time to have breakfast first. Would you like one?"
I took the blueberry muffin she offered with some semblance of gratitude. It was fresh, though no longer warm.
"I baked them myself," she said. "No replicators for me. I'm old-fashioned."
"It's been a long time since I've had food that wasn't replicated," I said. "This is delicious. Thank you."
"You're welcome. It's the least I can do considering--" she glanced ruefully at her son who was now thoroughly engrossed in a PADD "-- well, you've been very patient, kind. I guess you must be around kids a lot."
"No, not really." I had never thought about having my own family, and B'Elanna and I had casually discussed it on Voyager. Now, the possibility seemed remote and the acknowledgement of that was more disappointing than I had thought.
"My husband is working at a Federation hospital on Cestus III. He's a doctor, civilian," she said. "They pay well on the frontier, and it was a good opportunity for him, so he took it."
"So are you visiting or going for good?" I finished the last of the muffin and wiped my hands on the napkin she offered.
"We're just visiting. I don't plan on staying long. I like Earth, thank you very much. If I were meant to be in space, I'd have been born with wings and an oxygen tank." I got the feeling she'd used that line many, many times before.
""You wouldn't need the wings, not without an atmosphere," I said. It suddenly occurred to me that the acceptance of the muffin was probably an open invite to talk. I had good idea now of what Brad at the Flying Saucer must feel like, listening to the parade of stories that never seemed to end, while waiting (impatiently) for life to pick up on his own storyline.
"I bet you were one of those kids who just couldn't wait to reach for the stars."
"It was in my blood. Couldn't get away from it."
"So what did you turn out to be?" she eyed me up and down.
In retrospect, it was silly to lie, especially given the trail I'd left behind. "Civilian freighter. My last job was with the Rigellian Merchant Lines."
"Ah," she said again. She pressed her lips together contemplatively. "Are you a mercenary?" Eagerness and curiosity underlined her tone.
Depends on whom you ask, I thought with a smile, but she seemed like a nice person and I decided not to split hairs. "No," I said.
"Sometimes," she said. "I think I was born in the wrong century."
"I know that feeling."
"My husband doesn't understand. He wants to keep going, keep pushing, trying to see what else is out there. He keeps talking about 'need', about how much 'need' there is in the universe and how it's our duty to go out and meet that 'need'. I'm getting so tired of that word. I just want to make a good home for my family on Earth. It's what I want, what I *need*, and why is that so wrong?"
"There's nothing wrong with that," I said. "It's just clear the two of you have different ideas of where you want to be and what you want to do. Maybe you can find some middle ground."
"You're a lot more optimistic than I am. I thought he'd come around to my way of thinking and so I married him even though I knew he had an incurable case of wanderlust. So now I'm back in San Francisco, and he's out on Cestus III." She bit her lip. "Distance is starting to become familiar, it's how I live now, and I'm scared of what's going to happen when I see him again." She pressed her hands to her face and then said, "I'm sorry, so sorry. I shouldn't have burdened you with all that." She gave a hesitant, self-conscious laugh. "It's just been so long since I've seen him. Six months. Can you imagine? There are times when I miss him furiously and other times, I am just furious. Middle ground, God, I'd love to find that place between desperation and fury."
"It's not so bad, Cestus III."
"You've been there before?"
"No," I said. "I've never been anywhere you'd want to go."
She was silent for a moment. "I'm scared."
I tried to put on a sympathetic face, but I really didn't have anything to tell her. There were any number of things she could be afraid of, from the shuttle flight to spending time on Cestus III to seeing her husband again and having that difficult conversation. I squirmed in my chair a little bit, moving my shoulders a little bit to shake out the stiffness. And then I yawned. Loudly. "I'm tired," I said. "I should get some sleep."
She didn't seem to hear me. "I'm a horrible person. So selfish."
I knew she wanted to hear me say she wasn't either of those things, but then again, I wanted that validation too. But I realized it didn't matter what I said. What she wanted was for her *husband* to tell her that she wasn't horrible, wasn't selfish. And given what little I knew of him, I wasn't sure she was going to get that from him. I felt sorry for her, and then hated myself, because I was determined to get out of the business of feeling sorry for people. After all, I had –- have – my own troubles.
"What about you?" she said. "Why are you going there? It's not exactly a vacation place, is it?"
"It's personal," I said. I didn't mean to be curt, but my eyelids felt heavy, my stomach was churning, and I just wanted to arrange my body as comfortably as possible and sleep for a long time, and maybe even forever. I leaned my head against the wall, closing (clenching?) my eyes, my hands curled into loose fits in my lap. Sleep came in waves, pulling me under into dreams and out into the reality of my current situation. One moment, I was standing on patch of tundra, the wind blowing through my hair, my shoulders hunched, but with no sensation of cold. B'Elanna was a distant mirage to me and as I walked towards her, I realized she was smaller than I remembered, and her long hair was braided, near the small of her back, and her eyes were large in her hollowed face. She was wearing leather, Klingon leather, the vest exposing ample cleavage. Her muscular hands, the blue veins prominent against her bronzed skin, clutched a bat'leth.
"B'Elanna," I said.
"You came," she said. The frigidity of her tone matched that of the environment. "I've been waiting for you." The bat'leth flashed as she maneuvered it into a serious of complex arcs. I hoped this was an ancient Klingon welcoming custom.
"I missed you."
"It's been so cold."
"But I'm here now."
She stared off into the distance. "What's going to happen to us?"
"I don't know."
"I can't live like this. I am a Klingon. It's not honorable to live as a prisoner." And she raised the bat'leth, a flash of silver against the gray sky and the dreary earth surrounding us. I saw it coming down--
And then I was pulled awake. The little boy was staring at me, his eyes wide in his little face, his mouth shaped as a perfect O.
"Were you having a bad dream?" he asked.
"I'm okay," I said.
His mother was looking at me with some concern.
"It's just a nightmare," I said. "I'm okay." And then without thinking, I added, "Trust me. The things I've seen, the things I've endured, the *wars* I've been in, this nightmare is the least of them all."
And then of course the boy and his mother were interested. She asked about the Dominion War.
"I wasn't there for that," I said shortly.
"Where were you? That was a *horrible* time," she said, her pretty face twisting with the pain of memory. "I thought we'd never survive, especially when the Breen attacked Earth. I just wanted it to be over quickly. It was like being buried alive, wondering if each day was your last."
"I know that feeling too." Another mistake, because it gave her an opening to ask more questions. After a few minutes, I shook my head. "Look," I said, feeling a little guilty, "it's been a long day and night for me. I'm exhausted. I really need to get some sleep."
"Don't be. I just need to get some sleep."
This time around, B'Elanna wasn't so much a warrior as a fading version of the woman I loved. Her clothes were tattered and her frame skeletal. She had very little hair. Her teeth chattered as she tried to push words out.
"Why did you leave me?" she asked.
"I've never left you. Not here." I tapped my heart.
"I have never stopped thinking about you," she said. "I haven't stopped missing you."
"You're the one who chose to leave," I said, even though I knew I was wrong.
"I didn't leave. You did. You could have stayed. You had more options than I did. But you chose to go."
"I thought I could do more good for us on Earth than I could here. I thought things would be different and you could come home."
"Earth is not home, Tom. I hate that everyone thinks that it is. The center of our universe, the ultimate goal, but what would I do there if they did let us come home?"
"I'm sorry," I said because I couldn't think of anything else to say and I've learned that apologizing is usually a good way of getting out of uncomfortable situations.
"I am too." She stared off into the distance. "It's been hard, Tom."
"I know. I'm sorry."
"Don't apologize. I've been so mad at you, but now that I think about it, I'm not sure what you're being here would have done to help matters. You can't control the weather and you can't make the crops grow and you certainly can't make the Federation pardon us." She laughed shakily, her whole body trembling with the gesture. "Do you think they'll ever let us off this rock?"
"It doesn't matter. I'm here to stay."
Her reaction never came because the shuttle jolted and I woke up, startled, and try as I might, I could not fall back asleep. The mother was reading to her child and made no attempt at further conversation. I settled back into my chair, crossing my arms against my chest. The shuttle entered the docking bay at Jupiter Station about forty minutes later and I disembarked, with a faint and half-hearted "Good luck" to my seatmates, even though I knew chances were very good that they would be on my connecting shuttle to Cestus III.
I spent about three hours on Jupiter Station, mostly brooding at the very crowded sports bar drinking bad beer that nonetheless provided some welcome fire in my belly, and thankfully (surprisingly? disappointingly?) no one recognized me. Or maybe, I thought with some amusement, Voyager was only as big a story as Starfleet wanted it to be. Maybe it was the story that mattered only to me because I lived it and to the people who were responsible for a lot of the events surrounding our mission into the Badlands. Ordinary people had enough to deal with. The twists and turns in Voyager's journey and eventual homecoming only mattered to those people who were affected by it. This revelation made me remember something Chakotay had once said to Seven of Nine: "It's not always about you." And he was right, but in a broader context, that sentence could be applied to any of us at any time. It was a humbling thought.
I settled my (fairly large) tab about twenty minutes before the shuttle to Cestus III departed. When I arrived at the boarding area, I noted the woman and her son were nowhere to be seen and but when I entered the shuttle, I saw that they were seated towards the front. I nodded at her, but she was feeding her son some nuts and didn't see me. I didn't recognize anyone else on the shuttle. I was lucky enough to get an entire row in the back to myself. As has been noted in the media reports, the Jupiter Station - Cestus III route is not one of the more popular ones, and in fact, there is only one or two shuttles a day and most of those are half-empty. I didn't care about the logistics or financial viability of the route. I just wanted to get *there*.
Before long though, I drifted off to dreamless sleep, waking only when the pilot announced we were preparing to land at the Cestus III space dock. "Please see the gate attendant for connections," the pilot said. "It's been our pleasure having you on-board. We understand you have a choice of providers, and we are gratified you chose Supreme Shuttle Services for your travel plans today. Don't hesitate to contact us with any comments you may have had about today's trip. Thank you and be safe."
I slung my bag over my shoulder and headed out into the waiting area. The station at Cestus III is old, showing years of neglect. The floors are dirty, the upholstery on the chairs is frayed and torn in some places, and the few stores and restaurants providing amenities are basic. It didn't matter because I wasn't hungry, wasn't thirsty, and I had everything I needed for the rest of the trip. Funny, but I could already feel the chill of Alonius Prime in my bones. Through the massive windows on the space dock, I could see millions of stars and among them, hundreds of planets (not quite so obvious, I have to admit). Somewhere out there was Alonius Prime and somehow, I had to get there. As I've said, I didn't have a plan, but I wasn't particularly worried either.
I headed to the transport desk and booked a seat on the next shuttle down to the planet's surface. I knew I'd have a better chance of finding a ride on the planet's surface than here at a space station run by Starfleet. And truth be told, at that moment I was done with Starfleet. It wasn't a conscious decision, nothing I'd thought about in depth, but it was just a feeling I had, a continuation of the connection I'd sought back in my dorm rooms hours (days?) ago and the realization now that I'd felt nothing. I was far away from everyone and everything I knew, but I knew I was heading in the right direction.
I saw the woman and her son reunite with husband and father. They seemed happy and maybe the woman would give up her fixation with Earth and live out here instead. Or maybe the husband would figure out that there was important and necessary work on Earth as well and move there. Maybe there would be some middle ground compromise. But I would never know, because I didn't get her name. If she ever reads this interview, I hope she remembers me. I want to know what happened to her. I want to know if she got her happy ending. And that goes for Brad too. If you read this, let me know. You can contact me via Starfleet. Mail delivery is twice a week, no visitors or calls allowed. At least not for another three to four months while they're still suspicious of me and my motives; that's okay, the feeling is purely mutual. My address is Tom Paris, care of Starfleet. No title necessary.
~ the end
To be continued in "A Fugue in Blue Minor: Duet"
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