|A Last Time for Everything
Chapter three, by !Super Cat
He's done it.
The thought rode into Chakotay's mind on a wave of disbelief, sweeping away tension and leaving in its place a heady mix of adrenalin and shaky joy. As the Magh sailed into the thin plasma clouds that curled at the fringes of the Badlands, the silence on the bridge disintegrated. Seska swore, once, succinctly. Carter put her head in her hands and started laughing. Dalby snorted and sat back in his chair. Tom Paris had pulled off the impossible.
It felt good. Not just the flying, the winning: the feeling of justification that came with a clean victory. A Starfleet feeling. A feeling that was almost built into the clean lines of the ships, bred into the officers: no matter the odds, victory would fall to the Federation.
Things were different in the Maquis. Chakotay had been there at the group's inception, had seen a political idea turn into a close knit underground movement; but what had followed, unshakable as a shadow, was the beginnings of fragmentation and failure. Friends were captured during routine raids into Federation space, killed when those raids dug into Cardassian territory. It was getting harder and harder to keep supply lines open. The floodgates had opened to admit mercenaries, killers--anyone willing to hold a phaser--to the cause, while the core group of idealists got fewer and fewer. And now Eddington was losing his hold on reality; his plans were growing wilder. Starfleet assurance didn't exist in the Maquis. It was pitched against them, a super-weapon that could not be dismantled or fought. Dirty tricks worked fine against Cardassians, but there was no tactic in existence that could overcome the smug, inevitable triumph of the Federation.
Chakotay found it very easy to picture Tom in full Starfleet panoply, his golden hair bright above the red shoulders and the grey poloneck, turning delightedly from the conn. We've done it, Captain.
Post-battle hysteria, Chakotay told himself, catching the crazy vision as it unfurled itself before his eyes, and stamping down on it, firmly.
Dalby was saying, "More logical to be captured than to stay and fight, Tuvok?"
"Had I been aware of the full extent of Tom Paris's abilities," Tuvok shifted his gaze to Tom, "my recommendation would have been different."
"That's Vulcan infallibility," said Chakotay, feeling his cheek dimple.
"Where the hell was Kasidy?" Ignoring the banter, Seska had swivelled her chair and addressed Chakotay directly.
Her question was like a cold splash of water.
Chakotay's crew had been on edge for weeks. Relief from tension never lasted more than a few brief moments, and there was an underlying strain that never abated. Laughs were shakey, or too loud. Personalities clashed. Fights broke out. Now, reality settled in far too quickly. They might have made an incredible escape, but the Defiant should never have been there in the first place, and now they were without crucial supplies: tricorders, anaprovaline, regenerators, food.
"We're going to miss those supplies," said Carter slowly, turning her seat alongside Seska's. The replicators and medical amenities were not just intended to service the five of them, but to help the convoy that they were scheduled to meet up with in three days. The ship itself was back to square one. The portside nacelle had held together despite multiple hits, but after the battering they had just taken, Chakotay was loathe to even call for a damage report. He felt a tense little knot reforming between his shoulders. If Kasidy had been captured--
"We can make do with the replicators that we have on board, and pick up the rest when we meet up with Tuncurry," Chakotay told them, his mind working over the problem. "Kasidy's got close ties to the Defiant's Commander. I doubt she was captured. She probably found out about the intercept plan and couldn't risk the rendezvous. I'd guess it was her they were after," he added. "With that cloaking technology, they could have been watching us the entire time, waiting for our contact to show up. They've been trying to close down our supply lines for months."
"Quite a coincidence that they come after us the day after golden boy arrives." Seska's tone wasn't overly accusatory, but Chakotay, glancing up, saw a thoughtful expression cross Dalby's face.
"Hey, hey, I'm the one who saved your ass," Tom shot back, congenially enough.
Seska just gazed back at him, her eyebrows lifting slightly. The real hostility didn't come from her. It came from Dalby.
"Don't get smart, Starfleet," he said. "You think because you pulled off some fancy stunt that makes you somebody? This isn't one of your Federation ships."
"No, it's a thirty year old Maquis piece of junk," said Tom. "Jeez, no wonder the Maquis are losing the war."
"Why you--" Dalby rose angrily from his seat. Chakotay moved without thinking, only aware of the strain as he automatically interposed his shoulder between Dalby and Tom, and Dalby brought up short behind him.
"Sit down," Chakotay said. No inflection. Dalby sat, slowly, grudgingly. "And you--."
"You have got to be kidding," said Tom, when Chakotay turned a steady gaze on him.
"You can wait for me in the mess hall. Go. Now." Chakotay didn't raise his voice. For a second it looked like Tom would argue back, but after a short, mutinous silence, he lifted his golden brows, turned on his heel and walked out.
"Chakotay--" Seska began, after the door slid shut.
"No," Chakotay said. "And that goes for the rest of you. Nobody touches him. If there's anything to handle, I handle it. I don't want him hurt, I don't want him hostile. He's indispensible to us as a pilot, and we're going to be working with him for the next three weeks."
No one spoke.
Then, "Fine," said Seska. "But when you've finished in the mess
hall, you and I have to talk."
High ceilings, long table, sparse interior. The mess hall was unmistakably Klingon, Tom thought as he paced its length. The set up was Starfleet to the core. Captain's discretionary talk with an officer who's blundered out of line. . .my father would approve.
Ironic that during his actual time of service, Tom had never had to endure a displinary proceedure. In fact, before Caldik Prime he'd possessed the kind of shining, unspotted record that was the stuff of first year cadets' dreams. "Well now," his superiors would say, meeting him for the first time. "You've had quite an impressive career, Mr. Paris. Your father must be awfully proud of you--"
And he'd smile his most confident, charismatic smile, and answer them, "Yes, sir."
Tom closed his eyes over memory, only to watch it roll onward, until he could see the hearing room itself; the bright blue UFP insignia on the wall, the six officers and the admiral, not his father, thank every god in the history of mankind, but Admiral Girek, his eight fingers steepled in pensive thought.
"Three fatalities," he'd said. "Mr. Paris, we've been over both your statement, and this--" He'd lifted the PADD, briefly. "--little piece of fiction that we're told constitutes your initial report. My instinct is to throw you out of here so fast that you overtake ships travelling at high warp. However. Out of respect for your service record, which is exemplary, and for your father, a man who has served the Federation honourably for more than fifty years, we are willing to extend your commission for as long as it takes you to tender your resignation." Cold grey eyes had met his own. "Just so you are aware of my personal feelings, Mr Paris. I recommend, and sincerely hope for you own sake, that you never set foot on a Federation ship again."
And Tuvok, who couldn't have known (could he?) had been looking right at him when he'd said it. "My recommendation would have been different."
Tom's eyes opened. Shaken, his gaze raked over the floor of the mess. He was Acadamy trained. Whatever he's told them, he was Starfleet. There was something inexorable about the thought. It pulled him towards the inevitable, darker suspicion. Or is Starfleet. . .
Behind him, the doors slid open.
"Yeah, so I really broke rank on the bridge, huh?" Tom said, without moving. "I can see how that deserves a reprimand. I know how important Starfleet bridge protocols are to the Maquis."
"Take a seat, Tom," was all Chakotay said.
Tom settled his weight, his balance firm. "Thanks," he said. "I'd rather stand."
Internally, Chakotay reacted to the provocation. I don't have the time to defuse a fool out looking for a confrontation, he thought. As a captain, he knew that Tom was still recovering from the flight. His behaviour was nominally excusable on those grounds, though Chakotay expected an ex-Starfleet man to maintain a higher degree of professionalism than the one Tom was currently displaying.
He chose his words with care.
"If this were a Starfleet ship," he said, "I'd be putting you on restricted duty right now. Giving you the 'I'm disappointed' speech and reminding you of what is and is not appropriate behaviour on a starship's bridge. But we're not in Starfleet anymore, Tom. We're in the Maquis. And here in the Maquis, it's not a good idea to antagonise the crew--or disrespect their captain. The Maquis impose their heirarchy differently."
Tom's expression was anything but contrite. "Really."
"Yes. Really." Chakotay made himself explicit. "My crew expects you to walk out of this room bleeding."
Blond brows straightened out over a shadowy gaze. "Oh," said Tom. "Great. A thirty year old ship, a crew of thugs. . ." Tom's voice hardened, though whether out of resolve or some lesser, spiky bravado, Chakotay couldn't tell. ". . .and you do things the old fashioned way."
"I do things the Maquis way."
"Like I said."
"Tom. I want you with us. I'd be a fool not to, after that demonstration of your skills on the bridge. But you're not being careful. You've got me on side because I understand that you're useful. But I really . . . wouldn't push it too far, if I were you."
Tom stared back at him defensively. He looked more than ready for a fight. "What is that--some kind of threat?"
"No," Chakotay said, evenly. "Not a threat."
A tiny pause, then Tom laughed, the breathy sound a fascimile of amusement, forced to make a point. "What, then? Advice from the concerned leader on how to become a better terrorist?"
It was hard to stay calm. "This hostility--you're opposed to what we're doing," Chakotay said. "Money or no. Is that the problem, Tom?"
The question earned him another breath, this one derisive, just short of laughter. "No."
"My father?" It was almost incredulous.
Chakotay brought up short.
"My father," Tom said, "hated the Maquis. He called them throwbacks. Territorial xenophobes. People more interested in owning land and fighting Cardassians than in achieving peace along the border."
"And is that what you think?" Chakotay said.
Clear blue eyes met his own. "I'm not here to think. I'm here to fly and to get paid."
"And if I say I want more?"
"If you want more, you can start looking to hire another pilot."
"So you'll fly for us," Chakotay said, "but you won't believe in us. That's what you're telling me, Tom?"
Tom's gaze dropped away, moving dismissively around the interior of the mess. "No," he said. "I'm telling you that I am the best pilot you are ever going to get behind the helm of this third-rate ship, and that's what I'd call an incentive for you to keep your crew in line."
Chakotay's face darkened. "I've warned you," he said, "because
I think you're a material asset to this crew. If you get hurt, or
killed, you're right, I lose a good pilot. But I won't protect arrogance
and I won't protect apathy. Next time you screw up, you're on your
Seska found the mess hall empty and engineering likewise, the majority of its functions long since routed through the bridge. Chakotay's quarters were the last place she looked simply because they were the last place she expected to find him, but when she keyed a request for entry she heard the unmistakable sound of his voice.
She didn't waste time. She wasn't usually impatient, but two hours of anxious, and finally angered, waiting had frayed on her nerves. Her first words as she entered were blunt, to the point.
"Hear me out."
Chakotay glanced up from the PADD before him, putting it down when he noticed her expression. It was strong, and determined. The fight that blazed in her had never, to his knowledge, faltered or burned out. Like other once-prominant Resistance figures--Ro Laren, Kira Nerys--Seska's belief in independance was absolute. He supposed she was quintessentially Bajoran in that respect.
He nodded slowly for her to speak. It was all the invitation she required.
"Put yourself in the place of Starfleet Command," she said, "and imagine that you have to embark on a covert war. The first thing you do is choose an operative. Chakotay? Who's it going to be? Answer, of course: a Bajoran or an ex-Starfleet officer. Why?"
"Because the most influential members of the Maquis are Bajorans and ex-Federations. Chakotay--"
He knew exactly where she was leading him. He didn't want to follow her. He said, "Then if I were Starfleet Command, I'd choose a Bajoran. With nose-ridges, an earring, and a pure Resistance pedigree. A Starfleet officer would begin at too much of disadvantage. In the Maquis, his loyalties would be suspect."
"Initially," Seska said. "But the officer in question would merely have to prove himself through a simple, pre-orchestrated trust winning exercise--"
Chakotay found himself saying, irresistably, "Like saving a small group of Maquis fighters from the USS-Defiant."
Seska drew back in acknowledgement. "Our first missed rendezvous in more than ten months."
Chakotay thought of the sarcastic young man who had faced him in the mess. Federation agent? He almost snorted at the unlikeliness of it. Just an arrogant pain in the ass. "I can't reconcile his behaviour with your accusations. Tom Paris didn't use today's flight to try to win us over. He took the first opportunity available to antagonise the crew."
"He's impressed you, hasn't he?" Seska said, moving around to his side of the desk. "He's won you over."
"His abilities have impressed me." That was one distinction that he had quite clear. The man was very seperate in his mind from the flying, which had been stunning, like nothing he'd seen before. "Think about it logically. He wasn't aware of the rendezvous until last night. He wouldn't have known the co-ordinates of our flight, and even if he did, who was there to tell? He was scanned for communication devices, and there isn't a communicator on the ship that has anything like a long enough range."
"There are always ways," she said. "Ways to boost signals, ways around scanners . . . Chakotay, Starfleet does not send out the USS-Defiant to pick up a Maquis fighter with a crew of six men."
"Which makes it likely that they were there for Kasidy, not for us."
Seska grimaced and looked away, and Chakotay's slight frown reappeared. She was a superlative strategist, he knew. She had a gift for subterfuge. Her guesses were often accurate, and her opinions carried weight.
"Why?" he asked, then. "Why are you so certain? What's convinced you?"
"I--I don't know," she said, obvious frustration cresting in her voice. "I can't--It felt like a set up. I called him on it, remember? Asked why we needed him at the helm when we already had a 'Fleet pilot? Why do you think he reacted the way he did?"
"You saw him at the helm. I could not have matched his ability."
"Or you weren't aware of the pre-arranged fight patterns Starfleet were planning to use to mock-up that space fight."
Chakotay stared back at her. That the fight itself had been staged was a possibility that had not occured to him. It seemed too incredible to be true--but then again, so had Tom's skills as they'd been displayed on the bridge. Was their newest recruit a Starfleet agent as Seska suggested? Or was he truly a pilot prodigy whom circumstances had abandoned to the Maquis? Chakotay wasn't certain which alternative was the least implausible, which he wanted to believe.
"If you're wrong," he said, "and I act on your suspicion, we'll have lost one of the best helmsmen I've ever seen--not to mention our only chance to take out the arms installation at Ergala Four."
Seska held his gaze. "There are other pilots, Chakotay."
"Not like this one."
Their gazes locked again, and in the silence, Seska's expression grew more thoughtful, her eyes narrowed, dark.
"Alright," she said, finally. "Agreed. You shouldn't make
this kind of decision without proof. But Chakotay, I'm warning you.
Don't let him into your confidence. Think twice about following any
suggestions that he makes to you. Use him if you have to, but don't
let his leash out too far. He'll hang us with it if you do."