They went home on a Tuesday.

It was as if the Alpha Quadrant opened its arms and drew them in. I'd never seen a wormhole so beautiful. It was amazing, like a lost vision of Van Gogh, collapsing every color in on itself.

Like the gates of heaven, swinging shut to keep me out.

The captain had gone white when she'd realized that someone had to go. Only independent shuttle fire, bathing the epicenter with stabilizing plasma bursts, could insure that the wormhole would remain stable long enough for Voyager to enter. It wasn't going to be a walk in the park for anyone. The wormhole had opened close to a system of three planets, and the gravity problems alone were enormous. But we had our chance and we took it.

I don't know who volunteered first. All I do know is that Chakotay and I both made the offer within milliseconds of each other. When she's wearing that mask of command, the captain is one hard lady to read. But for just a moment there, after we both spoke, everything was right there in the open. I thought I could see into her most private thoughts.

She was terrified.

Now that's not a position I'd want to be in, deciding who gets to walk the tightrope out there without a net. I felt like I had a better chance than most. And I could see that she agreed. Don't get me wrong: Chakotay's good. He had to be, to stay alive in the Maquis, to do what he'd done. But there's something knee-jerk that kicks in when you don't have time to think or plan or consider. When that happens, Chakotay's auto-pilot is set on martyr. I don't know if it's because he is so sure of what he'll face on the other side, or if it's that he blames himself for not being on the other side already, or if it's some kind of courage I can't even begin to understand. He wants a good ending to things, and I know for a fact that he'd rather die than fail.

When I'm acting on instinct, I survive. I've done a hell of a lot to stay alive, and I'd do it all again. That doesn't make me proud, always, but it has brought me through to see another day. Maybe it's plain cowardice that makes me pull out all the stops and make that last lunge for life. Maybe I've just been too scared of what would happen -- or wouldn't happen -- if my time ran out.

Captain Janeway knew us both, read us like datapadds. She just nodded at me with a sick look in her eyes. Then the mask was back up and the captain was in control.

I'm glad I didn't have time for goodbyes.

And there is no chance to think of them now, of B'Elanna, of Harry, of anything but the blood in my mouth and the smoke in my eyes and the warnings sounding loudly in my ears. This moment means everything. This moment decides all. I will pull it off somehow, point this battered shuttle toward the nearest planet, land in one piece, make contact if there's any other life there besides my own.

I'll survive. I'm Tom Paris: it's what I do.

THE END