A/N: This was something I wrote years ago when Voyager was soliciting scripts for the show. I never finished the script, so I turned it into a short story. It's been sitting on my computer ever since. I finally decided to post it here.

Crystal Clear

He sat alone, in the most obscure conference room the ship afforded, and watched the stars. They were no longer points of light, but streaks instead, a testament to Voyager's speed. But he knew no matter how fast the ship went, it would never go fast enough, or far enough, to let him forget.

He tore his eyes from the stars and stared into the drink cradled in his hands. It had been a month since Voyager's dilithium crystals had mysteriously and spontaneously cracked—shattered, almost—leaving the crew stranded. It had been a week since the captain had confined him to quarters. A week since— He swiftly quelled his last recollection, and resisted the urge to hurl his glass against the far wall of the room. A week. . . a month. . . an eternity. It didn't matter. He couldn't forget. He could never forget. . . .


/SCENEBREAK/

". . . . standard orbit."

He caught only the last of Janeway's command as the turbolift doors opened to the bridge. He waited for the ensign at the helm to execute the captain's order before relieving her. They exchanged nods and he slid quietly into his place to begin his shift. On the main viewer was the image of a planet.

He stared unbelieving for a moment, then turned in his chair, his hopes rising. "Captain?"

The joy on her face told him all he needed to know. "Yes, Tom, we found some dilithium."

He turned back to his instrument panel. "It's about time," he sighed under his breath. They had been wandering around on impulse for two weeks since the accident, trying to find a new source of dilithium and an answer to why the crystals had cracked. Up till now, they had found neither.

Janeway stood and moved towards Tuvok. "Mr. Tuvok, analysis of the planet?"

"Class M, oxygen-nitrogen atmosphere, temperature is—"

Tuvok was interrupted by a chime from across the bridge.

Harry Kim looked up from his instruments. "Captain, we are being hailed."

"On screen," she ordered, turning to the main viewer.

A moment later, the image of the planet was replaced by the image of a man, who, were it not for the fact that his skin tone was a pale lavender, appeared almost human.

"Welcome to Lakia. My name is Jarvin, and I am Head of the High Council."

"My name is Kathryn Janeway, captain of the starship Voyager." She paused. "Our ship is in trouble—"

"Indeed, Captain," Jarvin said. "We have scanned your vessel, and would be more than pleased to offer you as much dilithium as you wish."

Janeway blinked, taken aback. "Thank you, Councilman," she replied.

"I will transmit the coordinates of our Council chambers. You may transport down as soon as you wish." He smiled. "I look forward to meeting you." His image then disappeared, replaced once again by the planet below.

"Coordinates have been received, Captain," Tuvok reported.

Janeway turned to him. "When did they scan us?" She demanded.

"Unknown. Sensors do not even register the existence of life on the planet." As Janeway digested that tidbit of information, Tuvok continued. "I would surmise that we are dealing with a highly developed people."

"Indeed," she replied. "Bridge to Engineering."

"Engineering. Torres here." There was a tired, strained edge to her voice. Not only had she not been able to discover why the crystals had cracked, but she had also spent the past week trying to rebuild the fragile internal structure of the damaged dilithium. It was a frustratingly slow process and Paris knew she hadn't slept much.

"We've found your crystals, Lieutenant. Please meet us in the transporter room in five minutes."

"Captain," Torres began, "with your permission, I'd like to remain on board to continue the regeneration. If anything should happen and we can't get the crystals..." she trailed off.

Janeway and Chakotay exchanged glances. "Perhaps it is a wise precaution," he said.

"You may be right," she quietly replied. "Permission granted, Lieutenant. We'll keep you informed. Bridge out." She turned towards Chakotay. "You have the conn. Mr. Paris, Tuvok, you're with me. Commander," she said, as she headed for the lift, "have a security guard meet us in the transporter room."

"Aye, Captain," Chakotay acknowledged, as the turbolift doors closed on the landing party.

Even though the ship placed Jarvin's coordinates in a forest, upon rematerialization, Paris found himself standing in a large, elaborately decorated Council room. Several men, including Jarvin, and one woman, were there to greet the landing party.

"Captain," Jarvin said with a smile and a bow, "you are most welcome to Lakia."

"Thank you, sir," Janeway said. "May I present my officers: Lieutenant Tuvok, Lieutenant Thomas Paris, and Ensign Gatew."

"You are most welcome, all of you," he replied. He swept his arm out towards the men standing behind him. "My council. And," he said, drawing the woman forward, "my daughter, Kayla. She is an engineer and will lead you to the dilithium, where you may take as much as you wish."

"You are very kind, Councilman Jarvin," Janeway said. "Mr. Paris will go with her, though. I would like to stay behind and discuss payment with you."

A strangled gasp interrupted Jarvin's reply, as one of his council members doubled over and dropped to his knees, clutching his midsection. The other members of the Council immediately surrounded him. Jarvin watched sympathetically, but was otherwise detached.

"Take him to the infirmary," Jarvin ordered. "They will be expecting him, for all the good they can do." He spoke the last almost to himself. As the councilmen carried out their stricken member, Paris could see the man's face, contorted with excruciating pain. He exchanged horrified looks with Janeway.

Jarvin turned back to Voyager's crew. "As for payment, Captain Janeway, there will be none."

Janeway forced her attention away from the scene she had just witnessed and back to Jarvin. "I don't understand."

"There will be no payment," he repeated. "It is against our customs to accept anything from offworlders."

"But–" she began.

Jarvin smiled. "There are no 'but's, Captain."

Janeway looked helpless. Her eyes fell to the injured councilman's wake. "Perhaps we could trade. We have excellent medical facilities aboard Voyager. Our Doctor can—"

Jarvin cut her off with another smile. "The result is the same. We do not accept anything from offworlders." He noted the disappointment in her eyes. "Your concern for Darik is touching, but quite unnecessary," he replied. "He will be dead shortly."

His casual, matter-of-fact tone sent a ripple of shock and confusion through the landing party.

If Jarvin took note of their uneasiness, however, he did not let it show. "Come, Captain," he said taking her arm and directing her towards a door. "Let your officer go with Kayla to collect the dilithium now. I would like you and the rest of your party to join me for afternoon refreshment. We are very anxious to learn about you." With that the door opened and he ushered Voyager's party into another room, leaving Paris and Kayla alone in the Council chambers. They looked at each other. Paris noted that Kayla's long black hair and deep violet eyes complemented her skin tone perfectly. He also noted that she seemed no more concerned than her father for the fallen councilman. Just as well—he felt enough discomfort for both of them.

"Well," Paris began, uncertain, "shall we go?"

"Of course," she replied smoothly. "Follow me."

He followed her in silence through narrow corridors and out a door that opened into a garden-like area with shady trees, flowers, and a winding flagstone path.

"The dilithium crystal outcropping is just ahead," she said.

Still troubled by what he had just witnessed, Paris made no reply. But the silence soon grew to heavy to bear. "Do you have a lot of dilithium here?" He asked. It was the first question that popped into his head. Upon reflection, he realized how stupid it must have sounded.

Kayla laughed, bringing to Paris' mind the imagery of drops of music. "Do we? It's everywhere! We use it as jewelry and children's trinkets, if that tells you anything."

He only nodded absently, his thoughts still consumed by Councilman Darik and the others' apparent unconcern for the his death. It wasn't his death so much as their lack of concern that had him puzzled. As he pondered the mystery, he realized the heavy silence stood between him and Kayla once more. "So," he said, looking over to her, "you're an engineer?" It was a lame attempt at conversation, but he had to say something.

"Yes," she replied. "My specialty is with trilithium."

"Trilithium?" He asked, perking up.

She smiled at his open interest, but then caught his eyes and instantly sobered. "Go ahead," she said quietly.

He frowned in confusion. "Go ahead what?"

"Ask," she replied. "Ask about the councilman. Ask why we do not accept payment from your captain."

Paris nodded. "Okay," he agreed. "What did happen to your councilman, and why won't you accept payment from us? And how did you scan us, and why didn't our sensors register any lifeforms on this planet?"

Kayla pushed aside an overhanging branch in their path. "Councilman Darik was one of many of my people with the Disease."

"The Disease?" Paris asked.

"Yes," she replied. "In our bodies, there is a gland that produces a hormone that regulates our entire biosystem. The Disease attacks this gland, interrupting and, eventually, destroying the production of the hormone."

"Can't you just give hormone supplements to the patients?" He inquired, pushing aside another willowy branch.

"In the early stages, the patients do receive hormonal supplements. In the latter stages, however, it is of no use. The gland is so important to our bodies, it would be like trying to keep a person without a heart alive by manually pumping their blood." She sighed, dropping to a smooth stone bench. "It's just not possible."

"Can't you just clone the gland and transplant it?" Paris asked, sitting down beside her.

Kayla blushed and hung her head. "No. We are not that medically advanced." She looked up, her eyes dark with unspoken emotion, and swept her arm out. "We can shield our civilization from detection, but we can't save it from itself."

"A shield?" Paris asked. "Is that why we couldn't detect you?" At Kayla's answering smile, he said, "We didn't even detect the presence of the shield."

"As you see, we are technologically superior," she said, but with no pride, and even a faint trace of bitterness. "But we can't save ourselves."

"We can help," Paris said. "Why don't you have your doctors talk to our Doctor?"

Kayla was silent for a moment. "That is very kind of you, but I'm afraid that's not possible."

Paris frowned. "Not possible? Well, of course it is. You just —"

Kayla smiled sadly. "No, Thomas. We are forbidden from accepting from others solutions to our problems."

Paris shook his head. "I don't understand. Who would forbid help for your people?"

"Our religion and customs dictate that we must find our own path through life," she replied. "We cannot simply choose the easy way that is handed to us by others, no matter how kindhearted the intention." She looked out over the landscape. "In doing so, we will never learn; we won't grow or advance."

"But your people are dying!" he protested.

"Our doctors are close to a cure," Kayla said, a defensive note creeping into her voice.

"Your isolationism may destroy you before you find it."

Kayla sighed. "You must understand. We have been in the situation before where we allowed other cultures to come into ours and show us what they thought was a better way for our people. It was enticing; tantalizing, even. Our people were instantly taken in by it." She paused. "But it almost destroyed us. Even though this new way was a better way, we weren't ready for it then. And even though we have since adopted that way, we needed to come to it on our own. Since that time, we have chosen what you refer to as our 'isolationism'."

Paris just stared at her, not knowing quite what to say. Kayla only reached out and laid her hand on his.

"Come, Thomas. Your ship will not be repaired while we sit here."

He stood up. Still holding his hand, she rose gracefully from the stone bench and glided past him.

They continued down the path to the dilithium outcropping. Paris took out his tricorder and began scanning. After a moment, he straightened and tapped his comm badge. "Paris to Engineering. I'm at the outcropping B'Elanna. Are you sure you don't want to come down?"

"I'd rather not leave Engineering. Structural integrity of the crystals is only fifty percent. Why, is there a problem?"

"No problem," he replied. "I just thought you might like to pick the crystals out yourself."

"I trust you, Tom. Just make sure they're big enough. We'll have to reshape them to fit the chamber, so don't get them too small," she instructed.

"You got it. Paris out." He pulled out his cutting tools and picked a crystal.

Kayla sat down and watched him work. "What is it like in space?"

"You've never been?" he asked, surprised. "I would have thought with your technological advancement that you would have achieved space flight long ago."

"We tried," Kayla admitted. "Almost a millennium ago. But it almost destroyed our culture. You see, to achieve space flight would be in direct violation of our religious dictates."

Paris stopped working and looked up. "Space flight is against your religion?"

Kayla nodded. "The holy manuscripts clearly state that all that our people need is here on Lakia. To go looking for it elsewhere is a sin against the gods. Some of our people back then, though, did not listen. They secretly bartered with visitors from space, offering crystals in exchange for the knowledge of how to harness their power. The visitors neglected, however, to show them the dangers associated when dilithium is not handled properly." She grew quiet.

"What happened?" Paris asked.

"There was a matter-antimatter accident that destroyed half our population." Kayla said. "A judgment from the gods, the priests said. Space flight has never been attempted since."

"And it was then that your people chose to isolate themselves," Paris guessed.

"Yes," she confirmed. "Although I do not agree with your terminology. Eventually future generations learned on their own how to use the crystals in conjunction with matter and antimatter. But it was to power our cities, not warp engines."

Paris started to reply, but abruptly changed his mind, and concentrated even more on the crystal he was working on.

Kayla noticed. "You were about to say something?"

He didn't miss the wry tone in her voice. "Nothing at all."

"Ever tactful," she murmured, loud enough for him to hear.

His eyebrows shot up. Of all the adjectives he'd heard used to describe himself, he couldn't ever recall tactful being one of them. He wasn't sure he liked it. He looked over and saw a mocking amusement in Kayla's eyes, and realized his concern for being branded with that particular virtue was unfounded. He refocused his attention on the crystal. "You shield your civilization from detection and you don't think that's a bit isolationistic?"

Kayla's eyes grew dark, all amusement gone. "Is your home planet defenseless?" she demanded, without giving him a chance to answer. "The shield is our only planetary defense. In case you hadn't noticed, Lakia abounds with dilithium. We receive dozens of visitors a month, many of them from aggressive species. The shield allows us to remain hidden from those people. They come and take the dilithium and leave. We are not a species given to conflict and violence. We prefer to avoid both. Nor are we isolationists. If we were, we could shield this whole planet so that no one would ever know there was any dilithium here." She glared at him. "If we were, we would never have invited you down to meet with us."

"I'm sorry," he said, taken aback by her outburst. "I shouldn't have said that." He turned back to his work.

"I suppose I shouldn't have goaded you," she said, subdued.

He glanced over to see her fighting a smile, and found it contagious.

Her face lit up. "If you forgive me, I'll forgive you—on one condition."

"There's a condition to your forgiveness?" He asked, feigning skepticism.

She saw through it and laughed. "Show me around your ship."

"But I thought—" he began.

"All I have or will ever need is here on Lakia," Kayla said. "I am not going elsewhere to seek it. It is only my curiosity that compels me to visit your ship."

"'Curiosity killed the cat'," he said.

She frowned suddenly. "What's a cat?"

"Never mind," he laughed. "Apology accepted."


/SCENEBREAK/


B'Elanna Torres looked up from her instrument panel. "They look good, Tom. All we have to do now is reshape them to fit the chamber."

Paris had brought a sampling of crystals to Torres so that she could choose which one she thought was the most suitable to the dilithium chambers and would need the least shaping. Once she had decided, Paris had spent the next several days on Lakia, searching for crystals that most closely matched what B'Elanna wanted. Kayla had helped him, and he now returned the favor by taking her on the promised tour of the ship. They were just finishing their tour of Engineering.

Paris looked over at Kayla. Over the past few days, they had spent most of their time in each other's company, sharing stories of the past and plans for the future. He had told her about Earth, and Voyager's journey back to his home planet. She had, in turn, regaled him with anecdotes from her school days, and told him about her work with trilithium. He found himself drawn to her more with each passing day.

Torres carefully picked up the precious crystals. "It shouldn't take too long to reshape these. I'll get started immediately."

"Let someone else do it," Paris said. "You should get some sleep."

Torres shot him a dark look. "I'm the most qualified to do this, and I intend to see this through to the end." She strode across Engineering.

"B'Elanna," Paris called. She stopped, but didn't turn. "It's not your fault."

Torres turned back, but it was not to reply to Paris. She smiled at Kayla. "Thank you for your help. We are indebted to you." She then continued on her way without further comment.

Paris only sighed as he and Kayla left Engineering.

"Your ship is wonderful, Thomas," Kayla said as they strolled the corridors. "I could almost wish. . . ." Her words faded into an ironic smile as she turned to watch her planet beneath them from the viewport that ran the length of the corridor.

"What?" Paris prompted.

"My father did not want me to come here. He warned me that I might grow envious of the people here, and for this ship."

"Was he right?"

Kayla smiled to herself. "It is a wonderful ship." She looked to Paris and started to laugh. "Don't even think of it, Thomas! I can see in your eyes–you were about to try to persuade me to stay!"

"Was I?" he asked innocently. They stopped walking and Paris took her hand. "Would that be so bad?" And he realized as he looked at her that he was as surprised at his own words as she was.

"Thomas." Her voice held a note of gentle reproof, but there was something about the way she said his name this time that made his heart skip a beat.

His return smile quickly changed to a frown of concern as Kayla paled and held tightly to his arm for a moment.

"Are you all right?" He put his free arm around her.

"I'm fine," she said, straightening, the color returning to her cheeks. He noticed she surreptitiously slipped a hypo into her pocket.

His voice hardened. "What did you just give yourself?" As soon as the words were out of his mouth, though, he knew. He knew.

Kayla looked up at him, almost apologetically. "I'm sick, Thomas."

"How–how far –" He struggled in the stunned silence that followed her announcement to phrase his question—a question that he would just as soon not know the answer to.

Kayla was very quiet. "Far enough so that the hypos won't do much good soon."

"You're going to die?" There was an edge of anguish to his voice that he could not hide.

Kayla smiled. "We all die eventually."

"That isn't funny, Kayla," he snapped.

Her smile faded. "No," she agreed. "I'm sorry, Thomas. But sometimes it's the easiest way for me to accept what's happening."

"I thought your people didn't take the easy way to anything," he said bitterly, instantly regretting his words as Kayla turned away from him, a world of hurt in her eyes. He sighed. "I'm sorry. I guess we both use bad humor to deal with difficult situations."

Kayla didn't reply. She seemed transfixed as she watched her planet. After a moment, she turned to Paris. "Do your Federation people believe in gods?"

"Some do," he replied.

She surveyed him critically. "But you don't." When he didn't answer her, she continued. "What do you believe in, Thomas Paris?"

He simply gazed at her for a long moment, and then, leaning forward, kissed her—and let the world them around fade away.

Much later, he sat next to Harry Kim in the mess hall. It was dinner time, but he wasn't hungry. He pushed his food around his plate with his fork.

"What's wrong?" Kim asked.

"She's dying," he said.

Kim stopped eating. "Kayla?"

Paris nodded. "She has the same disease that killed that councilman."

"That's a shame," Kim said, returning to his dinner.

His words struck a raw nerve in Paris. "A shame? Is that all it is? We can save these people, but because of some outdated custom and fear they have, they're going to die!"

Harry's eyes grew wide in astonishment. "Tom, calm down. It is unfortunate, but it's not our problem to solve."

Paris felt a rush of anger swell through his veins. "Not our problem? Really, Harry?" He pushed his tray away. "There are thousands of people dying down there—painfully—and we have the power to save them. If that's not our problem, then what the hell are we doing in Starfleet? Playing games?"

"You can't force these people to do something they don't want to do," Kim returned defensively.

Paris stood up. By now, everyone in the hall was staring at them, but he didn't care. "You don't get it, do you? Am I the only one who sees what's going on?"

"Tom —" Harry began.

Paris was disgusted. "Just—never mind." He stalked out of the mess hall. How could the rest of the crew be so cavalier about this! He stood in the corridor, fuming, uncertain where to go next. He didn't want to return to his quarters, and he wasn't scheduled for duty for hours. With a quick determination, he turned and headed for Engineering to check on B'Elanna.

He found her carefully bent over a crystal, shaping it to perfection with a microlaser. She was visibly exhausted.

"This is the last one," she said.

"You're dead on your feet," he admonished.

"Once Voyager is on her way, I'll rest," she replied, bringing the final crystal to the chamber.

But she tripped. And the crystal flew from her hands, and shattered as it impacted with the floor. For a long moment, Torres just stared unbelieving at the shards around her feet—and then came unglued.

"Damn!" Her hands flew to her face, and her shoulders started to shake. Paris realized she was crying, something he thought he'd never see. He immediately went to her and put his arms around her.

"Hey," he soothed. "It's okay. I'll go get another. It's no big deal."

"Yes. It. Is," she replied, pushing him–and her tears–away. "I worked all day on these crystals, dammit!"

Paris blinked, taken aback. Then he reached out and grabbed her arm. "You are exhausted. You either relieve yourself of duty and get some sleep," he snapped, "or I'll get the captain to do it for you."

If looks could kill, Paris knew, he'd be dead at that moment. She glared at him, the muscles in her jaw working to keep her emotions in check. She yanked her arm from his grasp.

"Ensign," she called across the room to a young man working. Her eyes never left Paris'. "You have command." Only then did she look across the room. "But I expect you to call me immediately if something goes wrong."

"Yes, lieutenant," he replied.

She looked back to Paris. "Satisfied?" She spat out.

"I'll go get another crystal immediately," he said.

She didn't reply, but her expression softened, and she turned and left Engineering.

Paris followed in her wake, and headed for the Transporter Room.

He was surprised when Kayla met him at the outcropping.

"I knew it was you," she said. "And I wanted to talk." She took a deep breath. "I don't have much time left —"

He turned away from her, not wanting to hear this. Somehow, a part of his mind irrationally reasoned, if he didn't talk about it, or think about it, it wouldn't happen. Weak, very weak, the rational part of his mind accused, but he ignored it, and cut another crystal from the outcropping.

"Thomas," Kayla began.

"So, your gods have condemned you to die, and you're just going to go quietly, are you?" He was too angry to regret his words, and she responded in kind.

"So, because my beliefs are different than yours, they don't matter, is that it?"

"That's not what I meant!"

"Isn't it?" She accused. "You have no gods, so you think that anyone who does is primitive and stupid."

Paris opened his mouth to protest, but he couldn't find the words. Because she's right, his inner voice said to him. He was Starfleet. Starfleet didn't depend on outdated religions to find its way through the universe. He looked up to see Kayla stalking away in disgust. She believed, though. And he cared for her, more than he wanted to admit.

"Kayla, wait!"

She stopped, but didn't turn around.

"I want to understand you," he said, "but I can't comprehend how a society can let its people die when they could be saved." She still hadn't turned around, and he grew frustrated. "You know you're going to die, and you don't even care!"

That got her attention. She whirled about to face him. "Don't care! Do you think I want to die? Do you think I enjoy living with the knowledge that I will never have children, or grandchildren, or see my life's work come to fruition?"

"Then why–"

Kayla shook her head. "My people love life, Thomas, but we will not forsake out way of living to simply keep existing."

"You would rather die?" he asked.

She couldn't answer, and turned away, choked with tears. He sighed heavily, putting the crystal in his bag.

"I want to understand," he repeated, as though saying it often enough would magically make it so. Perhaps if he understood, it wouldn't be so hard to leave when Voyager was repaired.

She turned to him. "You do, Thomas," she replied. "Just look inside yourself. You don't need gods and religion to have faith. Everyone believes in something, and you could no more sacrifice your beliefs for mere existence than I could mine."

"You seem so sure about me."

Kayla only smiled. He looked in her eyes, and saw in them light and warmth and something else that made him forget it was necessary to breathe. He took a step towards her. But the spell was quickly broken as she doubled over in pain, and fell. Paris rushed to her side and tapped his comm badge.

"Transporter Room, medical emergency! Two to beam to Sickbay immediately!"

As soon as he materialized, Paris carried Kayla to the nearest diagnostic table. The Doctor and Kes were ready.

"What happened to her?" The Doctor asked, running his tricorder over her.

"I don't know," Paris replied, agitated. "We were just talking, and—"

"She is in critical condition," the Doctor said. "We have to work fast. Kes, get me a hypo of adrenisine."

Kes handed him the hypo and he applied it to Kayla's arm, and then ran the tricorder over her again.

"Well, Doc?" Paris demanded.

The Doctor frowned. "It's not working. Kes, double the dosage."

Paris watched anxiously as Kes quickly complied with the Doctor's order. He took one of Kayla's hands in his as the Doctor applied the second hypo.

"Will she make it?"

The Doctor ran the tricorder over her once more. "Her biofunctions are stabilizing."

Paris drew in a ragged breath, unaware that he had been holding it. He bowed his head over Kayla's hand, relieved.

"I commend your quick thinking, Mr. Paris," the Doctor said, "but I cannot guarantee how long she will be stable."

"Thanks, Doc," he replied, relieved for now, and refusing to think about the next time she would have an attack.

A slight moan made him raise his head and look down on Kayla. She was regaining consciousness.

Paris let go of her hand, but did not leave her side. He looked up as the doors to Sickbay opened and Janeway strode in. She took in the scene with one troubled glance and moved to the other side of Kayla's bed and looked down on her.

"Captain, what is it?" Paris asked.

Janeway looked up at him. "We've been asked to leave, Mr. Paris."

Kayla opened her eyes. "My father has contacted you, hasn't he?"

Janeway nodded. "He's very angry. What happened?"

Kayla sat up, with Paris' help, and swung her feet over the edge of the table. "This attack of the Disease should have killed me. Like everyone else, I have implanted in my arm a microbioscanner. My health is constantly monitored by my physician. At the onset of this attack, they would have known that it would be the one to kill me."

Paris stared at her in disbelief. "And they're angry that you're alive!" He turned to Janeway. "We were talking—I couldn't just stand there and watch, Captain," he appealed. There was sympathy in her eyes, but he knew she did not approve of his actions.

"What did you treat her with, Doctor?" she asked.

"Simple adrenisine. While I have found a cure, I have not had any need to synthesize it."

"No need? What about just now?" Paris asked.

"There was no time, Mr. Paris. She was in critical condition and needed my undivided attention."

"I beg your pardon," Kayla said, clearly annoyed that they were discussing her as though she wasn't there, "but the choice is mine. You know how I feel, Thomas. I understand you acted on the moment, but . . ." She reached out and laid her hand gently on the side of his face. "You should not have brought me here."

Paris just looked at her, too stunned to reply.

"While I hate to say it, I must agree," Janeway said.

"Captain!" Paris cried.

Janeway held up her hand. "I'm not condemning you, Mr. Paris, but the choice is hers, and we have violated Lakian custom— her choice— in bringing her to Sickbay." She turned to Kayla. "I'm afraid your father has insisted on your return to Lakia."

"Thank you, Captain," Kayla said. "I'll explain the situation to him so there will be no hard feelings between our people." She turned to the Doctor. "I hope one day soon we shall also find a cure."

"The solution is relatively simple. I could show you if you like," he replied.

Kayla only favored him with a patient smile and pushed herself off the table. "Thomas, will you walk with me to the transporter?"

Paris only looked at Janeway, still too stunned to speak. She nodded her permission. Without a word, he led Kayla out of Sickbay.

They walked in a silence so thick Paris found it almost difficult to breathe. He could feel her slipping through his fingers, and knew he was powerless to stop it. He clenched his fists in frustration so that they hurt.

The doors to the Transporter Room opened. He wanted to say something to her, but it was as if he didn't know how.

She stepped up to the platform. Time was slipping away, and so was she. She began to dissolve, and he reached for her.

It was too late. She was gone.

His hand fell helplessly to his side. He turned and left the room, and stumbled his way through the ship. He soon found himself standing outside of Sickbay.

The Doctor looked up at him as he entered. "Ah, Mr. Paris."

"Doc, do you have a minute?"

"Of course. Are you ill?" He asked, looking at Paris critically.

Paris sat down. "I don't know. How did you feel when Danara told you she wanted to remain a hologram?"

The Doctor's face softened and he sat down. "I was devastated. I couldn't understand why she would choose death over life."

"What would you have done if she had chosen to remain a hologram?" Paris asked.

"I would have spent every last minute with her," he replied.

Paris stood and began to pace. "But couldn't you have just deactivated her program and made the transfer anyway?"

"Of course I could have," he replied huffily. "I am an expert at holographic procedures. But I would never have gone against her wishes."

Paris stopped pacing and looked at him. "Even if it meant her death?"

"Yes," the Doctor stated. "I love her, and could never have forced her to do something she didn't want to do, no matter how much I wanted her to live. The choice was hers, not mine." He stopped as Paris began to pace again in frustration. He stood up quickly as he realized the direction of Paris' questions. "Mr. Paris, certainly you are not thinking of interfering in Kayla's life, are you?"

"She's dying, Doc. Doesn't anyone understand this? Everyone down there is dying!"

"I understand you want her to live, but you must respect her wishes, and the wishes of her people."

Paris raised his voice. "How can I just stand by and watch her suffer?"

"If you care for her, you will respect her wishes."

"If I cared for her, I'd help her!" He protested.

"But you can't help her like that, Mr. Paris," the Doctor said.

A realization swept over Paris and he grew strangely quiet. "Yes, I can." There was a pause, and Paris almost seemed at war with himself, but it was gone as quickly as it came. "Computer," he said, "deactivate the emergency medical holographic program." The Doctor dissolved before he could protest. "Sorry, Doc," Paris said. "I can't let her die." He strode over to one of the medical replicators. "Computer, synthesize a hypo of the Lakian cure."

A hypo obediently materialized a moment later. Paris took it and stared at it for a long moment. He then took off his comm badge and set it on the Doctor's desk, and without looking back, he left sickbay, and headed purposefully towards the Transporter Room.

The room was empty, and the transporter coordinates were still set at Kayla's beamdown site. He set the controls for a five-second delay, and jumped on the platform.

Seconds later, he found himself in the garden area near the dilithium outcropping. He looked around, frantically searching for her. He pushed branches out of his way as he blindly stumbled down the flagstone path. He grew more desperate with each step. He had to find her.

He stopped suddenly as he noticed her up ahead of him, kneeling on the soft grass beside the path. He rushed over and dropped to her side.

"Kayla, no," he said.

She looked up at him, startled, then pleased. "Don't be sad, Thomas. It had to happen eventually."

"It doesn't have to happen," he replied intensely.

"Oh, Thomas," she replied, "I don't want to leave you like this."

"Then don't," he said, taking her hand. "Let me help you."

"It's so beautiful here, isn't it?" She asked. "I didn't want to die in some sterile medical ward."

"Please don't die on me, Kayla," he pleaded.

Kayla let go of his hand and clutched her midsection as a spasm of pain took her. Paris reached for the hypo on his belt. He gripped it tightly, shutting his eyes against her pain, torn with indecision.

"I'm glad you're here, Thomas," she said softly after the spasm had passed.

Paris opened his eyes and looked down at her. He had never seen her so vulnerable. So frightened.

"I didn't want to die alone."

A feeling he couldn't name flooded his soul and he dropped the hypo in the grass and cradled her in his arms. "You'll never be alone," he whispered.

She rested her head on his shoulder, and they sat there together through the end, and after. Paris lost track of time. He didn't know how long he had been sitting there when a shadow fell over him. He looked up to see Jarvin, accompanied by three security guards from Voyager. For the briefest of moments, a flicker of hope crossed Jarvin's face as he looked at Kayla. Paris followed his gaze and understood. She appeared by all counts to be sleeping. Jarvin's face fell, however, as he caught Paris' eyes and read the truth in them. But he quickly straightened, his mask of detachment firmly in place.

One of the security guards stepped forward. "Lieutenant Paris, you'll have to come with us."

Wordlessly, Paris gently laid Kayla down. He spent one last moment memorizing her face and then stood. He nodded once to Jarvin, and then turned and walked away without a backward glance.

Janeway was waiting for him when he materialized. He saw her face, and knew he was in serious trouble. He didn't care.

"You're on report, mister. You are relieved of duty and confined to quarters until further notice."

He stepped down from the platform. He didn't know what to say to her, so he said nothing.

"Do you understand me, Mr. Paris?" She demanded.

"Yes, Captain," he replied listlessly. "May I go now?"

"No, you may not," she said. "Did you violate Lakian custom?"

Lakian custom. The hated words burned in his ears. He turned and looked coldly at Janeway. "She's dead, Captain." And without waiting for permission, he stalked out of the room, unconcerned for the consequences. He headed for his quarters, half-expecting to be accosted by security and led away to the brig for his insubordination. But he was left alone. And he remained alone for a full week. . . .


/SCENEBREAK/


He looked back out at the stars as they streaked past. Voyager had completed repairs soon after Kayla died. They were now back on course, and warping towards home. In his absence from duty, Torres had discovered why the crystals had cracked. It had something to do with an energy wave phasing in and out of the space-time continuum, its frequency, and an opera singer.

Paris looked into his glass at the swirls of liquid. Either he had been drinking too much since he came off duty, or he hadn't listened very well in the first place when Torres came to the bridge earlier. He rather suspected the latter. Even Harry hadn't been able to draw him out of the unnatural introversion he'd slipped into since Kayla died. He sighed, and gave up trying to understand it.

As he lifted his glass, the door chime sounded. Surprised, he set it back down. He didn't even know conference rooms had door chimes.

"Come," he called.

The doors opened and Janeway entered. He started to stand but she shook her head. "Don't get up." He settled back in his chair. "May I join you?" She asked. He gave a non-committal shrug, and she sat down across the table from him. She took a moment to gather her thoughts. "In all the time we've been together, I've never seen you like this," she said quietly. "I don't want to pry, Tom, but I'm worried about you. You haven't been yourself since your return from Lakia. I know Kayla's death hit you hard, but I think something deeper is troubling you. I don't know if you're angry with me, or. . . ." She trailed off. "If you want to talk, I'm here."

Paris stared into his drink for so long that Janeway stood to leave, taking his silence as a dismissal.

"I'm not angry with you," he said as she turned away. Janeway sank back into her chair. "I would have done the same if I were captain." There was another long pause, but Janeway waited it out. Paris turned his glass around on the table top, as if waiting for the courage to go on. "Kayla asked me once what it was that I believed in," he said at last. A deep frown creased his brow and he pushed his drink away. "I used to know . . .I thought I knew. But now—I don't think I believe in anything anymore."

"Tom," Janeway said, reaching across the table and laying her hand on Paris' arm, "you can't let one incident destroy your faith in your life's work, in Starfleet." She caught his eyes. "Remember last month, when you saved that little girl from drowning? And when we helped the ship that was stranded in the asteroid field? Those people are alive because of you. Don't give up on the rest of the universe because you couldn't save Kayla."

Paris dropped his eyes to stare at the top of the conference room table. "I could have saved her."

"Why didn't you?" Janeway asked.

Paris looked up, surprised. How could she ask such a question after that scene in Sickbay? He searched her face for any trace of mockery. He found only sincerity and sympathy instead.

"Because—" He stopped and looked away. He could tell her it was because of Starfleet regulations, or—he cringed inside—Lakian custom. But neither would be true, and they would both know it.

"I loved her," he finally said.

"Would she want you to be like this?"

The tiniest of smiles broke out on his face in spite of himself as he remembered her and her laughter.

Janeway squeezed his arm lightly. "She'll be alive in your memories, Tom."

He looked up at Janeway. "I know it was her choice, but I find myself asking why. And I don't know the answer."

"I don't think there is an answer to that question," she replied. That sat in silence for a while. "Will you be all right?" she asked.

He nodded slowly. "I think I owe Doc an apology."

Janeway smiled. "So does he." She stood up. "I'll see you on the Bridge."

"Aye, Captain," he replied as she headed for the door.

"Captain?" he called as the doors parted. She turned around. "Thank you." Somehow things didn't seem so bleak now.

"Anytime, Tom." She smiled encouragingly and stepped into the corridor.

Paris settled back in his chair. He actually did feel better. His grief was somewhat muted, and not so raw. He could think of Kayla now without feeling that sharp stab of emotional pain he had been used to, and he dwelt on her memory for a long moment. He remembered her how she lived . . . and how she died. And still he had no answers.

But then, he thought as he rose, there was always hope. He looked out the viewport. Lakia was somewhere out among those stars. He pictured Kayla as he had left her— so peaceful-looking, and he couldn't help but wonder if her father had found that which everyone else had so conveniently missed; if he had noticed that there were two hypos in her pocket. Paris recalled the hope in Jarvin's eyes when he had first seen his daughter that day, and the disappointment that had followed. In spite of his beliefs, he had wanted Paris to save Kayla.

Paris knew Jarvin would recognize the second hypo for what it was. It was too late for Kayla, but perhaps, just perhaps—

Paris felt a hope rising in him as he realized that her death might not be as purposeless as it had once seemed. Jarvin, he knew, would find a way. Paris had seen the look in his eyes. He turned away from the viewport and picked up his glass. He might never know the future of Lakia, but he had hope.

And hope was no small thing.