Timeline Note: This story takes place directly after the events of Caretaker
Admiral Owen Paris made his attaché stand in the immense doorway of his Starfleet office for a full six minutes before he acknowledged the man with an irritated glance.
"I'm sorry to disturb you, sir," Lieutenant Carrington said. "But it's a communiqué from Admiral Ross, and it's marked urgent."
Though he spoke with the diplomatic polish of an ambitious man on the fast track to the Federation High Council and bore himself with a flawless etiquette equal to his tone, Marcus Carrington was a man young for his posting. Not long out of the academy, he'd earned rank through birthright, the heir apparent to political alliances curried over two centuries of ancestral linage rich with more than a dozen Federation and Starfleet luminaries.
But while it was true an unparalleled deference was shown him while ascending through the ranks, and equally true that a staircase of career stepping stones had been laid at his feet since he was of an age to follow in his forefathers' footsteps; Carrington was no shill, no pretender to the throne. To the contrary, he was far more qualified to his post than most men twice his age. With eyes the color of innate wisdom and instincts bred to leadership for a dozen generations, he was every expectation of his pedigree and well on his way to fulfilling his genetic destiny.
One day in the not-so-distant future, Marcus Carrington would rule the universe; but that did not exempt him from the ill temper of the Admiral today.
"Well don't just stand there," Paris snapped, gesturing impatiently. "You've already interrupted me when I told you not to, so you might as well hand the damned thing over."
Carrington stepped into the office and handed Paris a small data padd, then retreated to the doorway once again. He was wiser than to protest the Admiral's mood, far too aware of his coveted status as personal aide to one of the most powerful -- albeit petulant -- members of the Starfleet Advisory Board to risk even the smallest disfavor. Though the Admiral and his father were close, and he himself had established a rapport of sorts with the notoriously surly man, there were lines of decorum to be maintained in their relationship, and Carrington knew every one of those lines well.
Deferential to a fault, he awaited the Admiral's response as if the opportunity to be redressed was an honor unto itself. He lingered in the doorway long enough to allow Admiral Paris the opportunity to issue further directives, or frame a second reprimand if that was his wish, but not long enough to appear as if he had something of value to offer. When the Admiral began punching his clearance code into the data padd, Carrington stepped back with the intent to retreat and resume his daily duties.
"Just hang onto your ass there, Lieutenant," Paris said without looking up. "I'll tell you when you can go."
"Yes, sir," Carrington agreed dutifully. He resumed his stance of relaxed attention in the doorway, eyes respectfully forward, hands clasped loosely in the small of his back.
Admiral Paris grunted as the Starfleet insignia faded from his padd and a communiqué began to write itself across the small screen. The first line sparked an instinctive irritation to his eyes. The second, stilled his world to utter silence.
Admiral Owen Paris was a big man by nature: a man who wore his authority in the barrel of his chest and the broad span of shoulders that had once borne the responsibility for the lives of more than seven hundred crewmen aboard the USS Al Batani and now supported the weight of many millions more across the universe. He was a stern man who rarely smiled, a cross man who rarely offered a word of encouragement or approval. His eyes were grey steel and his every feature -- even those that had taken on unauthorized weight as the years progressed -- stood at staunch attention in the habitual glower of his unrelenting expression.
But as he read the message that scrolled across his data padd, Admiral Owen Paris changed. Grey eyes faded flat. Stern features sagged and squared shoulders slumped. Skin ruddy with rugged heath blanched to candlewax white.
Alarmed, Carrington broke stance to take a step into the restricted confines of the Admiral's office. "Sir?" he prompted cautiously.
Paris looked up. He seemed a hundred years old. "Get me a drink, Marcus," he said, his voice as suddenly hollow as his eyes.
Carrington filled a shot glass to the rim with expensive scotch from the Admiral's private stock and placed it in the older man's hand. Paris downed the drink in one swallow. He was still holding the padd. His fingers were pressure white against molded plasticine. He held the shot glass for almost a full minute before finally setting it on his desk.
"Would you like another, Sir?" Carrington asked after several moments of silence.
Paris didn't answer. Silent and unmoving, he stared through his attaché as if the younger man didn't exist. His eyes were focused on nothing. His features were utterly without expression.
"Sir?" Carrington ventured finally. "Are you all right?"
The Admiral's gaze shortened. He focused on Carrington and stared at him for a long moment. Then he nodded.
"Yes," he said. "I'm all right." He tossed the data padd across his desk then, an act so unexpected in its effrontery that it caught his normally unflappable attaché off guard. "Call my wife," Paris added, no inflection at all in the flat lay of his voice on his words. "Let her know what happened."
Carrington scanned the message still displayed on the padd's screen. His heart jumped; his stomach dropped. His skin went cold on his bones. He read it a second time, and then a third. When he finally looked up, Admiral Paris was still staring: no longer at him, but rather through him.
"Isn't Voyager ...?" Carrington didn't have the heart to finish a question to which he already knew the answer.
Paris nodded once.
Carrington's gaze dropped. He studied the shine on his impeccably polished boots. "I'm sorry, Sir," he whispered after a beat.
"Call my wife," Paris said again. And then he stood and turned away.
Carrington took a single step forward. "Admiral …."
Paris gestured the younger man's concern off with a flick of one hand. Like a man too tired to walk, he shuffled to the vast, unbuttressed, transparent aluminum viewing plate that predominated the west wall of his office.
The view was unprecedented. One hundred and ten stories above street level, the window overlooked the sprawling vista of the city, the coast and the seemingly endless ocean that stretched beyond. He often pondered this view in his more reflective moments, but its splendor was wasted on him now. Staring through it as he had stared through his attaché only moments before, Paris saw nothing of the world but what it no longer was.
What it never again would be.
Beneath the devastating weight of official notification, Admiral Paris stood as best he could. Though his spine maintained the instinctive attention of a warrior born to military service, the natural square of his shoulders had been corrupted. They no longer bore the weight they had; they no longer shouldered the responsibilities for which he was responsible. Standing in an office that overlooked the world he helped rule, Admiral Paris's shoulders could manage little more than the slightly rounded slouch of an aging man.
Still standing behind him, Carrington offered, "If there anything I can do, Sir .…"
The offer hung heavy in the oppressive silence, but Paris didn't respond. He didn't turn. He didn't answer. He merely continued to stare. Carrington waited as long as he dared. Then, given no other choice, he did the only thing left for him to do: He effected a judicious retreat, closing the door quietly behind him.
Even after Carrington's withdrawal, Paris continued to stare out his office window. For the first time he could remember, the view meant nothing to him. It inspired no thoughts of achievement, no pride of success nor understanding of his own place in this hierarchy of men who called themselves the Starfleet Advisory Board. It made him feel neither important nor impressive, only old and tired and empty.
The view was without color as it had never been. The ocean was grey, as was the sky. The city, though clean, seemed antiseptic.
It was only in the sand along the coastline that this bleached and faded world existed in the color his mind's eye remembered. Golden yellow like maize in summer, it was the exact color of sand filtering between a two year old's pudgy toes.
Wondrous stuff that sand had been ... terrible to the taste, but more than up to the task of creating castles and canyons and other places of magic and adventure. Sticky in the water and warm in the sun, it left in their socks a souvenir of the day; and in their wake as they returned home, specific evidence of their passing.
Childish laughter echoed like a clear bell in Admiral Paris's memory. Rich, alive, joyous. It rang through him, resonating in his bones. His face wet with tears, he stared out over the endless ocean, seeing only the waste of the laughing child he'd driven from the yellow warmth of sandy beaches to the black, unforgiving vacuum of space.
"Tom," he whispered.
Inside Admiral Owen Paris, the heart of a lion broke to that of an old man.