ANGEL OF MERCY
By Terri Zavaleta
Captain Kathryn Janeway studied the figures on the viewscreen. They were humanoid, feline in appearance, and walked upright, strongly reminding her of lions with heavily muscled bodies though the Kastini, as they referred to themselves, were various shades of black or gray, rather than tawny, with rippling, waving masses of hair framing their flat Human-like faces and falling from their foreheads to cascade down their backs.
The leader, the central figure, wore a headpiece of a glittering feathery material that reminded Chakotay of headdresses worn by certain tribes on his colony world. "I am Ygaral of the Kastini Council. What do you want?"
Janeway ignored his abruptness and nodded respectfully. "I'm Captain Kathryn Janeway of the Federation Starship *Voyager*. We request permission to begin peaceful trade negotiations with your people."
Ygaral's head jerked back. "We do not conduct business in this manner. If you wish to negotiate, send a proper delegation to our Council." He made a gesture to someone offscreen. "We are uploading protocols to ensure proper behavior." The connection was broken.
Janeway turned and cocked an eyebrow at Chakotay. He smiled reluctantly. "You have to admit, he got right to the point."
"An unusual trait in a bureaucrat," Paris commented wryly.
Janeway glanced at the Operations station. "Mr. Kim, did you get the file?"
"Please send it to the terminal in my ready room. Commander?"
Chakotay rose and followed her off the bridge.
# # #
Thirty minutes later, the senior officers were called to a staff meeting. Each was provided with a copy of the Kastini protocols. Janeway asked for comments.
"Touchy, aren't they?" Paris said, quirking a sandy eyebrow.
"No more than five in the party? No interaction with their people?" Torres questioned. "Why? Are they afraid of us?"
"They have a right to dictate terms for visitors," Chakotay stated. "Their prior experiences with off-planet species may have led them to develop these protocols in the interests of self-protection. They probably want to minimize contact."
"So we're supposed to land, or transport, to coordinates two kilometers away from the city?" Kim asked. "Wouldn't it be better to provide us with coordinates for the meeting place so we wouldn't have to walk two kilometers through populated areas?"
Chakotay shrugged. "It may be in the nature of a test, Mr. Kim. To see if we will respect their laws."
Janeway nodded. "I agree. The away team will take tricorders and scan for possible natural resources we might trade for, specifically metals, edible plants, seeds, et cetera. Questions?" No one spoke.
Chakotay got to his feet. "Paris, Kim, Torres, Tuvok. You're with me. Meet in Transporter Room Two in fifteen minutes with the appropriate equipment. Please wear your away team suits. The terrain may be a little rough, so I suggest hiking boots as well."
# # #
The climate was semi-tropical, both too warm and too humid for the Humans' comfort. Their first action upon arrival was to unzip their jackets to reveal the tank tops beneath. Tuvok, on the other hand, almost reveled in the heat.
Chakotay took point and started down the clearly marked path before them. Tuvok trailed just behind Chakotay, followed by Kim, Torres, and lastly, Paris. All of them scanned in different directions with the tricorders, gathering information as they walked.
Hearing a noise, Paris stopped. He heard it again, a sound between a whimper and a coo. It sounded like a cry of pain from . . . a small animal? A small child? Tom strained his ears to listen. His tricorder wasn't indicating life forms in that direction. He looked up. The others evidently hadn't slowed their pace. They were ten meters ahead of him on the trail and still moving rapidly away from him. How had they gotten so far ahead of him so quickly? He'd thought he was right behind Torres just a moment ago.
"Commander!" Tom shouted. "I think I hear something over here! Do you think we should check it out?" He didn't want to leave without identifying the source. It sounded like someone or something was in distress.
Chakotay stopped at the top of the hill and turned to face Paris. Without speaking, he waved him off. Tom interpreted the gesture as permission to investigate. That was odd. He'd expected Chakotay to come with him or at least assign one of the other team members to do so. Harry, Tuvok, and B'Elanna hadn't even looked back or acknowledged his shout. That was kind of weird, too. He'd expected that they'd at least be curious to see what he was talking about.
Shrugging to himself, Tom followed the sound, walking quietly while listening carefully. Maybe it was nothing. Could it be the wind? No, there it was again. It was getting louder and definitely sounded like a small child crying or whimpering. Feeling a sudden sense of urgency, he quickened his pace, glad Chakotay had suggested hiking boots since the sound was leading him off the path and cross-country into rough, uneven terrain. The closeness of the trees and vegetation made him feel claustrophobic as he wove in and out over slippery, vine-covered, rock-strewn ground. He considered turning back, but his need to be sure that no one was hurt drove him onward. Tom told himself it was only natural curiosity.
The tightly clustered trees thinned out suddenly and he found himself in a clearing. In front of him was a ravine, approximately nine meters across. Tom peered over the edge. It was fifty meters straight down to a bed of sharply pointed boulders and rushing water. On the other side, roughly two meters from the edge, sat the source of the noise. It was a Kastini child, who appeared to be the approximate size of a two-year-old Human.
The child was crying with tired, hiccuping sobs, as if it had been crying for some time. And it was alone. On the rim of a river gorge? That didn't make any sense, unless the Kastini didn't care about their children's welfare. If so, they were certainly different from Humans in more than appearance.
Paris tried the tricorder. It wasn't working. He visually scanned the area, looking for an adult who would surely be close by to supervise the toddler. Someone had to be there. He couldn't imagine the child had gotten into this wilderness area alone.
Tom sidled along the edge of the chasm trying to get a better view. Three meters beyond the child, he saw someone's legs on the ground, protruding from behind a large tree. There was no hint of movement. Tom decided that the mother, or whoever, must have been injured. He was carrying a medkit. If he could just get over there . . . .
He slapped his commbadge. "Paris to *Voyager*." Nothing. "Paris to Chakotay." Nothing. "Great!" he said aloud, "no transporter to get you across. Now what, Tom?"
He heard a louder noise from the child. It had seen him and was staggering closer to the edge, its arms reaching toward him. "No!" he shouted, his blue eyes widening with horror. "Baby! Baby! Stay there! Don't move!" He waved his arms frantically, hoping it was old enough to recognize by his gestures that he wanted it to back up or at least sit down.
He got the child's attention. It stopped suddenly and, thrown off balance, sat down on its thickly diapered bottom with a thump that raised dust. The child stared at the strange-looking creature waving its arms and gurgled with laughter, clapped its hands together, then waved back at Paris as if playing a game with him.
Tom took a second to catch his breath. He put a hand to his heart to be sure it was still in his chest. At least the kid was sitting still--for now. "Good baby, nice kid," he called soothingly, gesturing at the ground. "Stay there. I'll be right there . . . somehow." He looked around. There wasn't a bridge within sight. Why couldn't anything ever be easy? Just once?
There were a lot of trees though. Big ones. And vines. Long ones. An idea came to him, but he quickly dismissed it. "Come on, Tom, you've been watching too many antique vid programs. Still . . ."
He gazed across the gulf at the child. "That kid isn't going to stay put forever. You need to get across." He mentally ran through his limited options once more before glancing at the vines again. "Why not? It can't hurt to try." After making sure his backpack was secure, he jumped, caught the lowest limb of the tree closest to the edge of the ravine and began to pull himself up.
# # #
Chakotay called a halt so the team could rest and drink some water. There was another kilometer to walk and it definitely wasn't getting any cooler. Dehydration was a concern so they each pulled out a canteen.
"Where's Tom?" B'Elanna asked Harry, glancing around curiously as she sat down on a large boulder next to the trail.
Harry frowned. "I don't know. Wasn't he in front of you?"
"No. I thought he was behind you," Torres said. Now they were all looking back down the trail.
Chakotay scowled. "He was supposed to bring up the rear. Why would he wander off? He knows better than that."
Harry defended his friend. "Tom wouldn't take off on his own without a good reason."
"Yes, he does know better," Tuvok stated. "It is possible Mr. Paris was taken against his will."
"Without us hearing anything?" Torres snorted. "Not likely."
"Not impossible," Tuvok corrected. "It would depend on the means of coercion employed."
"You mean they knocked him out or something?" Harry's unease was becoming anxiety for his missing friend.
"His position at the rear would make him the most logical target and facilitate any attempt on the away team," Tuvok said dispassionately.
"Let's not jump to conclusions," Chakotay instructed. He hit his commbadge. "Chakotay to Paris."
Nothing. The away team exchanged glances.
"It might be the climate or something in the atmosphere interfering with communications," Kim suggested, his analytical mind racing to find an explanation.
"Nothing showed up on my tricorder or the sensor scans that would cause a malfunction," Torres growled.
Chakotay hit his commbadge again. "Chakotay to Janeway."
"Janeway here. Yes, Commander? You have a report?"
"It's evidently not a communications problem," Chakotay said to Kim. "Captain, we seem to have lost Mr. Paris."
"Lost him? What happened?"
"Literally lost him. We just stopped for a break and discovered he's no longer with us. No one noticed when he left and, as far as we knew, he was behind us all the way," Chakotay reported.
Torres was scanning with her tricorder. "I don't know what's going on here, Captain. The tricorder isn't registering him. In fact, now it isn't registering any Human life forms at all."
"Stand by," Janeway replied. After a moment, she said, "Our sensors don't detect any Human life forms either--yours or Mr. Paris'."
"A systems malfunction?" Kim questioned.
"Unlikely," Tuvok responded. "It would be more logical to assume an intelligence working to interfere with the readings than to assume that *Voyager*'s sensor array and four tricorders on the planet's surface would simultaneously cease to function properly."
"The Kastini protocols said they might test us in some way, Captain," Chakotay commented. "Do you think this might be part of the test?"
"Possibly. Do you wish to continue? Or return to the ship?" Janeway left the decision to her first officer since he was on the scene with a better grasp of the situation.
"I'm not going anywhere until I find out what happened to Tom," Harry muttered. He felt guilty for not noticing his friend's disappearance immediately. Chakotay raised an eyebrow at him. Kim subsided, face flushing. He hadn't meant to be overheard.
Torres stood and confronted the First Officer. "If this is some kind of test, how do you think it would look to the Kastini if we turn and run? And what would they do with Tom if he is their prisoner?"
Chakotay looked at Tuvok. The Vulcan straightened his shoulders. "I, too, am interested in seeing this assignment through to its natural conclusion. We are in need of trade goods the Kastini could provide. We have no proof that Mr. Paris is in any danger or is being held prisoner. For reasons of his own, he may have decided to follow another path."
Harry studied the Vulcan skeptically. "Tom wouldn't do that. I know he doesn't always go by the book but if he had a reason to leave the trail and go another direction, he would have asked the Commander for permission or at least told one of us."
"That is proper procedure. He may have neglected to follow it. If he was coerced, he could not follow proper procedure," Tuvok reminded the Ensign.
"Captain, I think we'll continue. Perhaps Mr. Paris will catch up with us. If not, we'll ask the Kastini authorities for help in locating him," Chakotay stated. "And if Tom just wandered off . . ." He let the unspoken threat hang in the air.
"I don't think he'd do that without good reason," Janeway said, unknowingly echoing Harry Kim. "Keep your eyes open and stay together."
"Aye, Captain. Chakotay out." The remaining away team shouldered their backpacks again and continued along the trail.
# # #
Paris wrapped his legs around the heavy tree limb and tugged hard on the vine he'd chosen, testing it with his weight. "Yeah," he told himself aloud, "this ought to hold." He peered across the gulch. The baby was still sitting a meter from the edge, playing with sticks and pebbles, momentarily distracted and content to stay there---he hoped.
Balancing carefully, Tom stood on the tree branch above the hard, rocky ground. He grabbed the vine tightly, wrapping it around his arm to strengthen his grip. Peering down the ravine, he thought it looked much deeper from the tree and tried not to think about what would happen if the vine snapped or he misjudged.
"Shut up and do it, Tom! Now, what was that noise that character made when he did this? What was his name? Chewie? Never mind. Just remember, you get yourself killed doing something *this* stupid and the Captain will really get her bun in a twist!" He took a deep breath and used his feet to shove himself up and away from the tree branch and out over the gorge.
As he swung across, he said a quick prayer that he had timed the release correctly. At the top of his swing he was on the other side. Tom let go of the vine and threw himself further inland, trying to get as far from the brink as possible. He landed face down, the wind knocked out of him. Still trying to catch his breath, he raised his head and looked behind him. From the knees down, he was dangling over the edge. "Eek!" he gasped weakly, jerking his legs up and curling into a fetal position.
He turned his head. The baby was staring at him from two meters to his right. Tom scrambled to his feet and walked to the tree where he'd seen the legs. A quick glimpse was enough. She was dead. It was a female Kastini. She'd been attacked by some kind of wild animal. There were deep claw marks and teeth marks. Tom didn't want to look too closely. He'd seen enough to know she was beyond help.
Four large, clawed tracks led away from the body. She'd obviously done some damage to the animal. Two different colors of blood and fur littered the ground. The female had protected her child and died doing it. Tom felt a lump in his throat. Maybe these Kastini weren't so different from Humans after all.
He turned to attend to the child, approaching it cautiously. Tom didn't want to deal with a screaming kid. It would be just his luck if the Kastini showed up and thought he was trying to hurt it. After all, there was that line in the planetary protocols about staying away from the inhabitants.
The baby girl smiled at him. Well, it was a girl if the Kastini decorated their girls' manes with ribbons. She was cute in a kittenish way.
Until he got better information, Tom decided, this was a girl. He'd always had better luck with girls anyway. Her fur covering was charcoal gray. She had huge, almond-shaped eyes of blue, exactly the same color as his own eyes. Now there's a coincidence, he thought. A good omen?
The toddler staggered unsteadily to her feet. Tom got down on one knee and crouched to get to her eye level. He'd never been around babies much and wasn't sure what to do next. She solved his problem by putting up her pudgy little arms and running straight at him. He reflexively caught her. She wrapped her arms around his neck, snuggling into his chest as if they were old friends.
Tom cradled her against his body as he climbed to his feet. "You're a good judge of character, little lady. How did you know that hugs are the way to get on my good side?" She rested her head on his shoulder. Tom spared a glance toward the body of the female Kastini. "I promise I'll take good care of her until I get her to your people. Come on, sweetheart," he told the child, "let's get you home."
He considered his options. There was no way he was going to swing over the ravine with this precious package in his arms. He'd barely made it on his own. So, he couldn't go back the way he'd come. Now what? The Kastini female and child must have gotten here somehow. There must be a bridge somewhere or another route to the city.
Tom pulled out his tricorder and tried it again, not an easy task with one hand. Strange. Now it was working. It showed a large concentration of Kastini life forms to the east of his position. He holstered his tricorder then checked to be sure the little girl was resting comfortably. Comfortably? She'd fallen asleep.
Paris started walking, hoping the others hadn't gotten too much of a head start. He'd have to hustle to catch up. Harry would give him a hard time about goofing off instead of helping with the mission. Chakotay and Tuvok would probably think he was trying to avoid all the boring diplomacy stuff that always went on with first contact situations. B'Elanna would--heck, she'd probably think he was off flirting with some female, and she'd be right. This little doll was cute!
# # #
The away team reached the city without further incident and without finding any sign of Tom Paris. They went directly to the council building and were escorted into a spacious room with a conference table. Ygaral was seated at the head of the table. His browbeaten assistant scurried to seat the visitors, managing to get in the way more than he helped.
Torres scowled around the room until she heard Chakotay clear his throat. Flicking a glance in his direction and reading his disapproval of her behavior in his expression, B'Elanna settled into her chair and tried to appear calm. She wanted to get on with it and ask if the Kastini knew anything about what had happened to Paris.
"You had a safe journey?" Ygaral said politely.
"For the most part," Chakotay replied. "There is a problem, however. One of our officers has disappeared. Lieutenant Tom Paris. He may be lost in the forest."
Ygaral smiled somewhat condescendingly. "Oh, he is not *lost*, Commander."
The away team exchanged glances. "He's not?" Chakotay said. "Could you explain, Councilor Ygaral?"
"It is the way of the Kastini. Your Lieutenant Paris was selected for the testing." Ygaral waved a hand at his assistant. The little man scurried forward with a tray which held a large pitcher and a number of glasses and slid it onto the table.
"What is the nature of this testing?" Lt. Tuvok inquired.
"It is a test of physical endurance," Ygaral replied casually. "A test of character, if you will. Will you have some refreshments? I assure you, the jukeberry punch is very refreshing."
B'Elanna bounced to her feet. "You're testing Tom? Who gave you permission? You have no right--"
Chakotay, seated next to her, grabbed her arm. "Sit down, Torres. Councilor, you can understand our concern. We were not prepared--"
"You should have been," Ygaral said coldly. "Did you not read the protocol files we sent you? By coming to our planet, Lieutenant," he directed his comment to Torres with a sneer, "you gave us the right to test you."
"We were under the impression that any testing would be done here and that the whole team would be present. Nothing was said about a physical test," Chakotay stated, forcing himself not to react with anger to Ygaral's insults.
"We are not responsible for your impressions. If you had questions, you should have asked them before coming here," the Councilor said. His lack of emotion rivaled Tuvok's Vulcan impassivity.
"You said it's a test of physical endurance?" Harry Kim asked, unwittingly giving Chakotay a chance to count to ten before responding to the arrogant Kastini in a manner which would have been deemed inappropriate for purposes of diplomacy.
"How do you test for that?" Kim insisted. He knew Tom was strong and in good physical condition, but Paris hadn't expected to face an endurance test. What kind of test would the Kastini come up with? Did they mean torture? To see how long Tom would--Harry forced himself to leave that train of thought as he regarded the Councilor anxiously.
"Details, details. Each test is different. It's often determined by the subject. Does it matter?" Ygaral waved a bored hand.
"It matters to us," B'Elanna said vehemently. She subsided at a look from Chakotay but continued to glare her disapproval at Ygaral. She'd never make a diplomat.
"You mentioned a test of character?" Tuvok reminded the Councilor.
"Yes. Must we talk about this? You will be advised of the results by--what time is it, Nguri?" he drawled. His assistant scrambled forward eagerly and proffered a chronometer for inspection. "Ah, yes. It is now 1200. The test results should be in by 1600," the Councilor said as he stood. "Wait here, if you like. Or return to your ship. It really doesn't matter. We have our test subject." He waved a careless hand in their direction as he exited through the double doors.
The Councilor's assistant stayed behind. He poured the icy jukeberry punch into the glasses and distributed them. "Would you like something to eat?" he asked obsequiously.
"No, thank you," Chakotay said courteously. "Could you tell us something about this testing?"
Nguri quaked. "Oh, no, sir. The Councilor forbids discussion of the testing."
"Can you at least tell us if our friend will be hurt?" Harry Kim asked.
"Oh, no." The little man shook his head, backing out the doorway and wringing his hands. Before Harry could sigh with relief, Nguri added, "If he survives the testing, he won't be hurt very much at all." He scurried away before one of the strangers could ask another difficult question.
"If he survives?" Kim repeated. His dismayed glance met Chakotay's frown.
"I think I need to advise the Captain of the latest developments," the First Officer stated. He smacked his commbadge with more force than was strictly necessary. "Chakotay to *Voyager*."
"Janeway here. Yes, Commander? Have you located Mr. Paris?"
"No, Captain. We've just been informed that he was selected for testing. The Councilor said it's a test of physical endurance and a test of character," Chakotay reported. "The testing is supposed to conclude by 1600 and the Councilor has graciously given us permission to wait here in the Council Chamber until that time."
The Captain's concern for her missing pilot came through clearly. "Did they give you any details about this testing?"
"They said IF he SURVIVED the testing he wouldn't be hurt very much," Harry Kim blurted. He got to his feet and walked to the window, striving for control.
"What does that mean?" Torres demanded. "It's a pass/fail test? If you pass, you aren't hurt? If you fail, you don't survive? Why won't they tell us about the test? Why did they pick Tom?"
Tuvok raised an eyebrow at her vehemence. "We cannot understand their reasoning if they do not choose to share their rationale. Our only logical course of action is to wait and trust that Mr. Paris will pass their test. Though often unorthodox and illogical in his approach to problem-solving, he has proven to be highly resourceful in adverse situations."
Chakotay was impressed. The Vulcan didn't hand out compliments often. On this occasion, the First Officer agreed with him.
"Commander, I don't like this, but Tuvok may be right. We can't locate Tom without sensors. We will, however, be working on a way to punch through the interference that's affecting them. Keep me advised. Janeway out."
Chakotay looked at his team. They were reacting to the crisis in a manner typical for each of them. Lt. Tuvok was sitting at the table, stolidly waiting for orders and fiddling with his tricorder in an attempt to make it do his bidding. Ensign Kim was brooding, silently staring out the window but not really seeing the view. B'Elanna was pacing restlessly back and forth.
"Tuvok, why don't you analyze the jukeberry juice and see if it's safe for us? We've got four hours to wait. We might as well get comfortable," Chakotay said.
B'Elanna stopped marching back and forth long enough to glare at him in disbelief. "You want to just sit here?!"
Chakotay blinked at her deliberately. "What would you suggest?"
Having no idea what to say, Torres contented herself with glowering at him and returned to her pacing with renewed fury.
Harry Kim was thinking about Akritiria. Tom had survived alone in that hellhole for two days before Kim arrived. When Harry was thrown down the chute, Tom protected him from the other prisoners and even with the clamp in his head making him crazy, he'd taken care of Harry and helped him stay sane, until Tom was injured himself. Harry had to believe that if Tom could survive in that prison he could handle the Kastini's test.
B'Elanna Torres was worried about Paris' attitude. She feared he would overestimate his strength and take the test lightly. Why, in Kahless' name wasn't she chosen? The Kastini would have likely underestimated Klingon strength and determination. That had worked in her favor before. Of course, many people underestimated Tom Paris. They mistook his laid-back style for laziness and his humorous, joking charm for lack of intelligence or understanding. She'd made that mistake herself at first.
When they'd worked on the warp ten project, she'd found out how intelligent and intent and serious he could be when doing something he cared about. His nonchalant pose was just that. When the Vidiians had held them prisoner, he'd helped her. He was one of the most caring--B'Elanna growled aloud. "If he's hurt, someone's going to pay for it!" she snarled, shaking her fist right in Harry Kim's startled face.
Her comment snapped him back to awareness of his surroundings. "I'll hold them while you hit them," he offered sincerely. She gave him a feral grin and nodded. They began to pace together, shoulder to shoulder.
Chakotay studied them momentarily before turning to regard Tuvok. "Your opinion?"
"I have no data from which to extrapolate an outcome," Tuvok stated. "Many cultures use tests which determine physical endurance, ranging in severity from running races to negotiating mazes."
"Or torture," Chakotay said for Tuvok's ears alone. That thought might not have occurred to Kim or Torres.
Tuvok nodded. "True. Many cultures use what we would term torture to determine the character of its subject. Do you wish more detailed information?"
"No!" Chakotay said emphatically. "I know more than I want to. Some of the tribes of my ancestors used rituals that involved great pain and suffering. I hope the Kastini don't have similar customs. Do you have any opinion about Paris' physical stamina? His endurance?"
The Lieutenant raised an eyebrow. "I have observed Mr. Paris in a number of trying situations. I believe he is a very determined individual. He often displays a frivolous attitude and enjoys meddling in the affairs of others. However," the Vulcan said somberly, "he has shown a capacity to learn from his mistakes and use the knowledge gained to avoid a repetition of those mistakes. This shows maturity and good character. I do not know what criteria the Kastini will use to judge his performance, but I venture my opinion, based on little factual data, that he will be successful."
A twinkle of amusement lit Chakotay's dark eyes. "In other words, you think he'll be okay?"
"I believe that is what I said," Tuvok said, absolutely serious.
Chakotay didn't understand why Tuvok's opinion, based on little factual data or not, made him feel better. His own opinion of Paris had changed greatly since the Maquis had joined the *Voyager* crew. Tom Paris might be a smart-mouthed, arrogant showoff at times, but he'd also risked his life for the ship, for the crew, for Torres, even for Chakotay. Though their personal styles were not always compatible, Paris had really won Chakotay's respect when he'd brought *Voyager* back to the crew stranded on a planet by the Kazon.
No, Chakotay thought, Tuvok's right. Tom is resourceful. He doesn't always go by the book, so he's not limited to the book's responses. Paris will find a way to deal with the test. Whatever the test is. Damn! Why didn't they test me? Chakotay slammed his fist down on the table.
B'Elanna and Harry whirled, startled.
Tuvok raised an eyebrow at him.
# # #
The baby whimpered. "What's the matter, sweetie?" Tom said. "You need a rest? I know I do." He guessed he'd been walking for about three hours. The path was uphill all the way and the child weighed at least twelve kilos. Her weight combined with the weight of his backpack was starting to tire him out and the heat was also taking its toll.
"Let's take a break, okay?" Tom found a shady spot close to the path, set the child down, then slung his backpack off and dropped it next to her. He dug out the medkit and his canteen before unzipping his jacket, taking it off, and sticking it in the top of his pack.
"You want some water?" He knelt next to her, uncapped the canteen, and let the child sip as much as she would take. She lost interest after a few gulps. He took a long drink himself, then poured a trickle of the cool water down each side of his neck to cool his throat and chest then brushed a moistened hand across his brow. Unused to this kind of heat, he was sweating profusely and could feel the tingle of a sunburn beginning. Taking off his jacket meant his arms and shoulders would also be exposed, but there was sunscreen in his medkit and better to get a sunburn than risk dropping from heat stroke.
His small companion reached toward a nearby bush heavy with purple berries growing on it in clusters. "Ju Ju!" the child chanted, hands outstretched, fingers wiggling.
"You're hungry?" Tom said. "I should have expected that." He got to his feet, using his tricorder to scan the prospective snack. "These berries don't seem to be poisonous. For my blood chemistry anyway. I don't know about yours."
He eyed her dubiously. "Would a little kid know what she could eat? Maybe. A Human child would. Maybe. I vaguely remember trying to eat crayons once." He tried running a scan on her. "I think it would be safe for you." He plucked a berry and tasted it. "Not too bad."
The child bounced up and down, repeating, "Ju Ju!"
"Okay. Try one." Paris offered her a single berry. She was obviously familiar with them. He watched as she popped it into her mouth and then grinned at him triumphantly, holding up her fat little paw for another. "Ju Ju! Jubry!"
"Hey! You even know what they're called, I guess," Paris said, handing her another berry. It didn't last long either. She finished another eight before refusing any more. Tom ate several himself, relishing the sweet tartness.
He dug the sunscreen out of the medkit and sprayed his face, arms, shoulders, chest, and neck. The little Kastini crinkled her nose, made a face, and sneezed. "Oh, you don't like the smell? Too bad. It only comes in coconut. I wonder why sunscreens always smell like coconut? Tradition? Never mind." He stowed everything in the pack and shouldered it. "Come on, sweetheart. We need to get you home." His last tricorder readings indicated the Kastini settlement was no more than a kilometer away. Hopefully all downhill.
Paris heard a noise in the trees to the right of the path. Something was coming. Something big. He whipped the tricorder out again, scanning quickly. Some kind of massive animal. And getting closer. He only had moments. Spotting a tree limb dangling over the path, Tom put the child on the limb and tied her in place using the sleeves of his jacket then he grabbed his phaser, putting himself squarely between the animal and the child.
The creature broke through the bushes. It was huge, resembling a cross between a bear and a small elephant, and it had a nasty attitude. The beast reared back, waving its large claws and flashing sharp, pointed teeth as it roared a challenge in Paris' direction and walked forward on its back legs.
For a split second, Tom froze. Then fired his phaser.
Nothing happened. He should have expected that. "Argh!" he growled in exasperation. Throwing the useless phaser aside, he grabbed the biggest stick within easy reach, clenched his teeth, and braced himself for the attack.
The animal hesitated for a moment, studying its unfamiliar prey. It roared again and wavered forward a few more steps.
Maybe he could scare it away? Paris shouted, waving the stick menacingly.
The animal slowly dropped to all fours and paused in its movement. It sniffed the air and Tom could have sworn it wrinkled its nose with distaste before taking off through the bushes and disappearing back the way it had come.
He couldn't believe it. Incredible. He picked up the tricorder. No, it really was moving away. Tom shook his head and turned to look at the child who was watching him curiously and apparently unafraid. "I guess you were right. He didn't like the smell of sunscreen either." Taking a deep breath of relief and ignoring the way his hands were shaking, Tom untied the child and set her on the ground while he gathered up his equipment and backpack and prepared to move on once more.
As he picked her up, he asked, "Now what?"
He didn't expect an answer, but he got one. Looking into his face delightedly, she patted his cheeks. "Da-da! Da-da!"
Tom felt his jaw drop and his eyes widen. "Please, tell me that doesn't mean the same thing in your language as it does in mine!"
"Da-da!" she crowed.
"No, no, no!" Tom said hastily. "Not Da-da! Uncle! Uncle Tommy! Can you say Uncle?"
"No! Uncle!" He tried to sound stern.
"Can you say Tommy?" he asked hopefully.
"Tom?" he sighed.
Paris surrendered. If this was a battle of wills, he didn't have enough will to win. He just hoped no one else heard about this. His exaggerated reputation as a playboy was bad enough. If it got around that he'd become the father of an alien child, in less than six hours at that, he'd be in hot water. He probably was already in it up to his neck. When he'd asked permission to leave the path, he hadn't expected to be out of contact for so long. With that thought, Paris decided to try again. He slapped his commbadge. "Paris to Chakotay."
"Paris to *Voyager*."
He smiled at the little cherub who was carefully and delicately exploring the lines of his face with her soft chubby paws. She beamed back at him.
"I guess we better get you home." He made a face at her. She chortled with laughter. To the child's delight, he went through his entire repertoire of funny faces as he walked toward the city. He'd never had a more appreciative audience.
# # #
At exactly 1600, Ygaral returned to the Council Chamber. The four away team members eagerly turned to face him. Three of them had been working hard to keep their imaginations in check, to keep from inventing horrors that Tom might be enduring. Tuvok was attempting to analyze the problem with the tricorders and the manner in which they'd been caused to malfunction so that he could devise a solution to prevent a reoccurrence.
Ygaral's whole manner had changed since they'd last seen him. He seemed genuinely cordial. "I wish to congratulate you, Commander Chakotay."
"Where's Tom?" Torres demanded. "Did he pass your test?"
Ygaral nodded and smiled in a friendly manner, though the sharp teeth that showed as a result was less than a comforting image and did little to put the humans at ease. "As a matter of fact, we've never tested anyone with a higher score than your Lieutenant Paris."
"Where is he?" Harry Kim asked. "Can we see him?"
"He should be here momentarily," Ygaral said.
As if on cue, the doors to the Council Chamber swung open and Nguri ushered in a tired, dirty, disheveled Tom Paris. He was carrying a Kastini toddler and looked perfectly healthy except for the tinge of sunburn on his cheeks and neck and upper shoulders. His sweat-dampened hair was a rumpled, red-gold halo curling above his pink face, but to the away team, he'd never looked better.
"Tom, are you all right?" Harry asked, moving forward to relieve his friend of his pack.
Paris was taken aback by the fervency of the question. "Sure, Harry. Sorry I took so long, Commander. It was a one-way street so I took the long way around." In the background, he could hear Tuvok notifying the Captain of his safe return. It was beginning to sink in with Paris that the others had been worried about him.
Torres was so angry he'd worried them, yet so relieved he wasn't hurt, she didn't know whether she wanted to hit him or kiss him. Maybe neither. Maybe both. "Where have you been?" she snarled. "Why did you wander off alone?"
"I didn't wander off," Tom protested. "I told Chakotay I heard something. He waved me off to go investigate. You must have heard me."
Chakotay shook his head and gazed at Ygaral. The Councilor smiled. "A deception on our part, Lieutenant. You thought you had permission to leave the group because we deceived you. An illusion. Due to a similar illusion, your shipmates believed that you were following them, but in reality you were separated from the others within minutes of your arrival."
"What? Sorry, Commander. I thought--"
"That's okay, Paris. I'm glad you're all right. Who's your friend?" Chakotay asked as he drew nearer and flashed a smile at the child.
"I don't know her name," Tom began.
With perfect timing, the child patted Tom's cheek softly, possessively saying,
"She thinks that's your name?" Harry rolled his eyes.
Torres snorted. "Even you don't work that fast, hotshot!"
Paris fervently hoped his blush would be lost in his sunburn.
"I don't know," Chakotay teased. "Did you notice her eyes?"
Harry and B'Elanna stepped forward to take a look, but the child had a fit of shyness and buried her face in Tom's neck. He patted her back gently. "That's okay, sweetheart. They're just being funny. Councilor Ygaral, could you help me locate her family? I think her mother--"
"Of course, Lieutenant," the Councilor said, snapping his fingers at his assistant who scurried to open another door.
A female Kastini approached, her own brilliant blue eyes sparkling. The child immediately tried to dive into her arms. As she caught the child to her body she smiled at Paris. "Thank you for caring for Tukara. She is my child."
"Da-da!" Tukara said, pointing to Tom emphatically and beaming a smile in his direction.
"What's that she's saying?" Torres asked with false solicitude. "Does that mean father?"
The woman laughed. "No, of course not. In our language, in her baby talk, the word *da-da* means pretty."
Chakotay, Harry, and B'Elanna burst out laughing.
Tom hadn't thought he had another blush in him, but felt the heat rushing up his neck. Pretty? She thinks I'm pretty? he thought. That's all I need! That's worse for my reputation than being called daddy!
Ygaral made a dismissive gesture to Tukara's mother and Tom, a wistful expression crossing his face, watched mother and child disappear through a nearby doorway. She was a cute kid. "Lieutenant Paris, it was a pleasure testing you. I was telling your commander that your score is the highest received since the testing was incorporated into our protocols for dealing with other cultures."
"Testing? I was being tested?" Paris said, exhausted and puzzled. He fought off a yawn.
"Yes. I'm sure you're tired and would like refreshments before we go over the test results. Please be seated."
Moments later the *Voyager* team was seated around the conference table with plentiful refreshments for their enjoyment. Ygaral punched a button and a viewscreen appeared on the wall. "Perhaps it would be simpler to let you watch the Lieutenant's test and explain our scoring system as we go." At the touch of another button, the screen lit up and a two-dimensional recording began to play.
Though Paris had never detected any sign of surveillance equipment, his every action and word since he had left the away team had been recorded. The away team watched as Paris trudged through the jungle to reach the ravine and rescue the child.
When he started up the tree, Harry caught on to his plan immediately. "Tom, you didn't!"
Paris shrugged nonchalantly. It felt strange to be watching himself. It was embarrassing. Now they'd all be second-guessing him.
"Bun in a twist?" Chakotay mouthed, raising an eyebrow.
Paris smiled weakly.
Torres caught her breath. To the observers, it was clear just how close Tom had come to NOT making it across that ravine. They watched as he bonded immediately with the child. B'Elanna hadn't expected Paris to be good with children. It seemed out of character.
As the film played out, Ygaral kept up a running commentary. "Mr. Paris' compassion for the child earned fifty points. Disregard the female body. It is merely another illusion. No one was hurt but his compassion for her earned another fifty points. Risking his life to save the child: fifty points. Now, you'll notice that he not only tests the food source but tries it himself before letting Tukara eat it. Another fifty points."
"You ate crayons?" Harry Kim whispered.
"Shut up, Harry!"
They watched as the hulking beast burst out of the bushes and threatened Tom. "What's that?" Kim exclaimed.
"You think it's big onscreen? You should see its teeth four meters in front of you," Tom muttered.
"Shoot it!" Torres growled impatiently.
Tom stared at her, then reached over to tap her on the arm. She glared at him then turned her attention back to the screen where the video Tom was attempting just that. When the phaser didn't work, B'Elanna whispered a curse.
Tom patted her hand. "It's okay, B'Elanna. I'm here. You know this has a happy ending. Right?"
"This is worse than a holonovel!" She snatched her hand away.
"Remind me to take you to a drive-in movie sometime," Paris commented. "Night of the Zombies, maybe?"
When the image of Tom wielding a stick a little over one meter long and two centimeters in diameter, appeared, Harry slid an awed glance at his friend but didn't comment. It wasn't much of a weapon against a person, much less an animal that size.
Ygaral continued. "When the ragtal attacked, he defended the child at risk to himself. Fifty points. When he discovered his weapon was nonfunctional, yet still protected the child, he received a bonus of one hundred points."
"It was all a test?" Paris asked. "You mean there was really no danger?"
"The danger had to be real for a true test," Ygaral disagreed.
"You left a defenseless child in the middle of nowhere--at risk of falling off that cliff and a target for that animal--for a test?!" Paris surged to his feet.
Torres on one side and Kim on the other restrained him. They shared his anger, but throttling the government representative wasn't strictly in accord with Starfleet policy on first contacts.
"Not at all, Mr. Paris," Ygaral replied calmly. "The *child* was never in danger. She was constantly monitored and under our protection. If you had attempted to harm her, you would have been stopped, possibly killed. If you had run from the ragtal without protecting the child, the animal would have killed you. We would not have interfered."
Paris shrugged out of his friends' hands and reseated himself. "I'm glad you protected her. But I still say that's a stupid way to test people. Who wouldn't take care of a little kid?"
Ygaral shook his head fondly, as if Paris had said something particularly naive or endearing. "The true test of a species' level of civilization is how it deals with the most helpless and innocent of beings. You Humans seem to have a great deal of compassion. You extend it to other species and races. Others do not. Many of those tested made no attempt to help the child. Others did not endanger themselves as you did. For example, one representative was doing well until the ragtal appeared. At that point, he threw the child at the beast and ran in the opposite direction. The beast dispatched him very quickly."
Tom shook his head, disgusted by the very idea. Harry and B'Elanna wore similar expressions. Chakotay leaned forward. "So Mr. Paris' compassion is what you were testing? I believe any member of *Voyager*'s crew would pass that test."
Ygaral nodded regally. "Yes. I mentioned your high score. Part of that score was based on your reactions, Commander. And that of the other members of your team. Each of you displayed concern and compassion for the fate of Mr. Paris. I look forward to knowing your people better. Now, shall we discuss trade negotiations?"
Paris leaned back in his chair, resting his head and closing his eyes. He'd done his part by playing angel of mercy for Tukara. He wasn't needed for all the boring stuff. Chakotay and Tuvok could deal with that. He wondered what bribe he could offer Torres and Kim not to repeat the story about the kid calling him *pretty*.
Tom sighed. He didn't think there were enough replicator credits on the ship.