This story is a sequel, of sorts, to my post-Endgame/re-entry piece "Choices". You might wish to read that story first if you are wondering how Tom, B'Elanna, Harry and Libby ended up on the Enterprise under Captain Will Riker (if you ran the flagship, wouldn't you headhunt the best in the Fleet?); otherwise this one stands pretty well on its own.

The question I'm asking myself here is how, based on what we know of Tom Paris' character and that personal code of honour of his, we might expect him to deal with the twin challenges of fatherhood and senior command. What would he do if he had another run-in with the Prime Directive?

Speaking of which – in my view, a law that gets ignored, sidestepped and broken so often, by people we love and respect and in circumstances where we inevitably stand up and applaud, is probably in need of a rethink. The politics of non-interference may have looked good in the 1960s, but how could a Federation that calls Starfleet a "humanitarian armada" (quoting Janeway), possibly sustain the attitude that it is perfectly civilized to sit idly by and watch the extermination of a species just because they haven't developed warp drive? Please check out the poll on my profile page – after the story is finished!

Finally, I'm still experimenting with that whole writing thing, so this time I thought I'd try the adventure/drama route. In keeping with ST tradition there's a touch of actual science (thanks, Chris), but the story takes over pretty quickly. After all, I'm a fanfic writer, not an astrophysicist! As for the legal bits, any Trek episode with a bit of courtroom drama has the judge asking a lot of questions, as in the civil law system. If that's where they're headed in the 24th century, fine with me. I've added a Military Commission because the gravity of the alleged offence calls for a jury.

DISCLAIMER: The characters (except for some whose names you won't recognize unless you've also read "Choices") and universe aren't mine, only their current thoughts and predicaments are. I write for fun, not profit.

For Glyn, who gave his life protecting those who cannot protect themselves.


By Alpha Flyer

Chapter 1 – Expectations

"Captain William Thomas Riker, you are accused of knowingly and willfully violating the Prime Directive, a court martial offence under the Starfleet Code of Discipline. If convicted, you are liable to being relieved of command of the USS Enterprise and to reduction in rank to Commander.

"Commander Thomas Eugene Paris, you are accused of knowingly and willfully violating the Prime Directive, a court martial offence under the Starfleet Code of Discipline. As you have been found guilty of breaches of the Starfleet Code of Discipline on two prior occasions, if convicted, you are liable to reduction in rank to Lieutenant Commander and dishonourable discharge from Starfleet.

"Based on agreement with defense counsel, there will be no plea entered at this time. You will, however, be given the opportunity to make a statement if you so wish."

The two accused stood at attention, tall and straight both, two pairs of cool, focused blue eyes taking the measure of the investigating judge and the members of the Military Commission appointed to determine their fate.

The dark-haired Captain was by far the more massive figure, a broad-shouldered former athlete whose body had begun, however reluctantly, to cede hard tone to the more sedate pace of middle-age and the fact that he was now, more often than not, telling rather than doing. Will Riker's full beard, greying a bit around the edges, gave him a slightly forbidding aspect and only served to enhance the overall impression of a man used to filling a room with his presence. Riker took a deep breath, tightened his jaw and squared his shoulders against the curious stares from an audience that filled the courtroom to capacity.

The face of the lanky, fair-haired Commander standing beside his Captain was closed to scrutiny. Tom Paris had indeed been here before and was not giving anything away – not to the judge, not to the jury, not to the spectators, and especially not to the media. Only his eyes showed any movement, scanning the room under pale lashes, scrutinizing each face. A small, sardonic smile began to curl one corner of his mouth at some unknown memory but was quickly suppressed.

The investigating military judge chosen by the admiralty to preside over the proceedings had been brought back from retirement for the occasion. Presumably this had been done because he was one of the few admirals without any direct personal connection to either of the accused, both of whom were well-known among senior Starfleet ranks. Thaddeus McPhee was a frail man, shrunken and stooped, whose slightly clouded grey eyes betrayed either advancing old age or a declining intellect. Neither possibility was a comfort to the accused, and the more astute of the journalists present were already preparing editorials on the merits of his appointment.

The combination of the nature of the charges and the identity of the accused meant that public attention to the case went far beyond Starfleet, and in fact was close to hysteria. Direct newsvid access had to be limited to a small number of select and rotating providers, with live feeds piped into virtually all channels across the sector. Here, after all, stood the man who had led the defense of Earth against the Borg against his own tragically assimilated former Captain; beside him was Voyager's helmsman, the highly decorated reformed Bad Boy of Starfleet, 'Captain Proton' to a generation of young holovid gamers. Mic'ed lenses of a dozen holovid cameras stared down at the accused from various vantage points like a forest of unblinking alien eyes on metallic stalks.

The Starfleet public relations machine was in full gear. Eric Henderson, prince of communications and widely regarded as Admiral Nacheyev's anointed mouthpiece, was personally in attendance to ensure everyone connected with the Fleet was on message: " This is a matter for the law. The case is before the Court and it is inappropriate to speculate on an outcome. Starfleet is not in a position to comment." Like a mantra, he repeated his three talking points, somehow managing to sound engaged, innovative and profound each time he did.

A small number of family members and other supporters, carefully vetted due to the sensitivity of the case and the scarcity of public seating, could be seen in the front row. The Captain had issued a direct order that none of the Enterprise's crew were to attend the hearing, lest they implicate themselves in any way in a responsibility the two commanding officers meant to shoulder on their own. Depositions had been given, and there would be no additional evidence other than the ship's logs.

Not even the accused's wives, both senior officers on the Enterprise, were present, in fulfillment of their commanders' wishes. But nothing could keep retired Admiral Owen Paris away; his hands were clenched as firmly as his jaw as he was doing his best to ignore the cameras that kept seeking out his face. His views on the Prime Directive were well-known in Starfleet circles; the fact that he was here, presumably in support of his son, invited endless speculation.

Both accused glanced over at their defense counsel. Taking advantage of his status as a reserve officer, Stan McFaddyen had dusted off his old Starfleet uniform for the occasion – figuratively rather than literally, since uniform standards had changed a few times since he had last donned one, as had his body shape. The fact that he had never moved past the rank of lieutenant did not bother him in the slightest. His clients' case would have nothing to do with the number of pips that accented its delivery.

McFaddyen knew as surely as he did his own name that the die for the decision over which McPhee would be presiding had been cast long ago, and not in this room. The jury of Military Commissioners, however much they might think of themselves as independent, impartial and open-minded, would reach an outcome McFaddyen already knew to be inevitable; McPhee's presence on the bench ensured as much.

But still, McFaddyen had a case to make. He sent a small prayer up to Sir Thomas More, patron saint of lawyers, that his clients – both deeply passionate men, not afraid to speak their minds and not of a mind to suffer fools gladly – would not get too much in the way. McFaddyen adjusted his glasses and rose to address the court.

"My clients do not wish to make a statement at this time, Your Honour. We will let the facts and the evidence speak for themselves and in the end, the members of this Honourable Jury will find my clients not guilty of violating any laws or regulations of Starfleet or the United Federation of Planets.

"I am confident that the members of this jury will come to this inevitable conclusion for one reason, and one reason only: In light of the fundamental rights and freedoms inherent to all sentient species, and in particular the right to life, the Prime Directive as it is currently understood and applied by Starfleet cannot stand.

"The principle you will be applying to this case is one that is hundreds of years old: 'Leges sine moribus vanae'. Since the universal translator does not speak Latin, a dead language, allow me to translate:

'Laws without morals are empty."

Captain William T. Riker let his eyes wander around his briefing room, quietly and surreptitiously appraising his senior staff. While he still at times deeply missed the familiar faces with whom he had spent so many years aboard the Enterprise, he liked what he saw. Even if at this precise point his wife and counselor was doing her best – and failing spectacularly - to keep a straight face at the rapid-fire exchange of wisecracks flying between his Chief of Operations, Lieutenant Harry Kim, and his First Officer, Thomas Eugene Paris.

After a short-lived initial skepticism, Riker had learned to appreciate the light touch his Number One had brought to his office. Clearly, the rest of the crew did. Tom Paris had been on the Enterprise for little more than a year now, but in that brief time he had engendered a fierce loyalty in his subordinates that it had taken Riker, as he somewhat enviously admitted to himself, years to achieve in the same position.

How Paris had done it, Riker had no idea. Sure, his unorthodox thinking in the Neutral Zone had quite possibly saved the ship, and the Andorian mission ... gods, the memory of that one still made Riker a little queasy. But apart from having proven his mettle as a tactician, Paris seemed to have won over the crew by sheer force of personality, memorizing the names, positions and major personality quirks of all 1,246 crewmembers inside a month. A friendly word or an encouraging challenge here, a concerned and fair intervention there; consummate professionalism balanced by a wicked sense of humor, and complete lack of self-consciousness at being seen chasing a squealing toddler in circles around the warp core.

And of course, Paris provided the toughest piloting training in Starfleet, available – time permitting - to any and all who sought to expand their skills, while his spectacular series of run-ins with various legal systems had lent him a mystique that for some reason fascinated the women on the ship even more than the men. The French bar programme he had made publicly accessible in one of the holodecks probably hadn't hurt either… Why and how that eclectic package would make for such an effective commanding officer was an enigma, all things considered, but one Riker had long ago stopped trying to puzzle out.

Harry Kim, trying desperately to suppress a grin at one of Paris' comments, had steadily grown in confidence over the last year. Fatherhood had grounded him, and Riker was beginning to think about a recommendation to make him a Lieutenant Commander. Kim had only spent a year as a full Lieutenant, but after seven years as an Ensign, who would begrudge him a bit of fast-tracking now?

The Chief Engineer, Lt Commander B'Elanna Torres, was ostentatiously ignoring the banter between her husband and Harry Kim, instead reviewing engine specs on her PADD with determined concentration. Riker was still on occasion congratulating himself for being the one who had snapped her up when she was ready to go back into space. Her famous Klingon temper was readily channeled into brilliant feats of engineering that he could only shake his head at. Upon arrival she had spent three days crawling through every Jeffries tube on the Enterprise, touched and examined every EPS manifold, until she was satisfied that she knew "her" ship. A year on, she played its insides like a virtuoso would his instrument.

The Chief Tactical and Security officer, Lt Commander Jorak, remained his usual Vulcan self – unreadable, but totally aware of and mentally recording every nuance in the room; there was a good reason so many Vulcans chose tactical as their preferred assignment in Starfleet. Jorak had been on the Enterprise longer than her Captain, having served under the wildly unpopular and incompetent woman referred to among Fleeters only as "Picard's successor", as if using her name might somehow legitimize her short and disastrous tenure. Jorak had of course betrayed no indication that he was relieved when Riker took command, but he had allowed that he 'welcomed' the ability to alter his tactical protocols at his own initiative, without seeking his Captain's consent each time.

Riker's eyes lingered for a moment on the empty seat of the Chief Medical Officer. He hadn't been able to bring himself to allow Dr. Crusher's temporary replacement a seat at the "big table"; luckily he didn't have to, given that Dr. Jeremy Fincher would only be on board for a couple more weeks. If that made the Captain a stickler for protocol – well, so be it. The man was epically underwhelming, and the last thing Riker needed was the distraction of having him try and insert his pompous, ill-informed views into discussions that did not concern him.

The door swished open and Lieutenant Marc O'Reilly plonked himself down in his chair, his breath a little ragged. Riker tried to look stern but failed; Paris smirked knowingly and not unsympathetically. What was it about pilots that they always ran late when it came to administrative tasks? Just couldn't let go of the conn?

With everyone who was supposed to be there accounted for now, the Captain called the meeting to order. Everyone promptly sat back in their chairs and assumed their professional personas. Routine reports were quickly and efficiently dispatched with. Engines were at full capacity, a small glitch in Transporter Room One had been fixed, and crew evaluation reports – everyone sighed heavily at that – were on track to being completed on time. Probably.

Time to get down to brass tacks.

"Commander Cran, if you please." Riker's gesture invited the chief science officer to begin the centrepiece of the morning's briefing. She was not a regular participant in the morning meetings and had spent the previous ten minutes tuning out the discussion in order to focus on her presentation, oblivious to the amused glances her lack of attention was generating.

Petra Cran nodded her thanks to the Captain, and launched into her report by punching a series of instructions into her PADD. The briefing room screen lit up to display a vast nebula, shaded in rich but translucent tones of red, blue and purple, with innumerable points of light of varying degrees of brightness dotting the wispy strands of stellar matter. The red shades, she explained, were images of Hydrogen Alpha lines, while the white and blue clouds within the nebula were particles of unknown nature, reflecting the light of whatever stellar objects were close to them.

"The Trifid Nebula," she announced. "Known also as Messier Object 20, or NGC 6514, one of the galaxy's main stellar nurseries. 5,500 light years from Sector 001. Approximately 180 emerging stars had been catalogued by the mid-to-late 20th century, with the relatively limited telemetry – however advanced for its time – provided by the Hubble telescope. Telemetry has much improved of course, and as you know, our new astrometric sensors greatly compress the differential between the time between the emission of light at the source and the time it takes to travel to our sector. But a time lag still exists, of approximately sixty years."

Tom and Harry exchanged weary glances at the explanation, but Deanna, without their background in astrophysics, was listening intently. Cran continued without seeming awareness of the differing levels of interest her monologue was generating.

"But the molecular dispersion patterns, which cause the three dark cloud strands that give the Trifid its name, continue to deflect most sensing probes. Basically, we can't see behind those dark strands. They act, to all intents and purposes, like a drawn curtain."

Cran took a break for effect; she did not get the floor at a senior staff briefing very often, and was intent on making the most of the opportunity. "Our most recent readings, such as they are, have shown over three hundred new stellar or star-like objects to have been added since Messier catalogued the Trifid, essentially sometime in the last four-to-five hundred years, with two dozen new ones added just in the last two years." Tom whistled at that, his interest caught now.

As Cran spoke, a series of images flashed on the screen in succession – the same scene repeatedly superimposed upon itself, creating a moving image that showed a rapid and steady increase in the number of those points of light.

"Given the rate at which new stellar objects are formed under ordinary circumstances, we should have seen at best one or two new ones since the original Hubble telemetry. Starfleet and amateur observers have failed to provide a scientific explanation or theory for this abnormal rate of activity, again, mostly because even our most sophisticated remote sensing methods can't penetrate much of the nebula. Basically, we lack the data to make even a guess."

She paused again, speeding up the image display. "What is most intriguing though is the fact that some of these objects appear to be moving, or vanish almost as soon as they are catalogued. This close to the galactic centre, they should be moving in the same pattern and with the same relative speed as the Sagittarian arm, that is, they should essentially be orbiting the singularity at the centre of our galaxy. They are not. Based on the most recent observations, the newer objects have moved in random patterns, even flashing on and flashing off. Almost as if they are moving at their own volition. And because of the time delay, for all we know today none of them still are where they were first observed. In other words, we have really no idea what the stellar environment in the Trifid looks like today."

Deanna Troi drew a sharp breath at that comment. As the ship's counselor she had not been briefed in detail on the scientific aspects of this latest mission, and frankly didn't really want to know most of them. Her focus was the ship's crew. That said, however, her past experiences with stellar phenomena that had turned out to be anything but a mere quirk of physics caused her to be on instant alert – warranted or not – whenever she heard statements like the one Cran had just made.

The science officer continued. "With the recent discovery of the Sagittarius wormhole we can close in on the Trifid nebula physically for the first time. No one has been this close to the centre of the galaxy before, and we don't know who or what else might already be here. The Enterprise will be the first Federation ship to fly into the Trifid. And as you know, our estimate of the stability of the wormhole means that our window for observation and analysis is quite limited."

Riker nodded to himself at that. The Enterprise had taken a calculated risk in coming through the wormhole, one that had been debated at length in the highest echelons of the admiralty. The possibility that it would take the ship up to five years to return to Earth if the wormhole closed unexpectedly early had led to the decision to cut its crew complement by over 200 personnel, with the increased storage capacity devoted to supplies and facilities for an extended journey home.

Would it have been better to send a smaller, specialized science vessel? Probably, but given the fact that this would be the Federation's first foray into this sector, a show of its might was considered to be worth the risk just in case there was sentient life to be found here. The presence of families was of course a decidedly mixed blessing, but on balance the ability to have their children onboard had reconciled crewmembers more readily to the prospect of a long journey home.

The possibility of an involuntarily extended mission also explained the number of former members of USS Voyager recruited to augment the Enterprise's crew. If anyone knew of the challenges of an extended deep space mission, they did – and a surprising number had agreed to participate.

The experience of the "Voyagers" had already proven invaluable. Riker smiled a little grimly as he recalled the ship's wild ride through the wormhole, one of the moments where he had insisted that Tom Paris take the helm. Riker saw no point in wasting the talents of the best pilot onboard, even if he did happen to have a day job as his First Officer. And since this particular XO had unparalleled experience flying a starship through narrow conduits and unpredictable astral energy fluctuations, the helm was declared his for the day.

Tom of course hadn't minded one little bit, in fact had taken to the task with undisguised glee, but he had also insisted that Chief Conn officer Marc O'Reilly sit by his side to serve as back-up. A completely unnecessary precaution, Riker knew, but the gesture had reassured O'Reilly that his position had not been usurped. Plus, he had probably learned something into the bargain. The Paris approach to staff management; Riker approved.

Cran's summary complete, she sat down, ready for questions; only a few came. All senior staff had spent considerable time briefing themselves and her report had been intended as a reminder only. The Captain picked up the thread of her presentation.

"Our mission, as you know, is to explore and analyze the nebula, the emerging stars and any planetary systems or rogue stellar bodies. We want to determine why emergence has accelerated to such an extent, and whether it has continued in the years since the light our scientists have been studying left the nebula. Most importantly, given the rather explosive increase in potential sources of interstellar matter and radiation, we want to learn whether these phenomena are something that could potentially reach, or have an impact on, populated areas within the boundaries of the Federation."

"We'll be arriving at the outer edges of the Trifid nebula in about three days, at which time we can expect turbulence, unknown radiation emissions and possible spatial object interference. Commander Paris and Mr. Jorak will be starting to run a series of flight drills and tactical simulations for the crew starting at 0900.

"Lieutenant Commander Torres, and Lieutenant Kim, your teams will be running complete system diagnostics. We don't know what to expect out there, so we want to make sure our instruments are in good shape to meet the unexpected, including possible first contact situations on top of whatever natural phenomena we may find. Then we'll do it all over again tomorrow, and again the next day. We'll note any divergences as we approach the nebula's molecular dispersion field. Counselor Troi will ensure with the teaching staff that the children's safe zone is up and running before we enter areas with likely increased radiation levels. I expect reports from all department heads by 18:00 each day, Mr. Paris. Dismissed."

Riker stayed seated as his senior staff filed out of the briefing room. Only Counselor Troi remained behind. Will looked at his wife, his eyes asking the question she expected.

"Cran is apprehensive, a bit insecure. It's her first major challenge. O'Reilly, too; he's nervous about flying in unknown conditions, and I sense that he's pretty glad to have Tom Paris as a safety net. Jorak, as usual, is a Vulcan blank slate but seems keen and alert. As for Kim, Torres and Paris …" she smiled, in slight disbelief. "They're ... the best I can describe it is, they're excited. Exhilarated, even. Almost like they're coming home to something they've been missing."

"Home to the unknown?"

"Yes. Yes, that's right. Unknown challenges, unknown conditions. Unknown dangers even. Unknown everything. They seem to … thrive on the idea."

Riker smiled broadly. "Are you telling me three of my senior bridge officers are mentally ill, oh wife of mine?" Deanna laughed.

"No more than you are, Will, or me for that matter. They're Starfleet officers."