AUTHOR'S NOTE:

This story registers a solid 8.5 on the Alpha Flyer mush scale, with gusts to 9.0 towards the end. I make no apologies for this - frankly, after finishing "The Neutral Zone" I needed a spot of fluff. It takes place during Voyager's third year in the Delta Quadrant, following events in the episode "The Swarm" and a few short weeks before "Blood Fever". And if you were to feel some distant resonance to "One Small Step" - one of the best hours of Star Trek of all time – I would be content. The story is consistent with both canon and my own private little version of the Voyager universe, but it stands alone.

None of the characters or background elements that you recognize from the Paramount library belong to me; the story itself does though, as do any characters or locales you've met only in my stories. I write for fun, not profit.


CHASING THE DREAM

By Alpha Flyer

He sat by himself in a quiet corner of the bar, nursing a drink with the care of someone who had thought long and hard before putting down whatever currency was acceptable in these parts, for what amounted to an indulgence. A little wistful in his solitude, he turned the glass around and around in leathery hands that spoke of frequent physical work. His flight suit was clean but a little frayed, as if it had been worn for a long time.

But despite the overt indications of a hard-scrabble existence, his demeanour betrayed something else altogether as his bright, green eyes with their slit pupils darted around the room, from face to differently shaped face, their nictating membrane flitting across his vision at regular intervals. He cocked his head once in a while to listen as the sounds of a new language reached his ears, and seemed to be breathing deeply, nostril flaps flaring, as if to take in and commit to memory each unfamiliar smell.

Dipping a nearly black tongue delicately into his drink to take in a small quantity of the liquid, he sat back to observe the two newcomers who had entered a few minutes ago and were now standing at the bar, receiving their drinks. Bipeds they were, of differing height but similarly proportioned. There were other subtle similarities and differences: The fur cover on top of the smaller one's head was black, while that of the other, who towered over everyone in the bar, reminded him of the sands of Laza'ar. The shape and colour of their eyes also seemed different, but all he could tell from this distance was that the taller one's eyes seemed to spray blue light as they scanned the room. Fascinating creatures.

What was clear to the observer was that they were of the same species, and that he had not seen their kind before in his travels. He thrived on it, that newness, that moment of discovery – he took his hands off the glass, momentarily sustained by more than its contents.

And he watched.

…..

Lieutenant Tom Paris had, at best, a love-hate relationship with space station bars. The last time he had entered one on his own had been on Deep Space Nine, prior to USS Voyager's departure for the Badlands – in part to put a period behind the black experience of prison, in part to steel himself against the cold reception he knew he would get onboard, turning up in that pip-less Starfleet uniform that spoke so eloquently of his past failures.

He'd had a quick drink that day and been ready to leave when his natural sense of fair play had moved him to take pity on a green young Ensign, who was about to fall victim to the wiles of the Ferengi barkeep. Once that had been accomplished, he had been more than happy to hightail it out of a place that no longer offered the solutions he had once believed it might.

But a good thing had come from that uncomfortable experience – the rescued young Ensign had become Tom's best friend, rekindling within him the bright spirit that had too long been suppressed and left dormant. And so now, with that same young Ensign by his side, Tom was ready to concede that a quick drink in new surroundings might offer a brief diversion from their ship's steady and perilous journey through the Delta Quadrant; this one even looked relatively civilized, as these things went.

Besides, they had to get over that Akritiri thing sooner rather than later. Chakotay had recommended they take this opportunity for downtime at Voldak space station, citing some undoubtedly native American metaphor about "getting back in the saddle." With any luck, there wouldn't be another terrorist incident that would land them in some hellhole of a prison; else, he had sworn to Harry Kim, he'd be ready to give up non-holographic bars for good.

Whatever his qualms, once Tom had decided it was a Good Thing to look for amusement in this place, he committed to the experience - as he did to all things he chose to do - with one-hundred-and-fifty percent of his being. He handed Harry one of the glasses the bartender had passed over to him, taking care not to spill any of the amber liquid. Beer, it seemed, was a universal constant, even if it was made from different plants on different worlds.

"See an empty table anywhere?" Tom's eyes scanned the room, checking for emergency exits and potential bolt holes. Being prepared for entertainment did not mean he had to check his paranoid habits at the entrance.

"Nope, place is packed," Harry responded. "Not surprising, I guess – seems to be the only one of its kind within ten parsecs. I'm surprised the Captain even managed to get us a berth at the station."

"What about the table in the far corner? Facing into the room, rear exit nearby, and the guy seems to be by himself. No obvious weapons."

Harry squinted into the semi-lit room. The table seemed to meet his best friend's fastidious criteria for appropriate and safe seating in a strange bar, but the very idea of sharing a table with a complete stranger seemed inconsistent with Tom's particular form of paranoia and would not, frankly, have ever crossed Harry's mind. Consistency was clearly not part of his erratic companion's vocabulary.

"Maybe he wants to be alone?" Harry's voice was a mixture of resignation and petulance, given that the Lieutenant was already heading towards the alien. As far as Tom was concerned, the consultation process had been successfully concluded, and Harry knew that any further argument would be useless against the force of nature that was his best friend.

"He's a pilot," Voyager's helmsman tossed negligently over his shoulders, as if that provided any reassurance. "He'll be happy to meet a colleague. Besides, he's been staring at us like we're something he hasn't seen before. Could be interesting, and we might learn something from him. Come on, Har, don't be such a wuss."

Harry had to almost skip a little to keep up with Tom's longer strides; he cursed softly as a bit of his drink sloshed over and spilled on his hand. How come Tom Paris never seemed to dribble drinks all over himself? Rather than wipe the beer off on his uniform, Harry switched the glass to his other hand and licked up the evidence. Then, after a split second's hesitation, he wiped his hand off on his uniform anyway.

"How can you possibly know that he's a pilot, Paris?"

Tom slowed down a bit to allow him to catch up. "Takes one to know one," he said with an impish smile, but at the sight of Harry's don't-fuck-with-me glare he hastily amended, "The wings on his jumpsuit. I'm taking a wild guess that they mean the same thing here as they do anywhere else."

He approached the table where the alien sat and gave him – at least he assumed it was a him, given the absence of anything that looked remotely like mammaries - his sunniest smile. Harry, for his part, said a silent prayer to the gods that look after free spirits who talk to strangers in alien space bars, that baring your teeth wouldn't be taken as a deadly insult in these parts.

"Hi there, mind if we sit down?" Tom asked brightly, pulling up a chair without awaiting a response. "Place is kind of crowded, and this seems the only table with free seats."

The alien looked briefly disconcerted, obviously not accustomed to being spoken to, or approached in quite this forthright a manner. "How is it you speak my language?" he asked with a puzzled look. "I believe I have never met anyone of your species before."

Tom pointed at his comm badge. "Universal translator," he said breezily. No point in making too much of the thing; it was temptingly shiny enough as it was, in a place like this. "Useful little gadget. Sure helps when you have to order a beer in a strange tavern."

He gave Harry a quick frown that, even without the benefit of said gadget, clearly translated as sit down, already. With a sigh, the younger man complied, nodding at the alien politely as he did so.

"Tom Paris, chief pilot, USS Voyager," Tom introduced himself. "And this is Harry Kim, our Ops officer." There was no point giving out ranks in social situations; as the son of an admiral, he knew this better than most. If ranks translated into anything meaningful at all in an alien language, it was not usually something that would benefit easy acquaintance or advance informal conversation.

The alien inclined his head, his green eyes blinking a little faster in apparent greeting. "Marok Th'lan. My ship is called … Explorer." The translator hesitated a bit over the name, as if there were other possible interpretations for the ship's name.

"I am her Captain, pilot, navigator, mechanic, cook …" That last was said with a tone of wistful pride the translator had no problem conveying.

"Wow," Harry said. "Does that mean you're out here on your own? This place is pretty far away from anywhere else. You a trader?" The guy did seem to have a bit of Neelix about him; too bad the little Talaxian was still too busy making repairs to his little ship to have come along.

Th'lan moved his shoulders, one after the other, in a slightly off-kilter shrug. "Sustenance trading only, I'm mostly interested in … exploration and discovery. But I make do. I stop when I can, take on supplies, and sometimes trade whatever I picked up along the way. I came here to see if I could find someone to help repair my plasma manifold. The phase compensators are developing hairline fractures, and it's only a question of time before they let go."

He took another sip of his drink, with the same delicate dipping of the tongue. A man could make a beer last a long way like that, Tom thought inconsequentially.

The alien cocked his head slightly to the side. "And you? Your ship must be much bigger than mine, if you call yourself 'chief pilot'. That implies more than one."

Tom chuckled to acknowledge the deduction, but his answer was circumspect. "Yep, we have a good-sized crew." Never divulge tactically relevant information, his father had drilled into him from the time he was old enough to play space pirates. However gregarious Tom might be in his dealings with people, he did have his red lines, even if Th'lan himself may have just laid bare his own vulnerability. Harry nodded in a mixture of confirmation and approval.

"So where are you from?" Tom asked, not bothering to mask his curiosity. The man seemed willing to spill, so why not learn something? "We've been travelling through this sector of space, but I don't think we've run into someone of your species before either."

"My home planet is called Droza'an. But I doubt you would run into others of my kind. My people … are not travellers." Th'lan smiled, but Tom could sense an undefined sadness behind the alien's light green eyes, which suddenly seemed to have turned a shade darker.

"My home world lies some thirty light years from here. And your planet of origin, Tom'Paris?"

Tom took a sip of his amber beer, wrinkled his nose at the unfamiliar slightly tangy taste, and shrugged. He replied, somewhat diffidently, "Not a place you've ever heard of. We're actually not from around here at all, but on our way home after a spot of … unanticipated exploration."

Harry looked at him with bemusement. Captain Janeway never seemed to hesitate to tell fellow travellers that Voyager was lost and on its own, but Tom had repeatedly (albeit privately) made it clear to his best friend that he considered that kind of thing way too much information to just hand over for free. Not a trusting soul, was Tom. Outgoing, yes. Friendly, absolutely. Trusting – hell, no. The only thing that could throw him off his game, Harry had found, was kids; he was total putty in little Naomi Wildman's hands.

What Tom was never shy about, though, was discussing the fundamentals of different propulsion system designs, or other tricks of his trade, and before Harry knew it, the two pilots were animatedly swapping stories about spatial eddies, plasma storms and non-navigable debris fields. From time to time, Tom would send him a triumphant look that practically shouted "see, I'm getting useful intel!"

When the conversation digressed into local techniques for dealing with those small fleets of Swarm ships that, according to Th'lan, at times took their species' approach to border control to a nasty level by occasionally marauding outside their own claimed space, Harry actually began to wonder whether his buddy was half as disingenuous as he sometimes made himself out to be. Clearly, just the fact that avoiding the space claimed by the Swarm may not necessarily translate into Voyager being safe from another encounter with them was important information.

It hadn't taken the two humans long to notice the way in which Th'lan was nursing his drink – making it last. They exchanged glances and a quick hand signal brought new glasses, courtesy of a three-breasted waitress. Harry figured that this interesting specimen must have been on her break when they arrived or they would never have made it to the far end of the bar - given the extent to which her exotic cleavage seemed to immediately divert his companion from his primary target.

Tom wetted his lips unconsciously and paid for the new round of beers, turning the high beams on in his sapphire eyes. His sweetly charming comment was directed at the waitress' apparent centre of gravity: "You know what they say on my home planet - All good things come in threes. Thanks for the … beers."

Th'lan snorted with appreciation even as Harry rolled his eyes and laid a firm hand on Tom's arm, ready to upgrade the warning to a digging in of fingernails, if required.

"What?" the pilot looked at his best friend innocently. "Just making small talk. And wondering why we never, ever stop and explore planets like the one she's from."

"Will you never learn, Paris?" Harry hissed, although the humourous twinkle in his eyes belied his tone. The waitress quickly concluded that the dark-haired humanoid would be putting an end to whatever interest his fair companion seemed ready to display. She turned on her heel and stalked away, giving her triple assets an extra little bounce as she did so. Tom watched her recede from his notional grasp, making an obvious show of a regret that he just as obviously did not really feel.

"Now look what you've done," he grumbled good-naturedly at his friend. "You scared them away."

Th'lan observed the interplay between the two humans with keen eyes and a slight smile; it was clear that his newfound friends were playing out a familiar routine, quite possibly for his benefit.

Harry responded as he was expected to. "Thomas, Thomas, Thomas. Do I need to remind you of that Liddell woman every time we go off ship? Will you never learn that it's best to date within species officially cleared for … well, you know."

Tom snorted to signal amusement, but there was a slight brittleness in his reply. "You know, Harry, I keep telling you. One day you too will meet that … perfect woman, and it won't matter whether there's a hundred inter-species protocols prohibiting you from going after her. And you will. And you'll be done for. Trust me."

Th'lan's head cocked from one to the other of the two men, as if he were watching a particularly engaging game of Parissees Squares. He was learning all sorts of interesting things. These humans could – and apparently would - mate with other species? Fascinating.

Tom was still shaking his head in mock sympathy for the dire fate he predicted for his young, naïve friend, when something dawned on Harry.

"She turned you down again, didn't she," he stated authoritatively. "Poor guy. No wonder you were so ready to come in here for a drink and to … seek diversion."

Tom's stared into his glass with a distinct lack of humour. There was no point in denying what Harry had just put his finger on; they knew each other far too well, and he made no effort now to hide the injured tone in his voice.

"You know what she said to me? 'I'd rather take my chances with Freddie Bristow.' I mean, Freddie bloody Bristow? Get serious. The guy's a total goofball." He sloshed his beer around in its glass in silence for a minute, then took a long dreg of the amber liquid before suddenly remembering both Th'lan and his manners.

"Sorry man, didn't mean to cut you out of the conversation here. But women … well, you know, they have a way of doing that to a guy. Hijack your brain along with basic etiquette."

Th'lan nodded sagely. He may have only been on his second drink, but his skin colour had changed noticeably and he was clearly in the advanced stages of … something. But just as he was about to impart whatever words of inebriated wisdom might have left his mouth, both officers' communicators chirped.

"Chakotay to Paris and Kim. Sorry boys, but shore leave is cancelled. Please report to Voyager, on the double. B'Elanna insists that she needs you personally to true helm control, Tom, now that she's installed the new manifolds. And Harry, Commander Tuvok requires your assistance in recalibrating the shields. It appears the grid emitters took a harder hit from the Swarm ships than we thought and he wants them adjusted before we leave the station."

Tom, who had perked up a bit at something contained in that little speech, cast an apologetic look at Th'lan. He invited him with a gesture to help himself to the rest of their drinks.

"Sorry, buddy, been nice talking to you. Hope to run into you again sometime, but if not – safe home."

There was no mistaking the shadow that crossed Th'lan's flushed face at that greeting, however it might have been translated into his language. His nictating membranes fluttered across his eyes more rapidly than before, and they appeared to be secreting a yellowish fluid.

"Safe home to you, friends," he said.

…..

"Evasive maneuvers, Mr. Paris, but bring us within targeting range."

"Aye, Captain."

Kathryn Janeway's grim demeanour showed how close she was to cursing out loud. Four days Voyager had spent on Voldak, with the crew going flat out on making repairs to damage inflicted by their previous encounter with the Swarm. And now this? But some things needed to be done, and she was determined to do them.

"Mr. Tuvok, target their weapons arrays. Mr. Kim, remodulate shields and reverse polarity. It worked once against these … these thugs, it may work again."

"May I note, Captain, that the Swarm's ships do not appear to be concerned with Voyager. They seem to have another target in mind. Perhaps we should conserve our resources and simply retreat?" Despite his respectful questioning of the wisdom of Janeway's order, Lieutenant Tuvok's fingers continued their play across the tactical console in compliance with her directions.

"Whoever they are after needs and deserves our help, Tuvok. I don't want to have to pick another dead or dying man out of a burned-out ship." Kathryn Janeway's voice was clipped and resolute as she watched the small group of ships on the view screen execute joint maneuvers that might have been considered graceful, had they not been accompanied by deadly blasts aimed at a small vessel that seemed either unable or unwilling to return fire. At least this time, Voyager was being spared the sudden manifestation of armed aliens on the bridge; the Swarm indeed seemed intent on targeting a ship.

The latter, as confirmed now by Harry Kim, had no apparent weapons systems of its own. Shields, yes – of an unknown design that appeared to be able to keep out unwanted boarding parties, since only one life sign could be discerned on the ship - but no weapons.

No weapons systems? In the Delta Quadrant? Janeway's resolve to assist the unknown travellers doubled. "Carry on, Tom", she confirmed. "Do whatever is necessary to get us close enough to help, without getting us hit."

No formal evasive pattern having been specified by the Captain, Tom Paris felt gloriously free to improvise – for once. If flying a ship as responsive and nimble as Voyager was a gift he thanked the stars for every day, being able to do so on his own whim was … sheer bliss. He seized on the opportunity with glee and determination.

"I'm going to try something a little different, Captain," he said, his focus on the console now absolute. Taking advantage of what appeared to be an apparent break in the enemy ships' attack formation, he headed straight for it, right into the middle of the swarm. The maneuver was made possible, he figured, because the remodulated shield harmonics would make it more difficult for the Swarm ships to attach themselves to the hull.

If the ships fired on Voyager now, they'd be hitting each other, and suffer the consequences due to their inter-connectedness. Thanks for that tip, Th'lan. Hope it works …. Tom suppressed a triumphant whoop when the weapons fire suddenly stilled.

"There you go, Tuvok, a target-rich environment. Suggest now's a good time to let fly with that interferon magic of yours," he said, even as he put Voyager through a barrel roll. Thank goodness B'Elanna and her team had brought the inertial dampeners back into full alignment with the helm...

Casting an amused glance at her helmsman, Janeway gave the formal order to fire before caustically noting, "I thought I had specified evasive maneuvers, Mr. Paris, and targeting range? Perhaps we should compare definitional parameters at some point."

As they had a week before – had it really been only a week? – the Swarm ships seemed to ignite as if caught in a chain reaction as soon as Tuvok fired. This smaller Swarm may have had word of their main fleet's previous encounter with Voyager – their lack of interest in engaging them directly would certainly argue that - but that knowledge had clearly not yet resulted in an ability to adapt their defence system. With any luck, Janeway hoped, Voyager would be well away from even the outermost reaches of this species' space before they figured it out.

Before long, what remained of the small swarm dispersed, hopefully not to regroup or seek reinforcements. The object of the attack, a small, beaten-up looking vessel of relatively primitive design, hung immobilized in space.

"Hail them, Mr. Kim," the Captain commanded briskly.

"Channel open. On screen."

The forward view screen presented an image of a small, smoke-filled cabin with minimal visible instrumentation, not unlike Neelix' tiny trader that remained in one of Voyager's shuttle bay. Tom examined the image with interest. Never judge a book by its cover, he thought, gratefully recalling the use to which Neelix's rust bucket had only recently been put.

Then the pilot hove into view, having had to make adjustments underneath his console in order to establish a stable comm link. He clearly didn't have audio yet, and continued to fiddle with his instruments even as he cast an apologetic look at his own viewscreen.

"Th'lan!" Tom exclaimed involuntarily.

Chakotay raised an eyebrow. "Friend of yours, Paris? Out here, in the Delta Quadrant? You sure get around, Lieutenant."

Tom shrugged, ignoring the First Officer's provocative tone. He had developed considerable respect for Chakotay over the last few years and – he thought - vice versa, but sometimes the guy had as little control over his reflexively sharp tongue, as Tom had over his own smartass mouth. But that didn't mean he couldn't give as good as he got.

"It's a small universe. He's the guy who told me to fly into the Swarm in order to get away from them. Harry and I met him on Voldak Station. Where you told us to go and mingle with the locals. Sir." That last bit was delivered with just a bit of an edge.

Chakotay shook his head and cast a look at the Captain designed to convey gobsmacked incredulity. "You were there for, what, an hour and a half - you meet this guy, he gives you tactical advice that you have no idea where it comes from, and you think it's perfectly okay to act on it?"

The unspoken words hung in the air like a Mutara-class nebula: Trust Tom Paris to pick his battle strategies up in a space station bar. The First Officer tried to capture the Captain's eye to check whether she shared his indignation – or was it veiled amusement? With Chakotay, it wasn't always possible to tell.

All he got was a shrug, not dissimilar in its dismissiveness to the one Paris had given a moment earlier. "Let's not knock what works, Chakotay," she whispered, for his ears only. "And in this case, the information was golden."

She turned to the view screen, where Th'lan appeared to have succeeded in getting his comms system back online.

"My name is Captain Kathryn Janeway, of the Federation starship Voyager," she introduced herself. "I understand you are already familiar with … two members of my crew?"

"Well met, Captain," Th'lan made a sweeping gesture with his hands, his eyes nictating rapidly. "Marok Th'lan. I am pleased to make your acquaintance. Indeed, I have met your pilot," he smiled at Tom who gave him a surreptitious little wave from the conn, "and his friend Harry Kim. I am most grateful for your assistance."

"You're welcome," Janeway smiled back. "We thank you, in turn, for the useful advice you gave to our Lieutenant Paris, on how to combat these space thugs. I assume this … diving into the middle is a technique you learned in order to survive in the absence of a weapons system."

Th'lan gave the gesture Tom and Harry had observed before, a sequential lifting of his shoulders. "My vessel … is not equipped as well as yours, Captain. I have to make do, and fortunately have met fellow travellers who passed on this information. It is a well known secret in these parts; I am surprised it was new to you."

"Yes, we are a long way from home, and this whole area is new to us. Our local knowledge is limited. But tell me, your vessel seems to be immobilized. Can we be of assistance in any way?"

Tuvok's eyebrows shot up at that. "Captain …" he began, before Janeway waved him off impatiently. There were times when the Vulcan's innate skepticism was an asset, and there were times when her human instincts told her to simply ignore him.

Th'lan, for his part, fidgeted uncomfortably in his seat for a few moments, before looking back at the view screen. His tongue darted out of his mouth a few times before, with a sigh, he admitted what he obviously would rather not. "Yes, I believe my warp engine suffered considerable damage. I could probably make it back to Voldak station for repairs on impulse once I get the engines back online, but …"

"That would take weeks, if not months," Janeway said firmly, in Tuvok's and Chakotay's direction, but with the comm line open for Th'lan's benefit. "And in the meantime you would be exposed to further attacks. If you agree, we will tractor your vessel into our shuttle bay; it seems to me we were headed roughly in the same direction in any event." She looked to Tom, who nodded his confirmation after a quick comparison of course vectors.

"Thank you Captain, you are most generous. Most generous indeed."

Janeway nodded to Harry Kim, all brisk efficiency. "Engage tractor beam, Ensign. I will greet our guest in the shuttle bay; please ask Lieutenant Torres to join us. Lieutenant Paris, you're with me. You can make the introductions. Commander, you have the bridge."

…..

At the quickly convened briefing an hour later, the senior staff was divided into two camps with respect to their alien guest. The skeptics - Chakotay, who seemed unable to move past the idea of the alien being 'Paris' bar buddy', and Tuvok, for whom paranoia was in his job description – tried to convince the Captain that he should simply be fed, watered and sent on his way, after they had put a safe distance between themselves and the space claimed by the swarm. Neelix tried to stay neutral, not having heard of the man's species before, but he was clearly intrigued by this solo traveller, so similar to what he had been at the beginning of their journey.

Th'lan's defenders – predictably, Tom and Harry, joined interestingly by B'Elanna Torres – argued that he should be given whatever technical assistance he may require to allow him to continue his journey under his own power.

Paris noted that the man had already provided Voyager with invaluable tactical information and deserved their gratitude. In addition, he might be a useful source for additional intel, if treated kindly.

B'Elanna came to his assistance. "Besides, he's no threat. That ship of his is less sophisticated than Neelix' old tub. It looks almost homemade, held together by a string of rubber and a few cracked plasma conduits. No weapons system whatsoever; the only thing that's remotely sophisticated about it is the warp drive – even that is like something out of the history books. And the shielding."

She allowed herself a small, conspiratorial smile. "I've taken the liberty to note down some of its phasing already, but I'd love to talk to him about a couple of things that aren't clear to me."

Then she delivered the final blow. "I believe we could modify and adapt the shielding for use on Voyager. But I'll need his help. I'd be willing to trade him a couple of days' free work on his engines. I believe it's worth it."

The twinkle in Janeway's eyes grew into an enormous, slightly triumphant grin. Th'lan's childlike wonder at everything, from something as prosaic as Voyager's shuttle bay to his first glimpse of the bridge, had been irresistible and had landed her squarely in his camp.

"Well then, it's decided. Mr. Th'lan will be made welcome and offered whatever assistance we can, within our own limited resources."

…..

The next two days passed in a blur for Tom, Harry and a small contingent of B'Elanna's engineering team, led as promised by the Chief herself. Her focus, as promised, was on unraveling the mysteries of the shielding that had protected Th'lan's tiny ship from the swarm's boarding parties, but she was always ready with advice, comments, or to wield a hypospanner when an expert hand was needed. She paused briefly once, to cast a lingering glance at a pair of long legs sticking out from underneath the helm console, before catching herself and turning away, issuing a new order in Harry's direction.

A few minutes later Tom slid out from under the helm to catch his breath, his face smudged and his lungs clogged by the dust of some unknown world that he had stirred up with his work. He lay on his back coughing for a minute, looking up at the ceiling of the shuttle bay wit tears streaming out of his eyes before sitting up to give his chest a better chance to clear. The sight of B'Elanna Torres, prowling around the little ship's systems with a feline grace, caused his throat to go unaccountably dry and he lost control over his respiratory system altogether. He was about to erupt in a sneeze when he found a water bottle in front of his face, held out by the leathery hand of the alien pilot. Tom sat up and accepted the drink with a grateful smile, his eyes never leaving B'Elanna's small, compact form as the moisture calmed his breathing.

Th'lan's green eyes followed his gaze. "She's the one, isn't she?" he asked softly.

"Excuse me?" Tom replied, feeling a bit like he had when his mother had caught him trying to program the replicator with her own chocolate chip cookie recipe. He was grateful that the deplorable tendency of his fair skin to show a blush probably meant nothing to the Droza'anian.

"The one you and Harry mentioned on Voldak station. She is indeed marvelous. A small, bright star."

Tom sighed. Was he really that transparent? And to a complete stranger, supposedly unfamiliar with human body language at that? Oh well, might as well admit it. It wasn't like Th'lan would be sticking around and using the information against him in the briefing room.

"Yeah, she is. Way out of my league, unfortunately. And totally uninterested. But I guess a man can dream, eh."

Th'lan cocked his head at him, his eyes nictating in concert with little flicks of his tongue. It was odd, Tom thought, to see such reptilian features on someone otherwise so clearly humanoid. Perhaps his distant ancestors had their DNA crossed with something else entirely? In this part of the galaxy, anything was possible.

"Don't give up, Tom. She watches you too, sometimes. Just now, for example, when half of you was under the console." He gave the younger man a long, increasingly serious look. "We have a saying on Droza'an: Chase the dream - into the highest skies, and into the deepest caves. That's what you need to do, Tom. Chase the dream."

Tom snorted, more in disbelief than dismissal. "Yeah, right. And the nightmare will chase you. Well, back to work. Thanks for the water. And the advice. And if you want some from me, next time you're at a space station, pay someone for a thorough vacuuming of the cockpit, including under the furniture. You could start a rabbit farm with the dust bunnies down there." He lay down flat and wiggled back under the console.

…..

Farewells were never easy. Neelix had made a special meal for the senior officers assembled in the mess hall to mark the last few hours of Marok Th'lan's presence on board Voyager. He had managed to win everyone's heart quickly, even Chakotay's, with his unassuming manner and his unwavering friendliness and sincerity, but above all with the wonder and awe with which he had examined every corner of the ship.

Never taking, always watching, ever learning. Touching, tasting, savouring scents, observing, committing things to memory. After Kes gave him a tour of the hydroponics bay and its marvels he spent an hour in Sickbay, raptly listening to the Doctor sing arias from La Bohème and the Barber of Seville, and another in Harry Kim's quarters experimenting with the Ensign's clarinet - until Pablo Baytart banged on the wall begging for mercy.

Several times B'Elanna and the engineering team had found him by the shimmering warp core, walking around and around, shaking his head in amazement as it pulsed and filled the ship with thrumming life, then touching the walls to feel the texture of that hum through his fingers. His own warp drive was primitive by comparison, capable of travel only to Warp Two Point Five – Three if pushed, as it had been when he had been challenged by the swarm – and although the principles were the same, it was clear there were many things about the drive he did not really understand. He listened with great care and attention as B'Elanna showed him how to maintain the EPS manifolds for maximum efficiency, and spent hours with Vorik pouring over the alternative designs of the matter-antimatter reaction chamber.

The holodeck, where Tom and Harry had taken him one evening was a source of utter delight to the Droza'anian, as were the replicators. Although unlike Neelix, who had gone on a serious binge the first time he had encountered that technology, Th'lan had used them sparingly and only with permission, to replicate a few things that would ease his life onboard his little vessel. He understood very clearly the concept of rationing.

But the thing that had appeared to be the greatest source of wonder to him were the people. Time and again Voyager's officers spotted him simply observing the unrehearsed dance of crew members leaving and taking their stations at shift change; the buzz of the mess hall at meal times; the wordless communication or quick commands as problems were addressed and resolved; or the grace of the ship's pilot wheeling around the helm console.

"So many," he whispered more than once, "So many …"

He asked questions both simple and complex. Curious, interested, inquisitive. In exchange, he talked readily and eagerly about his ship, and provided all the required technical specs for its shielding. He spoke of how he sustained himself on his journey, where certain metals could be found, which star systems to avoid. He even gave the Captain the coordinates for his home world, where they would find certain supplies they would need for their own use.

But not once did Marok Th'lan speak about his own people, their explorations, or their travels – and not once did he speak about going home.

As they were standing beside his little ship, now patched up and in better shape than it had been before – possibly ever - Tom couldn't stand it any longer. But he also knew better than to ask directly the question that burned on his mind.

"We're headed in the direction of Droza'an, as you know," he said. "And we'll likely stop off there to see if we can trade for deuterium and gallicite. You – and I believe I speak for all of us," he glanced at the Captain, who gave him an encouraging nod, "would be more than welcome to come with us. We'll be there in two weeks. It would take you, what, another three years to get home at Warp Two?"

"I will not be going home, Tom Paris," he said in a soft, but determined voice.

"Not now? Or not ever?" Harry chimed in.

"My journey takes me elsewhere," the Droza'anian said. "I have seen my home, and now I wish to see other places."

Janeway looked at him thoughtfully. The need to explore, to find the unknown: she knew that those in the shuttle bay shared it, and felt it deeply. It was what had initially drawn them all into Starfleet, no matter what detours some of their lives had taken before they found themselves on Voyager and rekindled that special flame. But at the end of each discovery, each new sight, each new experience there was always the call of home - on this ship more than any other.

"Surely there are people on your home world who are wondering what you have seen, how you have fared, how you are?"

Th'lan's shoulders slumped a little; his eyes stopped nictating and took on a faraway look. Then he straightened, and breathed deeply before responding. When he spoke, he sounded resolved and firm.

"There is nothing for me on Droza'an, Captain. But if your journey does take you there, please tell my people I send greetings and that I will gladly return as soon as someone comes to find me."

And with those enigmatic words he climbed up into the hatch of his vessel. Turning once, he inclined his head in thanks.

"Well met, fellow travellers. I thank you with all my being for your allowing me to journey with you for a ways, for your hospitality and your help. Tom Paris, my friend, do reflect on my words. Captain, to you and your fine crew - Safe Home."

The door closed with a metallic clunk. The little ship lifted off the shuttle bay floor slowly and without much grace; the force field across the open hatch made a crackling sound, as a moth might make, flying into a porch light on a summer's night. The ship went through the curtain and was gone, a pinpoint of brightness among the stars.

….

A Few Days later

"These are the coordinates Th'lan provides, but sensors can't seem to be getting a grip on the planet, Captain."

"Excuse me, Mr. Kim? Can you be just a bit more precise?"

"Well, there is clearly a planet there, but our sensors seem to be … bouncing off it."

"You mean it's under cloak?" Chakotay asked, punching commands into his chair console in an attempt to re-create whatever Harry was trying to describe.

Tom made a few adjustments to the instruments on the conn, and a blue-green planet with three major landmasses came into view on the main screen.

"Hey, what'd you do?" Harry exclaimed in surprise. Tom shrugged smugly.

"Sometimes it pays just to look."

Janeway gave him a hard glare, utterly devoid of the indulgent forgiveness she often seemed to find for her helmsman's forays into smart-aleckitry. Hastily, he amended, "I recalibrated visual projection to the shield harmonic frequencies that Th'lan gave to B'Elanna. I figured if he's using shields instead of weapons as his primary self-defense, so might they."

"I did not know, Mr. Paris, that you were capable of such logical conclusions," Tuvok remarked frostily from the tactical console. "But it appears to have been a correct deduction."

"Gee, thanks, Tuvok," Tom muttered under his breath as he adjusted the ship's course to a stable orbit around the planet. "I guess I should take that as a compliment."

Janeway stepped forward and clapped her hand on Tom's shoulder, giving the pilot his due recognition in partial atonement for her earlier scowl. "Well done, Tom," she said, before turning to Harry Kim.

"Ensign, please rescan, with the modulations Lieutenant Paris proposed."

"Aye Captain." Harry's fingers danced across the ops console for a few seconds, then he looked up with a frown.

"It's working! I now get plenty of readings, several million life forms – all Droza'anian, like Th'lan – and evidence of a well-developed and highly industrialized society. But there's nothing to indicate warp capability, or even any space travel activity. All there is, is a network of satellites. And those are probably just being used for surface communications, or to create that deflecting shield our sensors ran up against."

"That can't be right. They must have warp capability. Hold orbit, Mr. Paris and please, check again, Mr. Kim."

For days now they had travelled through what appeared to be uninhabited space. Clearly, the activities of the Swarm had kept the neighbourhood relatively free from casual space traffic, but Marok Th'lan had most certainly been travelling in a warp-engine powered vessel. Surely that denoted the requisite technological advancement on the part of his people?

"I need not remind you, Captain, that if we cannot verify evidence of warp capability, we are prevented from establishing contact with the Droza'anians by the Prime Directive."

Janeway sighed. Tuvok. Trust him to quote Starfleet regulations when Voyager was low on deuterium and gallicite, and this planet offered the possibility to obtain one or the other, possibly both. The gallicite was critical for a long-overdue refit of the ship's aging warp coils; they could not go much longer without it. Weeks, maybe months. Certainly not sixty-eight years.

Harry kept punching commands into his console, extending sensor range, looking for warp signatures, evidence of launch platforms - anything. To no avail. He slapped the control panel in frustration.

Once Tom had established a stable orbit around the planet, he turned to Janeway who was still standing beside the conn. Still smarting from her earlier death glare, he asked, ever so politely, "Permission to make a suggestion, Captain?"

She nodded, and he explained his idea.

"When we were looking for Chakotay's ship in the Badlands, you said you could find their residual warp signature. Maybe Th'lan's is the only type of warp engine they've developed around here. He did tell us we shouldn't expect travellers from his planet, and perhaps this is what he meant - there aren't very many of them. So maybe Harry should scan for residual traces of that exact signature, rather than for ongoing traffic."

Harry looked over at Chakotay, who nodded his assent. He punched a few more commands, refined readings, checked and checked again, shaking his head, mumbling silent imprecations against whoever it was that made junior ops officers into everyone's gophers, from Captain to pilot. Finally he straightened and looked at Janeway.

"One single residual warp signature, almost completely decayed. Based on what I get, it's at least five years old, Captain. And it matches that of Th'lan's ship. But there's definitely nothing else. That's it. One single ship."

Janeway chewed her fingernail briefly, before turning to Chakotay. "We know for a fact that a Droza'anian is in possession of a warp-powered starship, however small. Thanks to Ensign Kim, we now have evidence of a warp signature originating from his home planet. In my view, conditions for first contact have been fulfilled. Would you agree?"

Chakotay nodded his assent. Tuvok raised an eyebrow and was just getting ready to provide his own opinion on the matter, when Harry Kim cleared his throat.

"Excuse me Captain, but this discussion may be ... err … academic. We are being hailed. From the surface."

Janeway exchanged glances with Chakotay, who pursed his lips and shrugged. "On screen, Harry," he said.

The flickering, somewhat blurry image of a Droza'anian appeared on the screen. His appearance, on a superficial basis, was similar to Th'lan's, but there were subtle differences. His skin was not as mottled, and he looked …

"It's a … kid," Tom blurted out, utterly failing to contain his surprise.

As if on cue, a voice came over the comm, quavering a little underneath a heroic attempt to sound Impressive, but succeeding only in conveying a sense of breathless amazement.

"Alien starship, state your business." The frown accompanying the apparently scripted demand fooled no one on the bridge, especially as the universal translator saw fit to reproduce a distinct shaking in the young alien's voice.

"Hello to you too," Janeway smiled. She turned to Chakotay, and whispered, "Why do I feel like I should ask him to transfer me to his leader?"

More seriously, she said, "I am Captain Kathryn Janeway, of the Federation Starship Voyager. I bring greetings from Marok Th'lan, one of your people, whom we met a little while ago. He told us we might find some supplies for our onward journey on your planet and …"

She was not allowed to finish. Their interlocutor let out a yelp of undisguised excitement. "You have seen Marok Th'lan? He lives?"

"Yes, he does. And he indicated to us that we might be able to trade with you for some important commodities we need. Is there … someone we might speak with about a possible arrangement?"

The speaker at the other end was practically bouncing up and down with excitement now, even as Harry had a hard time keeping the transmission stable.

"We have been keeping this sensor station going for a long time, in the hope that we might hear from him. Or … about him. It has been over eight rotations since he left. We've been scanning all frequencies, me and Lera and P'Rem and the others, every day and night, but until now there has never been anything …"

Janeway cleared her throat and interrupted him, kindly but firmly, before his evident enthusiasm turned into a stream-of-consciousness rant. "As I was saying, is there anyone to whom we can speak about obtaining some supplies?"

The young man on the screen stopped, and looked around as if unsure what to do. "Yes, yes of course … Captain. Just … give me a moment, and I will get Professor Coll. She'll know what to do." He reached for something just outside the range of the viewer, and the screen went dark.

"What the …" Chakotay started, before reconsidering what language might be appropriate for use on the bridge, or by a member of the command team.

Tom Paris saw no particular reason to be circumspect, but then he rarely did. "Guess he's into saving electricity and turned the lights off. Whatever they got going down there, it sure ain't Starfleet Headquarters - more like amateur hour," he muttered to himself, but without much effort to keep his voice down. He turned around to face Janeway and Chakotay. "Judging by the excitement we generated, I'd say we got pinged by something like the night watch at the SETI institute. If we're lucky, there's adult supervision around."

Harry looked a bit non-plussed. "SETI?" he asked. Sometimes his friend could be pretty opaque.

"The 'Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence'," Chakotay supplied with a small, appreciative grin. He and Paris didn't always see eye to eye, but they did share a certain geekish obsession with the early days of space travel on Earth - and he could see the helmsman's point. "Twentieth and twenty-first century attempts to make first contact with alien species."

Tom nodded. "They monitored radio signals from space, in the hope of finding evidence of transmissions from little green men." His eyes flicked over to Tuvok, and he manfully suppressed a mischievous grin at the sight of the Vulcan's raised eyebrow.

Instead, he added, more seriously, "But they didn't get much government funding, just for the occasional project, or they might just have found something much sooner than they eventually did. The tragedy of early space exploration on Earth, Harry – lack of commitment and lack of money cost us the better part of a century in terms of development. There are certain limitations when global interests have to rely on private enterprise, just because the politicians can't get their shit together."

Janeway cast him a lingering, thoughtful look. There were times when her helmsman delivered himself of surprisingly mature observations, however crudely expressed.

After what seemed like an interminable wait - some twenty minutes or so ship standard time - the screen came back to life. What had to be a female Droza'anian appeared, with the young man of a few minutes ago hovering anxiously in the background, his rapidly nictating eyes conveying his still-unbridled excitement. Their new interlocutor was more restrained, a little tense, and much more formal.

"Starship Voyager, welcome to Droza'an. My name is Lardith Coll. I understand that you are interested in procuring supplies from my world, and that you have news of one of my …" she stumbled a little but recovered quickly. "… One of my colleagues, Marok Th'lan. You will understand that I am not in a position to initiate diplomatic contact with you, but if you give me a few hours I will arrange a meeting with a senior government official. Would that be acceptable?"

Janeway and Chakotay exchanged glances. Did they have much of a choice? Voyager needed the isotopes and the metal …

Janeway turned to the screen. "That would be more than acceptable, Professor Coll. I would be prepared to come down to your planet, or to receive a delegation of your representatives here on board, as you prefer. I look forward to hearing from you; we will keep this communications channel open."

…..

The small away team, led by the Captain and composed of Tom Paris, Harry Kim and the big security officer, Mike Ayala, materialized at the precise coordinates indicated by Lardith Coll. The location appeared to be the interior courtyard of a large, multi-story white building that practically screamed "Government".

"Guess they don't want us to be seen by the general public," Tom whispered to Harry Kim. "Maybe they're afraid we might cause a riot, or at the very least mild consternation."

Voyager's pilot and ops officer were not normally included in diplomatic missions, but Janeway had thought that perhaps the two junior officers' close acquaintance with Marok Th'lan might pave the way for amicable and fruitful discussions. Hearing Tom's whispered comment, she was beginning to have second thoughts. A seasoned diplomat he was not, despite an adolescence spent in the presence of the great and the good. Or maybe this was merely the contempt bred from over-exposure to gratuitous pomp?

Indeed, they were greeted by a number of officials, two of whom apparently quite senior, if the splendor of their dress was any indication. Professor Coll hovered discreetly – and largely ignored - in the background.

One of the elaborately dressed men visibly recoiled as he took in their guests' alien appearance. His bright-green eyes repeatedly travelled up and down Tom Paris' and Mike Ayala's bodies; both men towered at least a head above the tallest of the Droza'anians. For once in her life, Kathryn Janeway found herself grateful for her petite (and non-threatening) stature, although even that did not seem to lessen the man's obvious displeasure at their presence on his planet.

"Greetings, visitors," the shorter of the two finally intoned, with a slight bow from what would have passed for his waist but for his rather excessive girth. "I am Chayak Ramas, and this is Chayak Ferron." With a slightly sour expression and a tone the universal translator readily interpreted as supercilious distaste, he added, "I believe you have made the acquaintance of Professor Coll already." He did not bother to introduce any of the others, in a clear indication of their insignificance.

"Thank you for receiving us, gentlemen," Janeway responded with a deliberately broad smile. "Even though our arrival appears to have been a bit unexpected ..." She introduced the away team in its entirety, having quickly determined that while assessing their relative value and leaving one or two of them out might increase her stature with the Droza'anians, it would not go down well with her crew. And there were things Kathryn Janeway was not prepared to sacrifice to the dictates of someone else's idea of propriety.

Two hours and a number of excruciating speeches later, Janeway had obtained agreement from the two Chayaks – clearly a title given to senior politicians – that Voyager could take away some fifty kilograms of deuterium. The amount was an exceedingly generous one that would fuel the ship's matter-antimatter converters for several months; the condition was Voyager's immediate departure.

Arrangements for the transfer of the isotope from a storage site in the planet's capital into Voyager's own tanks were quickly made via comm link between Harry and B'Elanna. Mike Ayala – to the envious glare of the plot and ops officer - was detailed to supervise the movement, together with two members of the engineering team who were beamed directly to the new coordinates.

The fact that their hosts refused to accept payment for the deuterium isotopes almost made up for their visible ungraciousness and their unwillingness to part with even a small amount of gallicite. As Ramas explained, the metal was used in the protective shield grid the Droza'anians had invested in to keep their world safe from alien intruders.

Like Voyager. Like you. The accusation hung unspoken in the room, encasing an already frosty atmosphere in ice.

With an inward sigh, Janeway resigned herself to future detours to find a reasonably promising gallicite source. And kept smiling.

But while the arrangements for much-needed supplies had gone rather well, at least in the result even if the atmospherics left a great deal to be desired, one thing the away team had not been given was the slightest indication of interest in the well-being, or indeed the existence, of Marok Th'lan. In fact, Janeway's first mention of his name had drawn an irritated headshake and frown from both politicians, and a quick change of topic. This was followed by a clapping of hands that brought on the serving of a sweetish, but not unpleasant beverage, and a few trays of bite-sized food that would, in Tom's opinion, have done Neelix proud in its spiciness and bizarre looks and texture.

Whether the food was being presented as a matter of course or as a diversion tactic was anyone's guess, but Tom Paris, as good a reader of behavioural nuance as anyone, was convinced it was the latter. He raised a questioning eyebrow at his Captain and mouthed the name of Marok Th'lan, followed by a nudge in the direction of Lardith Coll. Janeway quietly nodded her agreement – yes, by all means, talk to her. Any further attempts to draw out the politicians on the matter would clearly be a waste of breath.

Tom took a demonstrative sip of his sweetwine – the term the translator had assigned to the unfamiliar beverage – and turned to Coll with a smile. The professor had remained largely silent during the discussions and reception, but whether this was by decree or inclination was difficult to tell. She did, however, seem only too pleased to engage in a discussion on her own area of specialty, astrophysics. Since this had been Tom's own major at Starfleet Academy, they quickly found common ground, as well as novel perspectives for comparison.

When he considered that a sufficient comfort level had been established, Tom decided it was time to go for broke.

"Marok Th'lan," he said bluntly, but softly. "Who exactly is he, and why does no one here seem to want to talk about him?"

Coll's skin took on a slightly more mottled appearance, and she swallowed visibly. Her head turned left and right several times in quick succession, and her tongue darted across her lips repeatedly. She looked around the room once more, swallowed, and took a deep breath.

In a much louder voice than she had previously used, she announced, "But of course I would be happy to show you the gardens, Tom Paris. I can certainly understand how our plant life here would be of interest to you."

She rose gracefully and motioned Tom to set down his drink, which he did without much regret. He followed her out, Harry Kim in tow. Janeway sent an envious glance after them as she looked up from the lecture she was receiving from Chayak Ferron. The price of command, at times, was death by a thousand words.

In the courtyard, Coll fixed Tom and Harry with a defiant stare. "Marok Th'lan was a professor of engineering at my university, and together with my father and colleagues from the applied physics department he developed something that he thought would allow a space ship to travel faster than light. People like Chayaks Ramas and Ferron will tell you that he was a disturbing influence on Droza'anian society, with his ideas that we should leave our planet and explore space."

She paused for a moment, then looked from Tom to Harry. "But he succeeded, despite all the obstacles thrown in his way."

Tom nodded slowly. "But even his success does not appear to have been popular."

"No. No, it wasn't, for many reasons. Developing this … warp drive of his on a sufficiently wide basis to make it commercially or politically viable would have cost the government a fortune. And the Chayakdar of the time had been telling everyone that they would be cutting taxes, while at the same time they were setting up the defensive shield around our planet. People here are generally … not very tolerant."

Tom shook his head. "I suppose Th'lan's idea of heading out in the galaxy and meeting the neighbours wasn't exactly consistent with that approach… And I get that promising to reduce taxes while spending zillions on megaprojects doesn't leave much cash for exploration. Sounds like your politicians are just as much of a short-sighted bunch of idiots as ours."

"But don't they understand that some things take time, and will result in benefits down the road?" Harry was outraged. "Not to mention the fact that exploration of space … is worthwhile in its own right."

"I do not know how politics works in your world," Coll said, her words filled with resignation. "But here, elections to the Chayakdar take place every six rotations. And so the Chayaks, naturally, think in six-rotation increments. If something doesn't bring a result by the time they're up for re-election, they're simply not interested."

"But surely Th'lan could have demonstrated the usefulness of his mission within that timeframe?" Harry was still perplexed. "As in, go have a look, report back on whether there are useful things to find?"

"Possibly. But with the focus on the creation of the planetary shield, certain political factions decided to make him out to be some kind of eccentric nutcase, an enemy of Droza'an who was trying to bring down on their heads precisely the danger they were going to protect the people against. He never got any funding for his research or for his space ship, and almost ended up in jail. Twice, he was even beaten up by paid thugs who told him to stop talking about this engine of his. And so …"

Tom sighed, knowing already what was coming. "And so he built it himself." In his mind's eye he saw Marok Th'lan, so self-conscious about the rough-hewn state of his little vessel that he almost refused Voyager's help. His delight and sadness at seeing what was possible, once they had brought him onboard.

"Yes. Some people, like my father, helped him quietly, with money, materials and things. And he somehow managed to get his hands on one of the hulls used to deliver the shield satellites into orbit, and used that as the basis for his ship."

Harry shook his head. No wonder Th'lan's vessel had had that … homemade look.

"And then, one day, about eight rotations ago, he left. He didn't tell anyone that his ship was ready; I assume it was because he was afraid someone might stop him. My father and he were close friends; even he didn't know, but he got a time-delayed message that Marok intended to explore the galaxy, even if no one else seemed interested. He said he would return …"

"… when someone would come to find him," Tom finished softly. She looked up at him, a yellowish liquid suddenly coating her eyes.

"You really did speak with him! Yes, that's exactly what he said in his message to my father. I can only wish …"

She blinked repeatedly, and looked from one officer to the other. "My father set up the sensor system that we used to find you, at the institute where I work now. He died two rotations ago. We were hoping to hear from Marok, or at least to get an irrefutable indication that there are things out there in the galaxy worth the cost of exploration."

"Oh, believe me, there are," Tom said, his eyes glittering a little. "Of course, not everything out there is pleasant, and some species and things are frankly best avoided altogether, but all in all the universe is a pretty amazing place. Your people have no idea what you're missing."

"I was raised to believe that there were wonders out there too many to count," Coll replied, with a sad smile. "Marok used to come to our house and tell me stories when I was younger, about worlds he made up. Worlds he made me want to see."

Tom and Harry looked at each other, both remembering the childlike awe with which Marok Th'lan had taken in every new sight, every new sound and sensation.

"And he is seeing those worlds now," Harry reassured her softly.

"I wish I could be there, with him," Coll said, with a faraway look in her eyes, and a fire that seemed to light her slit pupils from within. "You know, we have a saying on Droza'an: You have to chase your dream, into the highest skies and into the deepest caves. I guess he went higher than most."

Tom nodded slowly. "Yeah, that he did. But he hasn't caught it yet."

"What do you mean? I thought you said …"

"You, or others like you, have to follow him out there. Only then will his dream be complete. Don't you see?" He was about to say more, when his comm badge chirped.

"Janeway to Paris. I believe we are done here. Please say your goodbyes. I will join you in the courtyard shortly for beam-out." Less than a minute later she appeared, marching resolutely ahead of the two Chayaks and their posse of irrelevant bureaucrats.

"I am just dying to get out of here," she confided to Tom in a most un-Captainly manner, as soon as she got within whispering range. "If I hear one more pompous politician telling me, with a completely sincere smile, why their perfect world must not be contaminated by the likes of us, I will surely scream."

Tom suppressed a snort before turning to say a heartfelt farewell to Lardith Coll; the politicians had wasted no time with their departure. Only one of the bureaucrats had lingered, presumably to make sure the aliens would actually leave, and to raise the alarm if they did not.

Tom held both of the young professor's hands in his own and held her gaze for a moment, before saying in a low voice pitched only for her hearing, "Keep chasing the dream, Lardith Coll."

Smiling, she replied, "Into the highest skies. Thank you, Tom Paris and Harry Kim."

The Captain hit her comm badge. "Janeway to Chakotay. Has the deuterium transfer been completed?"

"Yes, it has, Captain, and Ayala and the engineering team are back onboard. Congratulations. They were very generous and gave us even more than they had initially agreed. Our tanks are full."

"No congratulations necessary, Commander. I think they just wanted to make sure we would actually leave. And we still have to look for gallicite." She sighed a little.

"Three to beam up."

….

"Zephram Cochrane," Tom said, as he contemplated his synthale.

"Huh?" Harry was momentarily stymied. "What about Zephram Cochrane?"

"That's who we met at Voldak, Har. Marok Th'lan. He's the Droza'anians' Zephram Cochrane. Except they don't know it yet. Some day they will, I'm sure of that. People like Lardith Coll and that geeky student of hers will make it happen."

Harry looked at him skeptically, and Tom broke out in an impish grin. "And who knows, maybe the glorious day when he met two strangers in a bar will become part of the legend. Since we provided the first evidence of what he'd accomplished, even if they didn't want to listen."

Harry reflected for a few moments, frowned his question. "You think they'll really do it?"

"Do what, Har?"

"Reconstruct that warp drive of his and go find him."

Tom chewed his lower lip. When he replied, it was with a measure of contempt in his voice. "Yeah. I think they will. If only to execute the arrest warrant."

Harry stared at him. "Arrest warrant? What the hell are you talking about?"

"Treason, Harry, treason. Think about it. People have allowed themselves to be subjected to torture to avoid giving out the frequencies for the Federation's defense system. Marok Th'lan basically handed us a map and the key to Droza'an. You will recall, that fat guy was none too pleased to see us. Th'lan, to all intents and purposes, allowed us to wander right in and demonstrate that their precious shield was useless. If we had been so inclined, we could have wiped out the capital with a single photon blast. And he made it possible."

"You really think he did that on purpose? To provide them with the incentive to move beyond the shield, and by essentially hanging out the 'come get me' sign for them?" Harry was skeptical, but intrigued.

Tom smiled and slowly nodded. "He is many things, is Marok Th'lan. An inventer, an explorer, and a kid in a huge toy shop. But he is not stupid. So, yeah. He did it on purpose. Made us into his calling card."

He lifted his glass. "To Marok Th'lan, wherever you may be."

They clinked glasses and sat in companionable silence. Harry watched the small bubbles rise in his synthale, while Tom seemed deep in thought, chewing his lower lip. The susurrations of the chatter and laughter in Sandrine's Bar surrounded them with the comfort of the familiar, however far from home.

"Listen, I gotta go," Harry finally sighed. "Early shift tomorrow. So, for that matter, have you." The pilot remained silent, as if he had not heard a word Harry had said. His mouth turned up in a barely-there smile as he turned the glass in his hands around and around, without looking at it. His attention instead seemed fixed on something across the room.

Following Tom's line of sight, Harry spotted B'Elanna Torres in animated discussion with Chakotay and another former member of their former Maquis crew. She looked in their direction and smiled fleetingly, but averted her gaze quickly when she became aware of the heat in Tom's bright blue eyes.

"Penny for your thoughts, Tom," Harry said as he rose.

Tom Paris' eyes narrowed a little, but they did not stray from their target as he too got up from his seat. His voice, when it came, was soft and a little husky.

"Just chasing a dream, Har. Just chasing a dream."

He clapped his best friend on the back and added, "And you know what, Harry? I think will. Chase it, I mean. Into the highest skies, and into the deepest caves."


In tribute to the men and women who dedicated – and in some cases gave – their lives to the success of NASA's shuttle program. For all too brief a time they turned the dream of space travel into tangible reality, before political choices rooted in a lack of long-term vision won the day. I do hope the setback is temporary.