AUTHOR'S NOTE: Some of you have been waiting patiently for Tom's first adventure as Captain of Voyager. You still would be, but for Runawaymetaphor's amazing willingness to provide the requisite acerbic encouragement. Thanks also to Snow6835, for suggesting some time ago that I allow some space in this venture to show Tom's crewmates' reaction to his promotion. (Janeway's is dealt with in "In the Moonlight", which takes place the evening before this one begins).
In order to preserve certain plot elements I won't get into details about themes here (except to observe that sometimes, promotion can be a double-edged sword…). Just one personal note: I spent some very happy childhood hours on a sailboat built by my late uncle; he named it after Bellatrix, the star that forms the right shoulder of the constellation of Orion. This is pure coincidence, of course, and only occurred to me after I started writing this story. But perhaps it's a fitting reminder of the many different ways in which we become who we are - more often than not in response to the opportunities we are offered or the choices we make - or those that we are denied. I know I got lucky.
Paramount owns everything except the story, and the locations and characters that exist only in my own personal post-Endgame universe. (Please see my profile page for a list of the stories that precede this one; reading those is not essential, but might help you appreciate some internal references.) And before you ask – yes, the title pays homage to Ridley Scott's Bladerunner, one of the best sci fi movies of all time; I don't own that, either. I write for fun, not profit.
OFF THE SHOULDER OF ORION
By Alpha Flyer
The more freedom we enjoy, the greater the responsibility we bear,
toward others as well as ourselves.
Oscar Arias Sanchez
She sits tightly curled in a corner in her tiny, windowless quarters, cradling a cup of hot raktajino from the public replicator on the promenade. Her sensitive skin is not taking well to the ambient temperature on the station, kept low to increase the owners' profits; she shivers in the near dark. And so she holds the cup tightly with both hands, grateful more for the warmth it will gift her chilled fingers than for the stimulants it contains - although these are what she will need.
What you need is not always what you want.
It has been a long evening already, but her work is not yet done. In the artificial light of the space station, where night and day blend into one, she knows there are clients waiting to watch her dance, perhaps for more. She sighs a little, although last night had been lucrative; the delegation from Andor had been generous and the Ambassador not unkind, afterwards.
Kindness is relative.
But all things considered, she would have preferred servicing the Ferengi. They are stingy with their tips but would always honour a deal – especially since she excels at Oomax, the stroking of earlobes. Ferengi usually travel in packs of three or four, and she can have them all passed out in bliss within an hour or two. Easy money. Those nights she makes quota early, and can go back to her quarters after the accounting, to count the money she is saving to buy out her contract.
Money is the path to freedom.
They had promised, when she was first being trained, that she would be able to buy out her contract after twenty years, earlier if she could pay the penalty. But somehow the money does not seem to accumulate as quickly as they had said; even the regular buy-out date seems to recede further each month. Fifteen years to go – and there are always medical bills to be paid, new dancing outfits to be replicated. The rent on her spare little room, owned by her employer, has been raised twice already since her arrival; the occasional small indulgence, like the raktajino she is holding now, is a luxury she grants herself rarely.
Fifteen years is a lifetime.
Time to go; her break is over. She hopes that tonight will yet be good, just a few more dances, some teasing conversation, maybe a short encounter or two in a darkened corner of the bar, or in the suite on Deck Three for those who can afford more. Right now, things are not too bad. It has been a while since she has been beaten - her dermal and osteo-regenerators are fully charged, just in case – and she has reason to hope that her luck has finally turned. The clients at this station seem to have less … exotic tastes than those at her last assignment, and pay reasonably well. She can almost accept what she is, here. Almost.
Acceptance is surrender.
But as she passes the mirror on the wall, the one beside the door that will tell her, as she leaves her room, whether she is beautiful enough to light up the night, she pauses for a moment to reflect what else she is. What she wants to be.
Not … this.
Every day she watches for them as she dances for others; she watches and waits - for the men and women in the grey uniforms. Once or twice, she has listened to their laughter, their carefree banter; heard them boast about where they have been, talk with shining eyes about where they are going. They come here rarely though and have not for some time, but she dreams of their return. She wants to be of them, not with them. She has heard it is possible, even for her kind, has heard the whispered tales of hope. Impossible dreams, but ...
Dreams sustain her.
She puts her hand on the pad that opens the door. Once, dreaming of a space where she can be herself, not what she has been made into, she tried to program the door so that it would open only for her, for the touch of her finger alone. They showed her how easy it was to defeat this type of lock. Not with her own finger of course - she has to remain unblemished, for the clients. But the point had been made and she has not tried to lock herself away from them again.
The moment will come when there would be only her.
She will bide her time.
Chapter 1 – Beginnings
San Francisco, Earth
"Captain on the Bridge."
The little whistle intoned the ceremonial doo-wee-oo as Tom Paris exited the turbolift and walked onto the bridge, flanked by an honour guard that consisted of his best friend, Harry Kim, and his former commanding officer, Captain William Riker.
Suppressing the little shiver that had run down his spine at the whistle – knowing it sounded for him - he cast a look at the eclectic audience assembled on Voyager's bridge, and swallowed.
The number of admirals on the bridge exceeded the requirements of the occasion; he supposed he should be flattered. Of course, Kathryn Janeway was there, she had to be. Seated in the command chair that had been hers for so many years, she stroked its arm unconsciously with slender, delicate fingers, as if to memorize its texture. She gave Tom a private smile as their eyes caught briefly.
His father had come, of course, beaming with pride, in uniform despite his official retirement. And Tom was more than pleased to see Jean-Luc Picard, who had selected him for advanced command training at the Kirk Centre just over two years ago - over the express reservation of some of his colleagues, as Tom had later learned.
But seeing Hayes and Bullock, not to mention Fleet Admiral Alynna Nacheyev, standing behind Janeway – now that was a surprise. Tom could only assume that the Ice Queen had summoned her favourite sidekicks to make them help her atone for the wringer through which they had put Tom and Will, just a few short weeks ago, when her orders had made them into Starfleet's unwitting poster boys for changes to the Prime Directive. The outcome of the trial, and the admiralty's possible role in it, were still being debated in the media.
Nonetheless, this was a time to be gracious, and Tom inclined his head towards what he privately considered Starfleet's Unholy Trinity, in official recognition of the honour he knew was being bestowed upon him. He had, after all, been born and bred for moments like this and could play the game, when called upon, with the best of them. Nacheyev returned his polite acknowledgement with a thin-lipped smile, and a reciprocal slight bow of the head.
Tom scanned the crowded bridge. His face lost its tension and he broke out in a smile when he spotted the family members he had been allowed to invite. B'Elanna winked at him as she held onto Miral, to stop her from running up to him as per the little girl's usual habit when she had been separated from her Daddy for longer than half an hour. His mother and sisters and their boys, who seemed to be far more interested in inspecting the gleaming, blinking consoles of the ship than they were in paying respect to the uncle they had tied to a tree only a couple of days before.
Then there were the close friends and colleagues from Voyager and the Enterprise: Seven of Nine, Chakotay, Deanna Troi, Jorak, the Delaneys. The EMH, trying to make his bulky holocam as inconspicuous as he could, lest anyone might think its presence reflected anything other than diffident appreciation for a routine ceremony. Last but definitely not least, there was Princess Lissan of Andoria, in her first-year cadet uniform. She was practically bouncing up and down with excitement at being permitted to watch a Captain's instatement so soon into her time with Starfleet. Tom grinned at her fondly, resisting the temptation to greet Her Imperial Highness with the "Hey, Tigger!" he had taken to using whenever she commed him privately for advice.
Tom drew a deep breath. He bounded down the stairs, willing his feet to head for the Captain's chair rather than the conn, and came to attention before Admiral Kathryn Janeway. They looked into each other's eyes for a moment, the memories of seven shared years and a moonlit remembrance of the night before passing silently between them.
He spoke the words, past the sudden catch in his throat.
"I relieve you."
Blinking back a tear, her voice like steel on gravel, Janeway gave the traditional response.
"I am relieved."
She rose and shook Tom's hand, held it a moment longer than perhaps strictly necessary, before stepping aside to let him take the seat that had been hers. With a deep breath, he did.
And felt himself sinking down much lower than he had expected, suppressing an "oof" as gravity conspired to make his landing a lot less dignified than he had hoped.
Oh, great. First fifteen seconds as Captain, and already landed on my butt.
His former Captain's face cracked into a grin and he glared at her, utterly oblivious to just how much he looked like his father in that moment. Of course – it was set for her, and she hadn't raised it when getting up. Harry Kim behind him suppressed a snort.
"You called it last night, Tom," Janeway said sweetly.
Ah, yes. He'd called her a bitch – in good sport of course, and they had both laughed about it. But he should have known there'd be repercussions ... The glare in his eyes turned into an appreciative gleam.
"A Captain is always right, ma'am," he said, leaving no doubt as to which Captain he meant. Then with his most gracious smile, he added, for the benefit of the guests on the bridge, "I guess the chair was still set for the children, and the maintenance crew just forgot to readjust it."
For the last two years, Voyager had rested on the grounds of Starfleet Academy, visited by thousands of children who were only to happy to pretend to be Captain of Voyager for a minute, to have their holograph taken, and dream. Janeway bit her lip to stop herself from acknowledging the double riposte, and raised her eyes to the Fleet Admiral, who had been observing the little exchange with her usual frigidly pleasant half-smile.
Nacheyev spoke. "Congratulations, Captain Paris. I understand you have a docking appointment at McKinley now. A berth is reserved. I assume you will want to ensure that the flight window is not missed."
Now? As in, immediately? With everyone aboard?
"Err, with all due respect, Voyager doesn't have a crew yet. And … " he almost stumbled over the words, "she … doesn't have a pilot."
"I'm told, Captain, that you used to be a pretty fair pilot yourself," said the woman who had personally signed off on his citation for the Distinguished Flying Cross, her tone pleasantly bland. "And I am not aware, on the other hand, of anyone else I would trust to get this ship out of its current site without inflicting major damage on the surrounding buildings. So, please, do go ahead. Now."
She looked around the bridge, raising an eyebrow. "I'm sure there are a few people here who know how to get a starship off the ground?"
The light dawned on Tom Paris as he watched Picard's eyes glitter, lost in some memory or other, that his father – who was now grinning from ear to ear and nudging his wife with his elbow - had mentioned once or twice the Starfleet tradition of making newly-minted Captains suffer a little on their first day of command, but Tom had hoped Janeway's little ploy with the chair would be it. Or that Harry, Will or B'Elanna would come up with some … more private form of humiliation in the course of the day. He certainly had not expected any hazing rituals to involve the senior admiralty.
Fine. So be it.
"Will?" he turned to his friend and former Captain, gesturing to the First Officer's chair. Riker inclined his head graciously and took the indicated seat after exchanging glances with Chakotay, whose civilian clothing had removed him from consideration for this very special assignment.
"Harry, Ops? B'Elanna, Seven …" The former Voyager officers grinned broadly or, in the case of Seven of Nine, allowed their lips to curl slightly, and took their former stations with practiced ease.
Janeway suppressed a throaty chuckle as Tom Paris tried to peel his long frame out of the Captain's chair with his usual grace, and failed miserably. His centre of gravity was too low and his knees at far too high an angle, and he fell back with an unceremonious thud. Casting a wounded look at his wife, who was trying her very hardest not to double over the engineering station in an extremely unKlingon-like giggle fit, he issued a soft command to the computer to adjust the chair, managed to get out of it with some salvaged dignity, and stepped down to the conn.
"Oh, Captain?" Nacheyev's uninflected voice rang across the suddenly silent bridge. "When you landed this ship on the grounds, you made a rather … interesting detour. In the interest of symmetry it would be only fitting if you did so again."
Tom couldn't believe his ears. Was the head of Starfleet seriously inviting him to do a fly-by through the Golden Gate Bridge? Was this some kind of test?
"I believe we were advised last time that proper authorization is required to fly close to a national monument, Admiral," Tom said virtuously, even as his long fingers punched certain commands into the console.
Nacheyev responded crisply and stood a little straighter. "I understand that a flight plan has been filed on your behalf with Bay Area Traffic Control; please proceed."
Harry chimed in from Ops "The skies are clear, Captain." There was a little catch in his throat, but he beamed at Tom when his friend turned to look at him, and gave him a private little nod.
Tom shrugged and smiled to himself. Those assurances weren't quite the same things as authorization from the Historical Parks Commission, but … whatever. Following potentially unlawful orders was not always a good thing, but he was prepared to make an exception for this one. Besides, the city was unlikely to argue with the area's major employer and economic powerhouse; in fact, holovids from Voyager's previous fly-by were still for sale in all the tourist stores, earning revenue for the city. Might as well get them updated.
He cracked his knuckles and let his fingers fly over the conn. This felt so good, so right. Captain or no, this was where he belonged …
"Bay Area TC, this is USS Voyager. Taking off in five … four … three … two … ONE. We have lift-off."
As lightly as anything could with a dead weight of eighty-five thousand tonnes of metal, Voyager lifted off the grass and straight up into the morning sky. She cleared the surrounding academy buildings with ease, although Tom felt briefly tempted to vent some plasma into the bright pink mess building, which in his considered opinion was guilty of serving more botched meals and indigestible coffee-like substances than a thousand Neelixes. Cadets would erect monuments in his honour…
With an ostentatious – and utterly unnecessary – flourish of the wrist he moved the ship into position, heading straight to the Golden Gate Bridge.
"Five hundred meters, vector 179 Mark 8," Seven announced from her station in her flat alto voice.
"Target acquired," Harry could not resist tossing into the room. Tom broke out in a grin and dipped his ship's nose down, and up.
He knew he was not imagining the little gasp emanating from Admiral Nacheyev – did she really just pump her fist? - nor the little whoop coming from the normally staid Bullock, as the metal cable stays slid by at either side of the wide-angled view screen. Picard and Janeway clapped loudly, and were joined in the applause by everyone else on the bridge. Having cleared the obstacle, and studiously ignoring the frantic hails from Bay Area Traffic Control – flight plan, my ass - Tom turned around in his seat and grinned at his audience.
So, that was what this was really about, all this brass onboard. A chance for a bunch of senior admirals to go on a gratuitous joyride, like a gang of teenagers on a Saturday night. Based on what he knew of his father, opportunities to let loose got fewer and fewer, the higher one climbed up the food chain; Tom supposed that someone like Alynna Nacheyev could probably only ever let go anymore in the privacy of her shower. He found himself unaccountably pleased that he had been able to bring a little levity into the Ice Queen's day.
"Arriving at McKinley," Harry announced. "Cleared to dock at berth Beta Fifteen."
A few minutes later, the duranium arches of the station had opened their embrace, and the ship docked smoothly. Within minutes, a small fleet of shuttles surrounded her to carry out external hull verification; the business of getting her deep-spaceworthy had begun.
The whisper Janeway gave was for Tom's ears only; she had come up behind him during the short flight into orbit.
"She's back where she belongs. Thank you."
McKinley Station, four weeks later
During his mid-teen Sturm und Drang period, just before his rebellious streak started express itself in illicit shuttle adventures and raids of his father's wine cellar, the Admiral's son had looked – very briefly - to find himself in the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche. The infatuation had died a silent and ignominious death when the man's syntax got too complex, the words too long and he started rambling on about the idea of a "superman" - pretty much what Tom had been trying to get away from at the time. But the title of the first piece he'd read (and the only one he had actually finished) had stayed with him: 'The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music.'
And so Captain Paris, in finest procrastination mode, found himself mentally drafting a treatise on "The Birth of a Starship from the Spirit of Bureaucracy". Or was it "The Rise of a Captain from the Grave of Common Sense"? He ran his hand through his sandy hair for the umpteenth time, wishing the PADD in front of him would either go away altogether, or at least tell him what decisions to make. Multiple choice responses would be nice, with a melodious little ping to reward him when he got something right.
But even though Nietzsche had been dead for over half a millennium, there were still no supermen, and Tom was forced to operate in the real world. As a result, any decision he attempted to make inevitably ran into some regulation or other, and some supercilious – and usually über-Vulcan – bureaucrat informing him politely that "I regret to inform you that this cannot be done, Captain Paris."Thus spake Starfleet.
Being a Captain in the Alpha Quadrant, Tom decided as he wrecked his hair, was ninety percent administration, nine percent protocol, and one percent action. He was still awaiting his first formal assignment, having been given six weeks to staff up and make sure Voyager was space-worthy after two years on the ground.
The last part was the reason he hadn't seen much of his wife recently. She and Sue Nicoletti, her freshly-appointed Deputy, had gone over every centimetre of the ship. Following her promotion to full lieutenant, Sue had decided it was time to get back into space, and had practically crashed their door when Voyager's recommissioning was announced. Tom was convinced the two women were greeting each gelpack, each bio-neural circuit by name, like old friends with secret handshakes. So far so good; the ship seemed in excellent shape and her first shakedown flights had gone above expectations well.
Staffing, on the other hand, was the stuff of nightmares. Will Riker had made it perfectly clear that there would be no further poaching of his senior staff. No matter how happy he was for his friends, the Captain of the Enterprise felt mildly aggrieved that he was losing both his XO and Chief Engineer, after little over a year. The departure of Harry Kim, whom Tom was eying for first or second officer, would have to involve his decomposing corpse. Maybe in a year's time someone could come knocking on his ship's hull again, but for now he had given at the office.
Harry himself had been sorely tempted to push his Captain to release him from his assignment. He was in line for a promotion to Lieutenant Commander in any event, so that was not the attraction to move. But as he had explained to Libby, he couldn't really imagine serving without his best friends anymore. It was Tom himself who had rationalized that they both might just benefit from the absence of, respectively, their moral crutch and their Big Brother, at least for a while.
"Besides," Tom had told Harry with his trademark grin, "If I want to be a Real Captain, I'll probably need some time where everybody on board at least pretends to respect me."
Riker had, however, grudgingly allowed Mike Ayala's departure, once Tom had learned just how much of a poker game staffing negotiations actually were and that even a newly-minted Captain was not entirely without cards. A full Lieutenant now, he had gone to pack his bags as soon as Tom offered him the position of Chief of Security. With both sons now in the academy and his wife having moved on around the time the Hirogen trashed Voyager, Mike was perfectly content to stay in space. He had never asked for nor expected the career he found himself in now, but had discovered in it a source of profound pride and satisfaction. His outward response to Tom's offer had been seven words and a shrug, "Back on Voyager? Sure. Count me in." Tom had missed what the Enterprise's empathic counselor, who was present, did not: A deep sense of pleasure, and a promise. Mike Ayala would follow his new Captain anywhere.
Not that there was a shortage of qualified personnel applying for a posting on the newly re-commissioned ship. The name Voyager was deeply ingrained in Starfleet lore already, second seemingly only to the Enterprise herself; and much to his amazement Tom found that his captaincy seemed not to have turned people off too much.
He felt himself extraordinarily flattered that Tuvok had commended his own daughter, Lieutenant Commander Asil, to his attention for the position of Ops officer, and had hired her on the spot. Asil had started and completed her academy training, as well as a first assignment, while her father was still in the Delta Quadrant – not that the intensely private Commander, now an instructor at the Academy, had ever mentioned that fact after the letters started arriving.
Tom had also been more than gratified to see applications from a surprising number of ex-Voyager crewmembers, as well as from one Ensign Arno Schmidt. Decisions were easy in those cases; getting the transfers actually approved was quite another matter though.
Even the approval for B'Elanna to resume her position as Chief Engineer proved to be tricky. The issue of her being 'the Captain's wife' was resolved by recourse to precedent (after all, the flagship held such a couple). But then some helpful spark decided to become concerned for B'Elanna's career, given that she would return to the same position she had occupied for seven years as a mere Lieutenant (jg) – clearly a step backwards. It took B'Elanna herself, in full Klingon mode, to convince the well-meaning personnel officer that said Lieutenant Commander didn't give a tinker's damn – the actual language she used was far more colourful - where she served, as long as she could run her own engine room and go home to quarters containing her husband and child.
And so it went. Finally, in desperation, Tom had asked his father if he could borrow Nicole for a couple of weeks.
The queen of personal assistants, Nicole was pure duranium under a plush coating. Indeed, her grandmotherly appearance and demeanour hid a mind like a bank of lasers, and no one who knew her doubted that she would have been capable of joining the admiralty herself had she chosen that path. She specialized in stunning hapless bean counters with obscure regulations that she quoted off the top of her head, most of which, Tom had always suspected, she had either made up entirely or 'amended' (temporarily) by hacking into Starfleet's central data bank. She achieved in two days what he had failed to do in three weeks, and but for the certain knowledge that his father would kill him, he would have happily offered her a permanent job as protocol troubleshooter.
In rapid succession, Nicole freed Lieutenant Pablo Baytart from the shackles of a three-year assignment on the USS Mark Twain to become Voyager's chief pilot; discovered that there were in fact no regulations prohibiting the presence of family members or small school units on Intrepid-class ships (and contracted a civilian teacher the same day); and cut Schmidt's post-PTSD med clearance loose from a Gordian knot's worth of red tape.
And when the Auxiliary Crafts Division had laconically informed her that Voyager was 147th on the Fleet waiting list to receive one of the new Delta Flyer models, she blandly reminded Tom that it was the Captain's prerogative to bring a personal yacht onboard. A few short hours later, the Delta Flyer 2 was in the shuttle bay where she belonged, and Owen and Julia wistfully stared at a colourful play structure as the only remaining tangible evidence that children never really leave home.
Thanks to Hurricane Nicole, the stack of "to-do" PADDs before Tom had flattened significantly. Her major achievements of the morning had been to convince Accommodations to replace the mint-gelato upholstery Janeway had been stuck with for seven years – and which had suffered from two years of being fingered and sat on by tourists of varying size and cleanliness - with something in a warm blue-grey, and to get them to refrain from re-converting Neelix' kitchen into the standard-issue Captain's dining room. Tom had promised Chell that he could resume his short career as Voyager's on-board chef, since the little 'Delta Quadrant Qoffee Qorner' he had opened on Bolarus IX hadn't really caught on. Even with unlimited access to replicators, Tom thought the crew would appreciate the occasional meal prepared from scratch by a sociable individual.
But despite all the achievements of the last few days, two key positions remained to be filled – Chief Medical Officer and the all-important position of Executive Officer. And thus it was that Tom was sitting in the Captain's … his … ready-room, ruining his shortly-cropped hair with desperate hands.
The selection of XO he had little control over. First-time Captains were given no choice in the matter; even strong hints dropped on Owen Paris, in the hope that his father's influence still counted for something, had been useless. All Tom could do was sit and pray that he'd get as lucky as Picard had when his XO had been dropped on him by The Powers That Be. And fret, in case he wouldn't be.
But even when it came to deciding on a CMO, which was a matter for his own decision, Tom's own medical background had proven more a hindrance than a benefit. He found himself rejecting candidate after prospective candidate for perceived deficiencies, ranging from lack of experience in the use of nanoprobe technology to testimony of 'most charming' bedside manners. And so, he kept going over PADD after PADD, no longer looking for a CV that would scream "me, me, me!" but one that he could at least live with.
Tom considered comming his mother, fleeing to the holodeck, checking on Miral in the nursery, or using his executive privilege to try and reach Harry over subspace – anything, really, to get away from having to make a decision that deep in his heart he knew he would regret. But instead of doing any of these things he dutifully turned his attention back to the PADDs before him; his father would doubtless be proud knowing how far his son had come as an officer ...
He nearly wept with gratitude when the door chime sounded.
"Come in," he said eagerly. At this point, even a bureaucrat with ideas for deconstructing the bridge would be welcome… What he got was the EMH, mobile emitter pinned to his sleeve.
"Doc!" Tom exclaimed with an enthusiasm he would, only a few years ago, have considered evidence of an impending mental breakdown. (Perhaps it was?) "What brings you here? Great of you to stop by. I can sure use a timeout here." He clamped his mouth shut when he realized he was coming close to babbling.
The Doc tried to school his features into his usual supercilious manner, but his facial algorithms were affected by an unhelpful interface between old, un-dead habits and the programmed dictates of Starfleet protocol. Clearly, seeing his former assistant sitting in Captain Janeway's ready room as if he belonged there - and having to acknowledge that he did - was almost too much to process, and his forehead twitched a little.
"Good afternoon, Mr. … Captain Paris," he intoned, slightly aggrieved when Tom grinned openly at the fumble. "I came to inquire whether you have filled the position of Chief Medical Officer yet."
Tom brightened visibly, and set his PADD down with a clatter. "No, as a matter of fact, I haven't, and I was just in the process of reviewing personnel files. You're just in time to save my sanity, in fact. Maybe you could help me? By now you must have met most of Starfleet Medical, and …"
"… there is no one even remotely qualified to take over my Sickbay," the Doctor stated flatly. Tom's smile faded as rapidly as it had formed. This was not what he'd been hoping to hear.
"I do, however, have a solution to offer." The EMH paused.
Intrigued, Tom waited for him to continue. "You do? I'm listening."
Tom swallowed, confused. "You? But …" he paused, wondering how to politely rephrase what he'd almost blurted out, namely that for the last two years you've been bragging to everybody who would listen about how indispensible you are to Starfleet Medical. Maybe that fourth pip came with a concealed smartass remark dampener?
"… but I thought you were happy at the Academy."
"I was. I … am. But …" the EMH scrunched his lips in a familiar gesture of displeasure mixed with exasperation. "The truth is, I find myself bored. My brief time on the Enterprise showed me that what I miss is being in space, saving lives under extraordinary circumstances." He broke into a beatific smile, his eyes far away, already dwelling on his future achievements.
"The challenge of making new discoveries is far more interesting than talking about past successes, or treatments I have already invented, no matter how brilliant. And besides …"
The Doc was trying to look anywhere but at Tom. Finally, he blurted out, "After your instatement I went to visit Sickbay. And …"
Tom's face softened in an understanding smile. "And you found you'd come home? Welcome to the club."
The Doctor pulled himself together. "Actually, what I was going to say was that I decided I could not, in good conscience, allow you or anyone else to ruin this place. Moreover, knowing you, you and your wife will inevitably find completely new and innovative ways to harm yourselves, and someone will have to look after you and my goddaughter. And so I have asked to be released from my assignment with Starfleet Medical."
"Pretty sure I'd have you, weren't you?"
Try as he may, Tom could not resist needling the Doc – for about fifty nanoseconds. His relief got the better of him, and he got up and on his feet, ready to embrace the solution he had not dared hope for, but knew to be perfect.
"And you'd be right. Welcome back, Doc."
He extended his hand, and seized the Doc's with a firm clasp, confident for once that here was one appointment the bureaucracy could not possibly oppose. If they did, he would sic Nicole on them. And his father. He grinned at the EMH.
"And who knows, maybe in Round Two we'll even find you a name?"