Fluff break! I wrote most of this whenever my hands got tired of juggling the various plot elements of "Orion". We're very early into Season #1 with this one – the evening immediately following the events of "Parallax" to be exact – and about to learn the truth about how deep Tom's difficulties with the laws of temporal dynamics really go.
Personally, I have never met a timepiece that I didn't want to turn soft and floppy and drape over an easy chair. Special kudos and a free poem for the first reader who accurately spots the Real Life temporal violations I committed in this story!
Most things mentioned in this little piece belong variously to Paramount and museums around the planet. I'm still working, so just like one of the characters in this story, I am obviously not making any money off my 'art'.
For a certain Francophile of my acquaintance - see, I do like Paris! ;-) And for my beautiful daughter, who recently asked the very cogent question: "Why does art never cease to amaze, and math never cease to bore me?"
SUNRISE OVER MONTMARTRE
By Alpha Flyer
They would not listen, they're not listening still.
Perhaps they never will ...
'Vincent', by Don McLean
"So tell me, Paris, how can you be a decent navigator, a not half-bad astrophysicist and warp field technician, and the all around Best Hot-Damn Starship Pilot In The Delta or Any Other Quadrant - however self-anointed - and not have the foggiest clue about temporal dynamics?"
Harry stared at his friend over the edge of his glass of synthale, and shook his head. "I mean, that was pretty pathetic there on the bridge today. No wonder she didn't let you fly that shuttle."
Tom snorted unintelligibly, a sound that Harry chose to interpret as a form of embarrassment so acute that it was beyond articulation. He was wrong.
"Ya know, Harry, a guy doesn't have to know everything about everything. That's for Captains. I'm just a lowly ex-con, with a dubious new commission and absolutely no ambitions to climb the rank ladder. And as for temporal dynamics …"
Tom shook his head, shrugged, and took a deep draught of his drink. It had been a long day for the whole bridge crew, and putting it to bed with a glass of something, even just synthale, had seemed like the natural thing to do. What this ship really needed though, they'd both agreed on, was a decent bar.
"Let's just say, I don't really care. As long as we have the likes of Kathryn Janeway and your own favourite Maquis, Ms Newly-Minted Chief Engineer, to figure out the proper time zones for me, I'll fly the ship in whatever direction they tell me to. Backwards, forwards, sideways, or loop-de-loop. I'm a pilot, not a temporal mechanic."
He gave Harry a speculative glance out of the side of those bright blue eyes.
"Which reminds me, that was serious fun –flying out of that event horizon … I mean, did you see the wake we left in that distortion field? Holy shit. Never thought I'd have a four-pipper tell me to just punch my way through."
Harry's ears pricked up. He had been friends with Tom Paris for nearly a month now, and it didn't take a Starfleet Academy Honours Student to figure out that when the pilot didn't want to talk about something, he would not hesitate to throw conversational cluster bombs just to create a diversion. The question here was – why?
Harry took his feet off Tom's coffee table and leaned forward intently. There was more to Tom's deliberate obtuseness about temporal dynamics, he was sure. The man was way too smart to suddenly have a major 'blonde' moment without some kind of an agenda. A different approach was clearly called for. Harry, too, was capable of creating a diversion.
"I wonder if Janeway took that course at the Academy?" Let's see how you handle this one, buddy. Right from left field.
Now, as Harry had suspected, Tom Paris - despite his occasional efforts to appear otherwise - was possessed of considerable analytical skills. He knew in an instant that Harry was on one of his fishing expeditions again, trying to peel away the layers of diffidence Tom had spent so many years perfecting, to get at the real man underneath.
He hesitated only a split second – and gave only the tiniest little internal sigh – before allowing himself to rise to the deliberately dangled bait in the only manner he possibly could. Tom, too, had taken his friend's measure pretty early on, and knew that simply ignoring Harry's question would just lead to trench warfare. This question would therefore be fielded by Tom, The Blithely Oblivious.
"What course is that, Harry?"
'You mean you haven't even heard about it?" Harry was suitably incredulous, and Tom congratulated himself silently as the Ensign launched into an explanation that was as detailed and enthusiastic as it was unnecessary.
"Apparently, there used to be a first-year course in temporal dynamics at the Academy, where students actually got to do a practicum. As in, a real trip into a different time, apparently based on some form of slingshot effect. They still had the course back in the mid-sixties, when you were there; they'd scrapped it by the time I got there. Nobody knows why. Surely you must have heard about it. All details about it were classified, and it was apparently really hard to get in because they only took a small handful of students each term."
Harry stopped his soliloquy, and shot the older man a calculating look. Shit, he'd almost fallen for it, walked right into the opening Tom made for him. Time to go for broke. Well, almost broke.
"You might have been able to swing a place."
He didn't say it expressly; Tom was becoming as close a friend as had ever had, in a place where friends mattered, and gratuitously pissing him off was definitely not worth the info he'd hoped to glean. But the implication was nonetheless clear and Tom immediately dropped his guard, came up swinging.
"Because I'm the son of an admiral, to whom all manner of things are handed on a silver platter? Is that what you think?"
There was no mistaking the anger in Tom's voice, and Harry was briefly – very briefly – thrown off his stride. Dangerous territory.
Hell with it. If Tom mentioned his father on his own accord, he was either trying to hand him a red herring the size of Moby Dick … or there was something there to be pursued. He'd make it up to him over a game of pool later.
"Didn't you tell me your father was grooming you for command? I believe those were your exact words? I mean, how better to do that than making you take the really meaningful courses."
"Like Politics of the Federation, you mean. Yeah, eternal gratitude is due my Dad for pushing me into that baby. Writing papers on the quirks of Andorian society. Woo fucking hoo. Seriously useful stuff, that."
Harry eyed the pilot thoughtfully. He may be hanging on to the 'green ensign' routine for a while yet but, just like Tom Paris wasn't at all dumb, Harry Kim wasn't actually all that naïve. And he bloody well knew that his friend was still doing his Tommish best to throw him off the track, dodging and weaving and trying to set up distracting flares.
But so far he had not denied that he'd taken the mythical course.
And herein lay the truth, Harry realized with a sudden flash of blinding clarity. Having had his life upended by a lie once before, Tom Paris would not tell another one. Especially not to a friend.
Time for the direct approach. Slapshot – right for the chest.
"Alright, Paris, I know what you're doing. Stop shitting me. Truth or dare."
Tom glared at him, knowing he'd be stuck now whichever way he turned. May as well capitulate, or he'd be here forever. He sighed his resignation.
"Fine, Ensign. Truth."
Harry ignored the dig. He had long since reconciled himself to Tom's rank seniority – okay, more accurately, during Beta shift earlier today, when Tom had flown the ship out of that singularity with supremely cool competence. Sometimes it actually showed that the pilot had spent three years in Starfleet before he had been forced to resign over how he'd handled the accident at Caldik Prime. Either way, times like this, the superior officer shtick would not work on Harry.
"Truth. Did you take that classified course on temporal dynamics that involved actual time travel?"
Deep breath. Eye roll, followed by a Janewayesque glare. Although the Captain didn't usually grind her jaw.
"Yes, I did."
Harry practically bounced off the couch, and his face was split by a grin so wide that the reflections off his teeth could have blinded innocent bystanders. Game, set and match!
But he might as well have scored an own goal. As distractions went this one was a doozy, and all questions of finding out just why Tom would pretend to suck at something any Academy graduate would know – not to mention someone who took a special course in the subject - were forgotten in Harry's sudden excitement. There was a story here, and Harry Kim would have it.
"So, did you get to travel in time? Did you? Where – or rather when – did you go?"
"Why don't you ask me whether I passed the bloody course or not?"
Harry blew some air out of his nose, in a gesture that for him signified contempt. "Because I don't care?" His tone changed to one of triumph. "But I was right, wasn't I! Obviously you must have learned something, anything more than you let on to the Captain today. So, tell me what happened."
Tom heaved a great sigh, and stared pointedly at his empty glass, raised in silent invitation. Harry got the hint, took it out of his hand and went over to the recycler to dump it in.
"Same?" he asked solicitously, his hand hovering over the replicator.
"Make it Scotch, neat, a twenty-three-year-old Dalwhinnie in honour of your forthcoming birthday, and you have a deal."
Harry's eyes widened as he watched his ration counter click down. "You're not exactly a cheap drunk, are you? This story of yours better be good, Paris."
"Oh, it is. And it will stay in this room, right?"
"Absolutely. I swear on Libby's eyes."
Tom stretched his long legs out on the coffee table and contemplated his Scotch.
"Her name was Susie Crabtree…."
Susie Crabtree was what you might describe as a go-getter, who, not unlike Tom Paris - had gotten into the Academy by virtue of family connections rather than personal desire. She was not the smartest woman in her class – although she had managed a Second in Exo-Anthropology first term - but what she lacked in raw intellectual gifts, she made up for with sheer determination. When she saw something she liked … well, she was like a magpie drawn to a shiny object, and nothing would stand in her way until she had what she wanted.
And back in 2363, the shiniest object in her vicinity was one Thomas Eugene Paris, the rakishly handsome first-ever freshman Captain of Nova Squadron; heir not only to one of the most recognizable names in Starfleet, but also to a drop-dead gorgeous estate in the hills above San Francisco and the sizable fortune that came with it. Young, beautiful body and old, beautiful money – there wasn't a better combination to be had at the Academy, and Susie knew it.
She had easily wormed it out of him at a party that Owen Paris' well-known ambitions for his son had landed him a place in "Temporal Dynamics 101", the blandly named second-term course that only admitted ten students per year and was whispered about in the bars as the surest thing to get you into Command track for your second and following years.
Susie was not averse to the idea of getting into Command track now that she was at the Academy, but more importantly, the odds of the most eligible catch on campus noticing her would be infinitely improved if she did not have to compete for his attention with a hundred other women in astrophysics or quantum mechanics. And so she set about getting into that small, select course herself – how she had managed it, history did not record.
Or more accurately, Tom, who was telling the story, didn't have a clue.
"And I don't really want to know, either, Harry. Still don't. All I know is, I fell for her during the first couple of weeks that term. Hard. She was beautiful, funny, good in bed …"
"And, apparently, a gold digger," Harry helpfully rounded out the epithets. No wonder his friend was such a cynic when it came to women.
"Yeah, well, that too. But I didn't know that then. I was completely smitten, first love, that sort of thing. Thought we really might have something …" He paused for a moment, his eyes far away, and a shadow crossed his face.
"Let's just say, at nineteen, beautiful, funny and good in bed pretty much carries the day. Still does, come to think of it. … "
He leered a little in Harry's direction, silently singing one word: Delaney …
Harry glared at him, and made an impatient gesture. He was paying for this story with several days' rations worth of single malt, and would have all of it before the night was over. And unlike Susie Crabtree, he wasn't easily seduced by shiny objects. Tom sighed his resignation.
"Well, anyway, the course was actually pretty cool. As you suspected, they had found some old records about the second Enterprise, the one under James Kirk, doing a slingshot number around Earth to move back in time, and some bright sparks were working on making that into a reliable version of time travel. Guess the idea was that if someone were to mess with time, they'd want to be able to fix it. It was an introductory course, and if you did well you could get into the advanced stuff, where they took even fewer students. I thought it was all pretty fascinating, and for once I actually studied. I mean, I was acing the thing. Always loved anything having to do with history. My Dad couldn't have been happier."
Tom gave a slightly contemptuous snort and took a sip of his Scotch as if to rinse a bad taste out if his mouth, while Harry heroically refrained from tapping his foot. Just his luck, that Tom had slipped into full raconteur mode. It was going to be a long night. But then again – he'd asked for it.
"Anyway, they decided going backwards was less risky than going forward – I mean, think of the business opportunities if you skipped a few centuries and came back with as yet uninvented gadgets! But the only places they could manage reliably and safely for students were 20th century California, before Los Angeles sank into the ocean, and a couple of destinations in Europe, in the late 19th. I'd have killed – killed! – for the chance to go to LA, but Susie had a thing for Europe and I'd have followed her anywhere at this point. And the instructor, well, he thought it would be downright hilarious to send me to Paris."
"Paris. Right. Get it. Very original. You must get that a lot." Harry felt compelled to comment, if only to disrupt Tom's stream-of-consciousness reminiscences and to remind him he had an audience.
"Yeah, no shit. That silver platter thing I mentioned… power of the Great Name. Also why I always preferred Marseille. Anyway, so here we were, ready for our once-in-a-lifetime field trip…"
Paris was chilly this particular April morning, but the promise of a warming day hung already in the air. As per established practice, temporal relocation had been done before dawn, when few people would be about to witness the sudden appearance of two people in replicated period dress. But despite the early hour, the smell of baking bread hung in the air as Tom and Susie made their way up the cobble-stoned streets, which were strewn with the petals of fallen blossoms.
Unimpressed, Susie wobbled along on her heels, occasionally tripping over her full-length skirt. "Why on Earth would women agree to wear this stuff? Especially on streets like this? I mean, yuck!" That last comment was reserved for a different sort of fragrance, emitted by the still-steaming evidence of 19th century transportation reality that must have passed this way not too long ago.
Tom was only too happy to take her hand to steady her. In fact, he put his arm around Susie's waist and ran his hand over her shapely derriere – which was accentuated nicely by that unjustly maligned dress - staring appreciatively down her décolleté in the process.
"Mmmmh," he said, lowering his lips to the soft swell of her breasts, dipping his tongue briefly into the valley between them. "I like this dress. Should be standard uniform; that would solve any recruiting problems in Starfleet."
"Yeah, and the first time someone steps on the bridge, they fall flat on their face." She stopped her grumbling momentarily to shiver with pleasure.
"Hey, that's cold!" she protested half-heartedly as he withdrew, and the cool morning air struck the dampness left behind by his ministrations - albeit in a rather stimulating way. Finding out just how adept Tom Paris was at certain things had added a certain pleasant frisson to her single-minded pursuit of him, although his devotion could at times be tiresome.
He grinned, and blew on the damp spot he had made, delighting in seeing the goose bumps form on her creamy skin.
"Screw cold," he said. "We're in Paris, the City of Love! We'll make our own heat before long." He started tugging her into an arched carriage entrance, his intentions written in the darkening of his eyes. It really was a very nice dress, its volume and length both a challenge and an opportunity for concealing certain activities …
She gave him a long look that, at the time, had seemed to him to be serious, reflective. With the benefit of hindsight Tom saw the calculation, the cost-benefit analysis – do I give in to what he wants and tighten my grip, or do I the minimum to pass the course?
"Tom, we can't!" She swatted his hand away with a coquettish giggle. "We have two hours here in Paris, and we have to report on what we did with those two hours. So let's make the most of it. There's always time for other things … later."
If Tom was disappointed that Susie didn't want to hand their instructors a report that would fog up their windows, he got over it quickly. She was right – this was Paris, and the first rays of the rising sun were beginning to kiss the rooftops over Montmartre, burning away the dampness in the air and sharpening his senses.
A few more turns, and they arrived at the foot of the stairs leading up to the cathedral of Sacré Cœur, which glowed in the light of the dawn against a velvet sky.
"Wow," Tom breathed, captivated by the sight. The cathedral had been one of the first targets when the waves of the Third World War crashed over Europe – a visible symbol of French pride, the targeting of which was intended to demoralize the civilian population. Unlike the Eiffel Tower, which had been reconstructed in its entirety, the remnants of the great dome had been allowed to stay a ruin, a stark memorial and a warning of the evils of war.
"Come on, Susie, let's go up! It's gorgeous!" He started to tug on her hand, impatient to touch, to breathe history.
"All those steps? With that dress? You're nuts," she informed him, more curtly than she probably had intended. She mollified the tone of her voice when she saw the surprised hurt in his open features.
"I would just slow you down, Tommy. Besides, maybe if we separate for half an hour we'll have more to report. You run up there and look around, I'll stay down here and look at the people. I'm the anthropologist, remember?"
The square had started to fill up with people setting up their stalls or staking their piece of cobblestoned ground – some vegetable vendors, a man with a basket of baguettes, a fish monger, and several artists, carrying canvases strapped to their bags.
"Are you sure? We're not supposed to split up, Susie."
"So what can happen?" She was getting a little exasperated. Tom Paris was in superb physical shape, but Susie Crabtree led a rather more sedentary life, and those stairs … No way she would climb up there. Let him write that portion of their report; she'd get the marks anyway.
"We're in Paris, in 1888, Tom. It isn't as if there'll be a rogue horde of Romulan marauders coming round the corner with disruptors. Besides, I'll stay right here in the square. You'll be able to see me from the stairs. And I know that if I get into any trouble, you'll be right there for me." She sealed her devotion with a kiss.
Responsibility and following rules wasn't really Tom's thing at the best of times, and between the wheedling tone in her voice, the worshipful look she gave him and his overriding desire to see the cathedral up close, his scruples evaporated with the morning mist.
"Okay, fine. Just remember …"
"Do nothing that would upset the timeline. I know, Tom. Ditto for you! Now, go."
He gave her one last kiss, which engendered a wolf whistle from the baguette vendor and was designed to make Susie regret her decision to send him away. As he'd learned later she may not have been in love with him, but Tom sure knew what to do with his tongue, and knew how much she liked it... Grinning at the gasp she gave when he disengaged, Tom bounded up the stairs, his long strides only marginally impaired by the inflexible pantaloons he was wearing.
The cathedral was everything Tom had hoped for. Reverently, he stroked the walls, admired the stonework, took in the neatly trimmed trees and walkways around it … A door, slightly ajar, beckoned him to enter and for a moment he hesitated. He turned around, stepped up to the railing overlooking Montmartre. Finding reassurance in the sight of the tiny figure of Susie Crabtree gliding among the stalls and sending him a little wave, he mustered his determination and entered.
The sight of the morning light through the stained glass of the rosette windows – bare, jagged ruins when he had last seen them – and the glory of the basilica's painted dome nearly took Tom's breath away.
His life from an early age had consisted of studying the physics of the stars, the calculations of safe courses through natural phenomena, and the dictates of protocol – things Admiral Paris thought his son should know, if he were to fulfill his potential as the latest scion of a long line of Starfleet Officers. But to the extent that Tom Paris was motivated at all to follow in his family's footsteps, it was for the beauty he saw in the stars – joining their dance on the wings of a shuttle, parting a nebula at full flight and watching the purple swirls in his wake, feeling the power under his fingers to impose his will on a reluctant universe. All this, and more, he saw in the soaring dome, those streaks of light - the mastery of space, expressed in colour and light.
If there was such a thing as the divine, he thought, it resided in spaces like this – or had, until its destruction. Tom was struck by a sudden urge to mark his presence here, in a way that would not affect the timeline, of course, that would disappear with his return to the 24th century. His eyes were drawn to a bank of flickering candles and he recalled an old custom his mother had mentioned: people would light candles in sacred spaces to send wishes to whatever deities they chose to believe in.
And so Tom dropped a replicated coin into the box provided for this purpose, and lit one of the candles. He mulled over possible wishes, dismissing the first ones that came to his mind (Susie changing her mind about that carriage entrance) and deciding the occasion called for something more … somber. From nowhere something floated into his head – a light asking safety for those on long journeys – and he watched the candle flicker to light as his wish joined those of the others made before him.
"You're making this up," Harry protested. "Safety for those on long journeys. As if you were the sentimental type, or gifted with some kind of foresight. Stop bullshitting me, Paris, and get on with the story. Temporal dynamics, remember?"
Tom shrugged; he was used to people expecting nothing but shallowness from him, and most of the time he was content to deliver. "Whatever, Harry. Telling the truth. Sorry if I'm getting carried away, but it was quite … the experience, being in this place that no longer exists. The one thing I learned that day is that time has a strange way of sneaking up on you when you least expect it."
Tom took another sip of his scotch, almost gone now, and stared out the window. Being a bridge officer came with quarters on the outside, much to his pleasure. Much better than what he'd originally been assigned by that asshole Cavit when he was a mere 'observer'; that had been a glorified closet, the only advantage being that he didn't have to share. Although even that was probably just because Cavit hadn't wanted him to contaminate some poor, innocent Fleeter with his contempt-worthy presence, rather than out of any recognition of his erstwhile Starfleet rank.
Outside, the warping stars were streaking by. Baytart had the conn for Gamma shift, and Tom was gratified to see that he seemed able to hold a steady course, even if his flying lacked a certain … inspiration.
"You know, that view of the stars … it's almost as if he knew, as if he'd seen them that way. Of course, he couldn't have."
"Who?" Harry demanded to know. "Who knew what?"
Tom shot him an amused look. After browbeating him into this confession, Harry Kim deserved to suffer a little. Okay, maybe a lot.
"Patience, Ensign. You want the whole story? Then let me tell it my way. Another Scotch might help speed things along..."
He held out his glass and Harry, knowing he'd been snookered, headed over to the replicator with a resigned sigh.
His brief and quite uncharacteristic - although he was no longer entirely sure about that – excursion into spiritual epiphany complete, Tom glanced at his chronometer, disguised as a fob around his waist.
X minus 65; lights were still green. They had about an hour before recall. Time to rejoin Susie, check what she had learned; maybe have one of those baguettes and a hunk of cheese to round out the experience. And hadn't he seen a guy setting up with bottles of wine? Surely the timeline wouldn't collapse if they had some of that, even if early morning wasn't the most appropriate time? It would be afternoon in San Francisco – besides, unreplicated food and a decent wine were second only to flying and sex among the great reasons for living, as far as Tom Paris was concerned. And this was France, after all…
He practically ran back down the steps, stopping only once to cast another look up at the cathedral in its snowy serenity, unaware of the fate that awaited it.
Back in the square, it took him only a minute to spot Susie Crabtree, although what he saw momentarily caused him to slow down his stride. She was carrying a painting – a pretty substantial one at that, about the size of the coffee table in his dorm room at the Academy. He couldn't see what it was a painting of – the image was pressed against her voluminous dress, but judging by the satisfied expression in her face she was extremely happy with her purchase. If there was something Tom had learned of Susie in the brief but incandescent few weeks of their … association, it was that if she liked something, she would not stop until she had it. And judging by the look on her face, she liked what she held in her hand very much.
He was on her in a minute.
"What on Earth did you do, Susie? You know we're not allowed to bring back souvenirs. Eat something, light a candle, have a drink – fine. But buy stuff? You gotta give that back."
"Oh, Tommy. Since when are you such a stickler for the rules?" she pouted, batting her eyelashes. "Besides, the guy I bought it from seemed kind of desperate, and very happy to make the sale. He had dozens of pictures and no customers at all; I doubt the timeline would miss this one. You'll help me bring it back, won't you, Tommy?"
She clutched it possessively to her ample chest, and Tom found himself briefly distracted by the effect the gesture had on her cleavage. Pulling himself together, he asked, "Which one?"
There were several artists in the square now, their paintings spread out before them, lying flat on the cobblestones or standing on simple easels. Their creators sat on blankets, others on milk crates or else on the bare, still-cool stone. All had the tools of their trade with them, painting as they sat – creating new realities with the stroke of a brush, some more competently than others.
The man Susie pointed at was squatting off to one side, seemingly oblivious to the increasing bustle around him and clearly not a part of the cat-calling back and forth of his colleagues. Humming to himself, tongue between his lips, he was dabbing a canvas with a brush, palette in hand. His thinning, reddish hair and unhealthy-looking, pallid skin were accentuated by clothes that had probably not seen a laundry tub in weeks. In fact, one look convinced Tom that if someone removed the man's vest, it would either stand up or crawl away on its own accord. He wrinkled his nose at the smell of unwashed body that accosted his nose.
And then he saw the paintings.
Mostly flowers, in vases or set against imaginary skies; some street scenes, light spilling onto cobbled stones; the occasional somber portrait, unmistakably of the man himself and unforgiving in their unvarnished truth. And always those brush strokes, visceral, almost violent, left by a hand driven to harness a swirl of unbound emotions – wonder, awe and despair turned into radiant colour. Raw beauty, breathtaking, so very different from the carefully constructed dome Tom had admired earlier.
Tom was spellbound by the power of the artworks before him, by the depths of feeling that sprang off the canvas and right into his soul. This man … this man, he painted the way Tom Paris liked to think he flew a starship – without the constraints and dictates of convention, straight from the gut, straight from the heart. Live power at his finger tips, a wrong stroke and you burn – but oh, so brightly.
And he knew.
Haltingly, his voice choked both by the weight of the moment and the fear of what she had done, he turned to Susie Crabtree.
"What. Did. You. Buy." He managed to press out.
"Here," she turned the painting around and held it out to him, pride of ownership turning her voice into something feral. "Isn't it pretty? Looks just like the warping stars. Perfect for my quarters, when I get my first space assignment."
She batted her eyelids at him, remembering her primary mission. "On the same ship as my favourite pilot, of course."
Tom ignored that last and swallowed, hard, as he took in the canvas before him. The cypress tree, swaying in a distant breeze. The stars, each with their own aurora, some like swirling galaxies; the band of the Milky Way, pierced by the spire of a far-off church, man's tentative effort to tame the wide space above. The colours – deep blue, gold, silver … No wonder Susie had been captivated by the painting.
He had been too, the first time he had seen it, in the New Museum of Art in New York, where his mother had dragged a reluctant teenager and emerged with a young man entranced by the transformative power of art and beauty.
"Aww, shit, Susie. That's a Van Gogh you're holding. There is no fucking way you can take that with you. Even more important is, you have to make him take it back."
She stared at Tom with that withering look she reserved for those who denied her something she wanted.
"Van what?" she demanded. "It's a nice painting, I like it, and that guy was so happy to make that sale. I think I made his day." Her voice turned soft, and the look in her eyes turned from outraged to pleading. "You'll help me bring it back, won't you, Tommy, darling?"
Tom, unmoved for once, shook his head, trying to make her understand. "This painting, Sue. You can't just take it back home, like a postcard or a fallen leaf or something. It has a name. It's called 'Starry Night', and it's one of … one of the most famous paintings on the planet. People risked their lives to save it when the museum it was in was bombed in the Third War, and to shelter it throughout the Eugenics Wars. And it was one of the first things that got displayed when they rebuilt the museum, to give everyone a sense of what had almost been lost, what they'd done when they went to war. It's … it's one of Earth's greatest treasures."
Susie's eyes widened a little, and she looked at her prize with a dawning, if reluctant, understanding. She allowed the anger to vanish from her face as if by the stroke of a magic wand, to be replaced by contrition and a little fear.
"Oh dear," she breathed. "I've made a boo-boo, haven't I?"
Tom resisted rolling his eyes in exasperation. Hardly the response he would have picked for the occasion, but Susie valued her lady-like sweetness and was a bit of a prude when it came to vocabulary. Besides, she looked so genuinely repentant now that he could not stay angry at her for long.
"Well, one thing's for certain. You can't keep it. You have to get him to take it back. Come on."
He took the painting from her drooping hands, gingerly, careful not to touch the canvas itself. What if he put a fingernail through it by accident…? When his mother had taken him to see the painting, in the place built on the ruins of the Museum of Modern Art, the force field surrounding it would have knocked a Nausicaan on his ass – just holding it in his hands now penetrated his usual diffidence as easily as Susie's smile usually demolished all his defences.
Tom turned back to the improvised stall and its casually displayed hoard of mankind's greatest artistic achievements, and the disheveled, unhygienic man in its centre. At least his ear was still in place.
Mustering his best, Marseille-infused French rather than rely on the universal translator hidden under his vest – which would have surprised the painter with flawless Dutch - Tom pointed to the painting, and the signature on it. It wouldn't do to indicate that he knew who he was talking to.
"Did you paint this, Mr. … Vincent?"
The man turned to him, a gap-toothed smile now gliding over his face, like the sunrise of not so long ago.
"Yes, yes," he said eagerly, in heavily accented French. "Do you like it?"
"Oh, it's beautiful, and I love it. But my … my wife here shouldn't have bought it. You see, we can't afford it right now."
"But I only charged her five franc," he protested. "Not much, for gentle folk like yourselves." He ran an appreciative look over Susie's dress, while Tom in turn took in the artist's rotting teeth, his rake-thin appearance and his shabby clothes.
"You see, sir, we're saving for our first house, and …" He couldn't do it. Couldn't ask the man to give back what to him must be a small fortune. Five francs would go a long way to get him a decent meal …
"Well, tell you what the real problem is. It clashes with the furniture my mother already picked out for us, so, why don't you just keep the money and the painting, okay? That way you can sell it to someone else. Someone with blue couches, not red ones."
Tom unceremoniously – but just a little bit carefully – leaned the painting against a stack of canvases with what looked like the blue flowers his mother fawned over in her gardens every spring, grabbed Susie by the hand and dragged her out of the square before the surprised Dutchman could utter another word. As they left, a couple of curious would-be customers drew near to have a look at the display surrounding the speechless artist.
Tom pulled Susie into the carriage arch and started to laugh, a little hysterically, as she stared at him in a mixture of fury and incomprehension.
"What's so funny, Thomas Paris? Care to enlighten me?"
"Well, you're always on about how much you like my parents' estate. That … that painting … Would buy you two or three like it, in our time. If it were ever offered up for sale."
He couldn't complete the sentence, intoxicated now with the narrow escape they had from a major brush with the Temporal Prime Directive, and pressed his mouth to hers in a breathless, passionate kiss.
"You really are something, you know, Susie Crabtree. Rules, my ass."
No doubt considering that the excursion should not be a complete waste of time, she returned the kiss, even allowing him to deepen it, and moaned appropriately as his hands started to roam freely over her dress and his fingers began to tug at the lacing at the front.
"What do you mean, and?" Tom replied innocently, taking the measure of Harry's eager voice with a barely suppressed smirk.
"Well, oh come on, Paris. You know. Did you …? I mean, right there, in that alley way?"
"Harry, Harry, Harry. Such a voyeuristic mind, behind such an innocent façade." Tom shook his head, his eyes all virtuous denial, before his impish nature got the better of him. "Let's just say there are certain things you can do when you are on a temporal excursion that are considered to be safe from any and all violations of the Temporal Prime Directive. Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints …"
He frowned a little. "And besides, I did have to find a way of keeping that little minx from doing any more damage, and that seemed as good a way to keep her in one place as any."
Harry snorted. "Well, whatever. All I can say, three cheers for you, if she was as calculating as you said. But what I want to know is this – what does all this have to do with your ignorance of temporal mechanics? I mean, you seem to have a decent grip on the basics."
Tom sighed. He had – not all that secretly - hoped that the colourful little story would have taken Harry off his obsession with his best friend's supposed failings, but apparently that was not to be.
"Just how much do you know about Vincent van Gogh, Har?"
"Never been into art much myself, so based on what you just said, the guy painted a picture called 'Starry Night,' and a lot of flowers. He's very famous, and his paintings hang in museums. Not in people's quarters." He smiled proudly; not a bad summary of the gist of Tom's story. He was, after all, a brilliant ops officer, with an eye for the relevant bits that popped up on his sensors.
Tom shook his head. "You know, it really is a crying shame that art history isn't compulsory at Starfleet Academy. I mean, how can you claim to be representing your planet to alien races, if you know nothing of its major achievements?"
Before Harry could bristle, he laid a consoling hand on his arm. "Nevermind – pet peeve of mine. Had that argument with my Dad a zillion times. Anyway, Harry, Vincent van Gogh was one of the greatest artists of the nineteenth century – no, of all time. He went completely off his rocker and shot himself. That was after he cut off one of his ears."
"Ewww! He sounded reasonably normal when you met him. Like, artist normal, anyway."
"Yeah, but he went downhill pretty fast after he left Paris, killed himself about two years after we saw him. The problem was, Harry, nobody saw what he was doing. Nobody ever listened to what he was saying with his paintings. And so, I guess, he despaired."
Tom paused for effect. "I dialed up his biography the night we came back from Paris, because I wanted to see how people described the guy we had met in real life. And you know what else I learned? Right there, on the first page?"
Harry shook his head.
"One of the reasons he got so … disheartened? He never sold a single painting in his entire life."
Harry's mouth opened, then shut, then opened again.
"Yeah. That's sort of what I said. Maybe a bit more."
"Don't move. I'm getting you another Scotch."
Tom neither saw the PADD nor felt it in his fingers, as an icy hand gripped his gut and twisted, hard. He stared out his dorm window, where Starfleet Academy looked the same as it always had. Would he know if it didn't…? He decided he would; he'd come back in a cocoon of temporal shielding, so whatever changes might have happened thanks to the ill-timed emergence of Susie Crabtree's acquisitive streak would not have affected him - or her - as they winked through the centuries.
The landing lights of a shuttle briefly pierced the night, and Tom wished for a moment that he could be on it and fly far, far away.
"Don't you tell anyone, Tom Paris," Susie had hissed at him when he commed her with the news. "You know what it means if you do. I'll … we'll fail the course."
Tom chewed his lower lip, a gesture that his normally boisterous roommate took as a sure sign to leave him alone. A jumble of thoughts raced through his mind, none ready to gain the upper hand: Surely Susie would understand that they couldn't just pretend that nothing had happened? And what if their activities had been monitored? Was someone keeping track of fluctuations in the time continuum, and they'd be asked about it?
On the other hand, it wasn't as if they had left behind an anachronistic invention, started a war, or removed an important life from the timeline before it could achieve what it would. Van Gogh was a painter; he had produced many of his masterpieces already before Tom and Susie had crossed his path and would without doubt – driven as he was – continue to turn the swirl of his emotions into burning colour for a few years yet. All they'd done was make him happy for a moment, showed him that someone actually appreciated his vision. They hadn't even taken the painting. Was that so bad? Was that so … consequential?
Tom's gaze fell on a holograph on his dorm room wall. Keenly aware of the pressures her husband was putting on his only son to excel at the various disciplines he considered essential to a successful career in Starfleet, Julia Paris had made a point of regularly whisking the boy away for a long weekend, to let him breathe in the things she knew mattered to him apart from flying – history, art, nature. Their visit to France had resonated particularly well with him. And so the picture he had taken of the rooftops of Paris, from the dormer window of their boutique hotel, had found its way into the duffle bag he had carried with him to the Academy, a reminder that there were things beyond star charts and inter-planetary politics.
Tom looked at the holograph for a bare second, trying to anchor his thoughts. And froze.
What had been a monochrome palette of slate grey roofs and cream-coloured buildings, dominated by the broken dome of Sacré Cœur to the right and by the grey metal silhouette of the Eiffel Tower in the far distance, had been … transformed. Some of the rooftops now sparkled in stark, primary colours, and the dull white of the façades had, in some cases, been replaced by washes of anything ranging from pale lavender to magnolia pink and, in several cases, the bright yellow so typical of houses in Central Europe. What was more, the paint did not look new; you could see the peels and cracks of age in those closer by.
And Sacré Cœur… He bit back a sharp curse, and studied the less obvious details in the picture more closely, zooming in on the background.
The image was sufficiently clear that he could clearly see that the main struts of the Eiffel Tower had been turned a deep indigo, with the smaller ones swirling in various shades of blue, red and purple – a symphony of colours that transcended the industrial starkness of the design and turned it into a kind of dance for the eyes, drawing the gaze hither and yon, but always up towards the now silver-tipped spire.
Tom did a quick data search on the Eiffel Tower, his hands shaking as he asked his personal computer to call up the file. "The Eiffel Tower, constructed by French Architect Georges Eiffel as the opening arch for the 1889 World's Fair, reconstructed in faithful detail after the devastation of World War III. The lattice iron work acquired its beautiful colouring thanks to a close collaboration between Eiffel, the metal forge responsible for making the struts, and renowned Dutch artist Vincent van Gogh, whose joyous use of colours, after some initial false starts, had taken Paris by storm the year before and subsequently left its indelible mark on the Parisian cityscape…"
Tom swallowed, and forced himself to close his mouth. Oh, shit. The evidence before him would, he was confident, exceed even Susie Crabtree's powers of denial. It certainly obliterated his own.
Now, Tom had never been a fan of the Prime Directive – even at nineteen, he'd lost count of how many family meals had been ruined by him and his father duking it out on the ethics of non-interference. But the Temporal Prime Directive, as far as he was concerned, was quite another matter. The idea that with an ill-considered – or carefully planned – temporal intervention you could wipe out whole civilizations, or prevent a single life from unfolding, did not sit well with Tom Paris. He believed in the power of choice, and the idea of arbitrary brush strokes of a fate imposed by unseen hands disturbed his being to the core.
The more he thought about it, the clearer it became to Tom that the disturbance Susie's impetuous acquisition had caused would have to be brought to the attention of their instructors. What was being drilled into them? The First Duty Is To Truth?
Of course, no one had actually asked a question … yet.
Tom carefully put his cadet's uniform back on, grabbed his holovid, nodded at his silent roommate and headed out the dorm. Commander Aziz, who was in charge of the temporal lab, usually worked late – student lore had it that he would extend his working day by leaving each afternoon for a few hours, have a long snooze on a deserted beach somewhere in the Pleïocene age, and return five minutes after he had left. Tom hoped he'd be around; this was a matter best addressed face to face, not via comm call.
Courtesy did, however, require that he give notice to Susie of his intentions, no matter how unpleasant he expected that particular conversation to be. He tapped his comm badge, barely waiting for her to acknowledge him.
"Paris to Crabtree. Susie, that little bit of impulse shopping of yours had a far greater impact on the timeline than either of us guessed. We have to tell Aziz. In fact I'm on my way to the lab now. Join me or not, as you wish. Paris out." He closed the channel before she could argue with him – or worse, talk him out of doing what he knew was the right thing.
Part of him acknowledged, as he raced towards the temporal lab with even longer strides than usual, that it was a great deal easier to confess to a problem when you weren't the direct cause. Would he have had the guts to own up, if it had been him who had been unable to resist the power of that painting? He hoped he'd never have to find out.
Tom paused in his telling, and drained his glass. He snorted contemptuously into the awkward silence. "Guess I got the answer to that one just a few years later, didn't I?"
Harry frowned. Not a good turn of discussion, this. He'd seen how some of the Fleeters were treating Tom, even without Cavit and Fitzgerald around to stoke the fire, and had given a few of them his sharply worded opinion already. But to allow Tom to wallow in the more sordid aspects of his past? Best to turn this one off before it took hold.
"Don't tell me you turn maudlin after the third Scotch, Paris. You paid for that mistake, several times over for what I can see, and the most important thing is, you owned up to it eventually. That's my take, anyway."
A lighter note was clearly required, and Harry added, with a grin, "And don't think you can distract me again. I want that story, and I want all of it. Now get on with it!"
Tom shot him an enigmatic look. "Well, the rest is pretty simple, really."
Commander Aziz stared at the young cadet before him long and hard, taking in his nervous, slightly defensive stance, arms crossed before his chest, in odd contrast to the determined expression on his face. He looked back down to the picture Tom had brought in and sighed.
"I'm glad you came forward, Cadet," he said. "We noticed that there was a disturbance in the continuum but weren't able to pinpoint it with any accuracy. Our instruments are geared towards measuring things such as scientific advancement, political events, conflict, and economic development. Not art. A mistake, perhaps."
He nodded for Tom to have a seat. "The fact that you looked at the chronometer when you did should help pinpoint the exact time frame we'll have to target."
"So what will you do?" Tom asked curiously. "Pull Susie out before she buys the painting?"
Aziz shook his head. "Nothing quite so drastic. We'll just keep your artist from getting to the square quite that early. Someone will offer him a baguette and a free cup of coffee. From what you said, he sounded as if he could use it."
Tom nodded his understanding, just as the door burst open and Susie Crabtree stormed in, wearing off-duty clothes and a black scowl on her face. Without acknowledging the Commander's presence she rounded on Tom.
"Tom Paris. How dare you come here without consulting me. You … you … traitor! It's over between us, do you hear me? Over. I don't ever want to see you again! And to think that I let you …"
"Cadet Crabtree!" Aziz' sharp voice cut through her rant. "I would have called you both in tomorrow morning to give us your report, based on our instrument readings alone. Mr. Paris' decision to come in on his own speaks highly of his sense of responsibility, and if I were you, I would try and lay some claim to that yourself. Now help us get this fixed."
They worked through the night, Susie avoiding eye contact with Tom to the extent possible, and generally not being particularly helpful. At five in the morning, Aziz called up a livecam data stream from Paris to verify the outcome for the fifth time. Tom found himself torn between relief and regret to see the cityscape returned to its dull slate greys and off-whites.
"There," Aziz said good-naturedly, his humour and equilibrium restored with the timeline and seemingly unfazed by the changes they had wrought overnight.
"All done. The timeline is restored, one hundred percent. And you're about six weeks ahead in the curriculum – temporal rectification is the next module. You have a real talent for this, Paris. You should consider taking the advance course next year, if you can ever get your head out of the stars."
"Thanks Commander, I'll think about it," Tom said politely. He had absolutely no such intention, that much was clear to him given the enormity of what they had just done, and felt hard pressed not to show his distaste at the professor's enthusiasm . All he really wanted to do was to go back to his dorm room and throw up.
He and Aziz formally shook hands, while Susie, still fuming, stood off to the side.
When he whispered, "Let's talk later," to her on the way out and tried to put his arm around her shoulder, she shook him off and shot him a look so venomous he almost recoiled.
"I thought we could have something, Tom Paris," she hissed. "But clearly I was wrong. You are selfish, arrogant and … and nowhere nearly as attractive as you like to think you are, Mr. Admiral's son. And your parent's money can't make up for basic character flaws. Well, nevermind – I hear Admiral Hayes' son just broke up with his girlfriend and probably needs some consolation. He has his own shuttle, too."
"And with that, she was gone. Last time she ever talked to me."
"Man, as far as I'm concerned, you had a lucky escape," Harry commented. "Talk about character flaws."
"Yeah, in hindsight, you're right, but I took it pretty hard at the time. Almost failed Stellar Cartography – I mean there she was, in the front row, and watching her make cow's eyes at Hayes was a bit too much. Poor guy fell for it, too. She managed to get pregnant in third year, boosters and all – presumably to tie him down for good. She dropped out of the Academy, moved to the Hayes' estate near Monterrey. Not sure what got to me more, that I lost a girl I thought I was in love with, or discovering that it wasn't me she was interested in at all. Just my family, its name and its money."
"So, is that why you're not interested in getting serious about women? Keeping it to funny, beautiful and good in bed?"
Tom weighed his words. "Yeah, probably. For now anyway. But if I ever do get serious about a girl, I'll be looking for smart and independent in addition to funny, beautiful and good in bed. Not that that's likely to happen any day soon. I'm not exactly a great catch."
Harry shook his head. "Don't sell yourself short, Tom. Including by allowing people to believe that you're less than what you actually are. And I'm not talking about finding the right woman."
Tom twirled the glass around and around in his hand a few times with his long fingers, as if by doing so he could magically turn back time.
"Sure, whatever you say, Har. But right now there's too many obstacles. Maybe some day."
The unspoken word hung between them until Harry, emboldened by his friend's sudden preparedness to drop the attitude and talk truth, gave it voice.
"If you could … turn the clock back on Caldik Prime, would you? You know, erase the whole thing, make it go away."
Tom stared at him thoughtfully, and opened his mouth several times before finally allowing the answer out. "Part of me would jump at the chance, but part of me also knows that that wouldn't be right. For example, one of the dead officers, he was engaged. His fiancée moved on not too long after his death, or so I heard - married and had a baby. That child wouldn't exist if … Oh hell, I don't know."
He tipped his glass back, examining whether there were enough molecules left in it to make trying for another sip worthwhile. "What I do know, is that messing with time is a dangerous thing no matter what you do, and that I want to stay as far away from it as I can."
Enlightenment dawned on Harry Kim. "And that's why you pretend not to know anything about it? So people don't ask you to get involved?"
"You got it, Ensign. Time is a seductive thing. And the simple truth is, I'm not sure I'd have the guts to resist temptation next time."
He flashed Harry a quick grin, the impish light in his eyes burning through the pensive expression he had been wearing for the last while.
"And so I play dumb. It's worked pretty well so far. Oh, and by the way. I will find a very imaginative way to kill you if you rat me out. Like, telling the Captain and Chakotay just how much of that green innocence thing of yours is an act."
He got up and went to one of his drawers, pulled out a small flat object. He dropped it on the coffee table in front of Harry.
"One last thing, and since you sprang for three Scotches and should get your rations' worth. Aziz stuck the picture into a protective chroniton field when we made the various adjustments. He couldn't very well give me credit for the night we spent fixing the timeline – at least not without exposing a fundamental flaw in his course - so he gave me that instead at the end of term, as a memento of sorts. They scrapped the course over summer recess anyway, though. He's still doing the research of course, but Starfleet brass decided it was too dangerous to let students play with that kind of fire."
Harry held his breath as he handled the holovid. The sun was rising over the rooftops of Paris, glinting off a couple of shuttles in the sky and making the colours in the buildings glow from the inside. Far off in the distance he could make out the Eiffel Tower, shimmering blue and purple in the early morning light.
And in the foreground the dome of Sacré Cœur stood, whole and proud, as if no war had ever touched it.
"But you know what, apart from everything else, I learned that day, Harry? Never underestimate the power of art to change the world."