Another little J/P piece, to fit with the supposed one-off that is "Questions". Somehow, that story has been casting ripples in my little Voyager universe in every direction. Most recently, it has been calling for additional exploration of the relationship between the Captain and her pilot. (Slight mush alert at the end.)
And this? Remember that great line in "Prey," when Tom Paris silences both the Hirogen hunter and Chakotay with his comment that "I once chased a mouse through Jefferies Tube 32"? Well, my Voyager-loving daughter asked me to write a story around that. So what's a mother to do?
As you wish, sweetheart. And thank you for the lovely picture of that Delta Quadrant rodent (see "aelerra-chama's" other works on deviantart).
Paramount owns pretty much everything herein, including the rodent and its various locations, but not this story. May they rest secure in the knowledge that I write for fun, not profit.
BEHIND THE WALLS
By Alpha Flyer
Kathryn Janeway awoke with a start. There it was again.
Her eyes narrowed. This was the second night in a row she had woken up in the middle of the night to an odd sound, something between a scrabble and a scratch, coming from the wall behind her bed. But last night, when she had gotten out of bed, grabbed her tricorder and scanned her quarters, there was a quick thump as soon as her feet hit the floor, another scrabble - then nothing. No life signs within tricorder range by the time she had it in her hand. All she got was the seething biomass of Neelix's latest collection of unidentified vegetables and crustaceans in the area that used to be her private dining room, one deck below.
She lay still and listened now, unconsciously clutching her Starfleet issue sheet and pulling it tight across her chest. Normally, the steady hum of the warp engine would cradle her in its soothing vibration and she would sleep – for the few hours she permitted herself each night, out of physical necessity – soundly and deeply in its presence. It had been three months since Voyager had been hurled into the Delta Quadrant and in that time, she had come to rely on that hum as a comforting sign that they were still alive, still on their way home. As long as the warp core pulsed, her crew had a future, and Kathryn Janeway could sleep.
But tonight, the humming walls offered little by way of reassurance. That scratching sound cut right through their usual comfort – unpredictable, random, disturbing. An errant thread that jarred the evenly patterned tapestry of her world.
Should she comm Tuvok or Chakotay? They had both claimed to have fully recovered from their respective ordeals with the Komar last week, but Chakotay still looked a bit pale. Should she call for the EMH? Sound a ship-wide intruder alert?
Best start with someone who was already awake, and wouldn't think she was imagining things. "Computer, identify and isolate scratching sound in the Captain's quarters."
"Please specify. At the present time, there are forty-seven distinct sounds audible the Captain's quarters, ranging in decibel levels from 0.08 to 7.5. Sounds include ship-wide operational vibrations produced by the warp core, the environmental system, the inertial dampeners, the gravitational stabilizer, the external shielding, a deficient sonic shower …"
Kathryn sighed loudly, asked the computer to "Nevermind!" and called for half illumination instead. At the first sound of her voice, the scrabbling sound had stopped briefly, intensified into a startled thump, then grown distant. Silence reigned again. Except for the warp core and its apparent symphonic accompaniments of course, and their now rather negligible contribution to her peace of mind.
Her internal triage of potential courses of action was just about to settle on "call Tuvok," when her scientist's nature demanded that first she take inventory of recent events, and possible outcomes.
The sound had stopped; there would be nothing to go by now except her statement that she had "heard a funny sound". The computer had already demonstrated its well-meaning uselessness. She could picture her security officer's raised eyebrow now. Let's see – what would he say? Certainly, Captain. I will detail a female security officer to monitor your quarters for the next three days, in the event the … sound makes another appearance.
Would it really be wise to permit Tuvok to think that his Captain was going nuts – already? Only three months into a seventy-year journey? And maybe she really was imagining things...
She sighed, and decided to let it go. For now.
Decision made, she was painfully aware that there was no more sleep in her immediate future, and reached for her book. Alas, it took only one paragraph – read and re-read six times – to confirm that Thackeray would offer little respite tonight.
Now what? Lie there and wait for the sound to reappear? Get confirmation she was crazy when it did? Or, worse, when it didn't and she had to admit having imagined it? Hobson's choice, really.
Kathryn Janeway hated no-win situations.
That left what - go back on duty? The last time she had shown up on the bridge during Gamma shift, poor Rollins had almost suffered a heart attack. The good Lieutenant was the kind of officer who liked being surrounded by nothing more threatening than ensigns and crewmen. A good and reliable man in a fight, this was nonetheless the same man who had reflexively called an as-yet-pipless Tom Paris "sir" and had happily handed him the bridge, in deference to a natural command authority Rollins himself could never dream of possessing. He was perfectly fine running Gamma shift, but the presence of Commander Chakotay or herself on the bridge seemed to turn him into one of Neelix's gelatinous creations, transparent and quivering.
Clearly, the bridge was out.
With a sigh, Kathryn decided that maybe a walk would help. Tour the ship, poke into some quiet corners she didn't often get to, get her residual nervousness out of her system. Perhaps she could inspect the hydroponics bay and all those amazing plants Kes had started growing there?
She pulled on a pair of old Academy sweats of Mark's that she had lifted from his closet a couple of years ago. They hung even looser on her than they had when she had first appropriated them; fabric pooled around her ankles and her wrists, but she didn't really care. Although his scent had long since surrendered to repeat turns in the 'fresher, the soft fabric reminded her of their relationship: familiar, warm, comfortable – if perhaps a little worn and frayed around the edges ...
Now where did that thought come from? Another scratching sound, come in the dark of night to disturb her inner peace?
She shook her head to clear it and resolutely headed for the corridor.
The aeroponics bay was lovely, with the ventilation just strong enough to allow the leaves of a number of exotic plants to sway a little in the artificial breeze. Kathryn touched the velvet blossom of a climber set against the back wall – an espaliered fruit-bearing vine, according to Kes' meticulous labeling. Kathryn sent a silent wish to the stars that it would taste better than the – what was it? leola root? – that Neelix had transported onboard in staggering quantities not too long ago. She took a deep breath of the oxygen-rich air and left.
Shuttle Bay Three. She paused at the door to listen to the sounds of the Gamma shift engineers, fixing the damage to the USS Sacajawea incurred in Chakotay's and Tuvok's encounter with the Komar. Another comforting sound – another Delta Quadrant alien menace, being hammered into oblivion.
Where next? Avoid Deck Five, a little voice told her – the EMH never seemed to be deactivated these days, and seemed almost to lie in wait to chat up people passing by Sickbay. She certainly did not feel ready for a litany of his latest grievances or, worse, his complaints that she had missed the three appointments for physicals he had tried to schedule for her.
Inspiration struck. Deck Six - the holodecks. With any luck, one of them would be free and she could relax for an hour or two with her Victorian holonovel. Surely the holographic Lord Birney wouldn't notice if she didn't wear period dress? Well, if he did, she'd reprogram him to be less perceptive. One advantage holocharacters had over her live crewmembers.
"Damn," she muttered under her breath when the external display on Holodeck One showed it was running a private program, the occupant's name obscured. She could have overridden the encryption with her command codes, of course, but Kathryn felt little inclination to try and figure out just which of her crewmembers was (were?) relieving the stress and loneliness of their Delta Quadrant predicament with a little … anonymous recreation.
Holodeck Two was also in use, but the words "Open Program" were prominently displayed. Paris Three, it said in bright letters. Wasn't that the little French bar/bistro her chief conn officer had constructed for the crew, the one with the hilariously obnoxious gigolos and pool hustlers?
A game of pool might be just the thing…
She entered, and was immediately surrounded by the susurrations of small talk, the clinking of glasses, and the clicking of queues on hard balls. Tom had even gotten the smells right – a whiff of stale beer, with an overlay of salt from the Mediterranean. Thank goodness he had limited his quest for authenticity to the visual effects of cigarette smoke, that vile habit that had killed so many people in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
"Bon soir chérie, what will you be 'aving tonight?" the sensuous, warm voice of the proprietress interrupted her contemplation.
"Synthale, please." No point in denying herself that small pleasure, Kathryn figured. When in Rome …
She grasped her glass, licked off a blob of foam that threatened to run down the outside of her glass, and scanned the room, squinting to compensate for the smoky air. At least one of crewmember had to be here for the program to be operational – energy savings regulations required unused holodecks to be shut down. And if someone was here, depending who it was, she might just join them for a chat. To pass the time, if nothing else.
Ah, there he was, the only other human occupant of Sandrine's.
A pair of very long legs lay crossed over on a table in the corner, their owner's chair kicked back against the far wall. Two empty glasses sat, upside down, beside his right foot; he was staring intently at a third in his hand. The dim light in the corner cut dark shadows into his handsome face and his normally bright blue eyes were nearly black, and narrowed under a brooding frown. His lower lip was pulled between his teeth with what looked like painful intensity. He did not look happy, and for a moment she considered it might be better if she withdrew without disturbing him.
But he appeared to have sensed that he was no longer alone; his head turned in her direction and his teeth released his lower lip leaving a drop of blood behind. No longer able to deny her presence, Kathryn put on the type of friendly, slightly concerned smile one might consider suitable for a situation like the one before her – a troubled officer, drinking alone.
He did not react immediately, his thoughts by all appearances requiring some assembly before he could articulate a response. He did, however, manage to swing his legs off the table - a well-drilled-in approximation of respect for the presence of his commanding officer.
"Captain? What …"
"I could ask you the same thing, Lieutenant," she said, a little gruffly but not unkindly – her tone more a function of her own state of mind than a response to the condition she thought she had found him in. But when he turned his eyes on her, she found to her surprise that his gaze was as clear as it had been in the morning, and every day since she had brought him onboard Voyager. What was missing, though, was the spark - and now that she thought about it, he had been rather subdued on the bridge all day, failing to engage in his usual banter. He looked … haunted.
"We're both on Alpha shift, as I recall. And it's Oh-Two-Hundred. Or thereabouts."
The pilot's mouth twitched into something that he had probably intended to be a smile, but it did not quite reach his eyes and remained only half formed - just as his answer was not exactly forthcoming.
"Couldn't sleep. You?"
Kathryn hesitated for a split second, before realizing that denying the obvious would not be useful, even if the question was slightly impertinent. But Tom Paris had never been successfully contained within the four corners of Starfleet etiquette, and she found herself curiously relieved that this remained so even in his current dark mood. They were both Fleet brats, after all, and only too well aware that even the highest rank insignia were fastened to mere human beings who, occasionally, had moments of weakness.
"Me neither. Mind if I join you for a bit? We may as well be awake together."
"My pleasure," the pilot replied, managing to sound almost as if he meant it. With a determined motion of his head and hand he slugged back the last of his drink and looked briefly at his glass. His lips barely moved as he silently uttered a single - word? name?. He set the glass down on the table, hard, upside down like the two others.
That last act of his private ceremony complete, Tom rose to his feet and, old-fashioned gentleman that he sometimes could be when the whim took him, pulled the chair opposite his own out for her to be seated. Allowing the mask of congeniality to slide over his face, he hailed Sandrine with a "Coke, please," much to Janeway's surprise.
"I'm done drinking for the night," he stated defiantly into her open stare. "Hope you don't mind that I don't keep you company in drink. Three is my maximum, and even that only once a year."
Her curiosity tweaked, she nodded over to the evidence of his night's consumption and asked, "And tonight was that night?"
"Yep," he replied, his voice leaving very little opening for further inquiries.
Kathryn frowned a little, more in concentration than annoyance, and studied the three upturned glasses. And then it struck her—that old sailor's custom, turning over a glass in memory of the dead. Tom would have been raised with that custom, coming as he did from a family whose long naval tradition preceded even its storied presence in Starfleet.
Three dead comrades.
"Anniversary?" she asked, softly, sympathetically, gesturing vaguely in the direction of the glasses. The Janeways, too, came of ancient naval stock.
"Yep," he said again, not bothering to hide the bitterness now. He seemed beyond caring that his defensive walls were down – a sight that disturbed her as much as it gave her some small gratification. Tom Paris did not trust easily, and his unexpected willingness to let her see his pain was a gift, of sorts.
"I'm here, they're not. So I have a drink for them on that day. Last year I was in Auckland for the occasion. Not easy to get your hand on booze there. Not impossible, but ... not easy."
A black shadow crossed his face, and she briefly found herself wondering just what Tom Paris might have had to do in order to hold his private vigil, to mark what was obviously a day of private penance, at the rehab colony. Not a topic to pursue, she decided. Not now, perhaps not ever.
"But enough about me, Captain," he said, his voice deceptively light again, pursuing his ever-so-slightly inappropriate question from before. The wall was coming back up, with breath-taking speed.
"What brings you into this fine establishment, on an otherwise ordinary day, at this extraordinary hour?"
Kathryn gave him a measured look over her synthale, and let out a long breath. An idea struck her.
He had confided in her just now, of sorts, however briefly. Maybe … just maybe … she could return the gesture, at a time when it seemed possible to reach him and get past his armor-plated ironic detachment to the warm and caring human being she knew lay beneath. She almost smiled when it occurred to her that she should have thought of him before, when trying to figure out whom she could talk to about her problem. Tom Paris was quite possibly the least judgmental individual she had ever met – at least when it came to judging others than himself.
And if nothing else, he looked like he could use a bit of a distraction.
"The truth is, I've been hearing funny noises in my quarters lately, and I couldn't sleep." There. It was out.
Tom's interest, as she had suspected it would be, was instantly diverted from the current road of self-contempt he seemed to be heading down.
"What kinds of noises? Couldn't the computer identify them?"
Kathryn sighed. "In a word, no. They disappear as soon as I ask it for information, make a sound, or get up to investigate. I haven't been able to find anything with my tricorder, either."
Tom leaned back, a crooked smile beginning to twitch in the corner of his mouth. "And you haven't told Tuvok, because … let me guess. He'd think you're nuts?"
She glared at him, but only for a second, since he had assessed the situation rather accurately, and rather quickly at that. There was a lot more to Tom Paris than people gave him credit for, it occurred to her; certainly, his ability to read people at times was uncanny. She chuckled ruefully.
"Something like that."
"So what are they like, these … sounds?"
Kathryn scrabbled two of her nails on the table for a second. "Like that. Except … smaller."
Tom gave her a pensive look. "If I didn't know any better, I'd say there's a mouse behind your wall panel. We had them in the walls at my grandfather's cabin in Canada. You must have had them on the farm in Indiana, with all that grain around. Damn hard to get rid of, they are."
Kathryn blanched. She swallowed as he gave voice to the thing that had been gnawing at the back of her mind, the possibility that she had not wanted to think about. She lifted slightly panicked grey eyes and looked directly into her pilot's widening blue ones. There was a sudden understanding in them, a flash of sympathy at her predicament.
Grateful for his silence, she wondered just how … discrete would the pilot be?
"I hope you're wrong. I … I don't particularly like mice," she admitted, quite unnecessarily. "Never have."
She pulled herself together. She was, after all, the Captain of a starship, in charge of over a hundred and forty lives. And mice were … just mice.
"But that can't be it. Voyager was swept from top to bottom before she left McKinley. No unaccounted-for life forms onboard. Besides, there's no access route to my quarters behind the wall panels. So how the hell would it get into the wall?"
Tom thought for a moment. "Let's think this through, Captain. First off, mice get in pretty well anywhere they want. Have for millennia – why they're such a success as a species. Second, it doesn't have to be an actual mouse, in the technical sense. Could be a Delta Quadrant version. You know, small animal, gets into tight spaces, eats everything? I mean if we find humanoids here all over the place, so why not rodents? As I said, mice are a highly successful species. Stands to reason they, or things like them, evolve across the galaxy."
He paused again, his brow furrowed in concentration, and Kathryn couldn't help but think that if Tom Paris could be broken out of a bout of depressive self-hatred simply by being given a problem to solve, she would just have to find ways to keep him busy for the next seventy-odd years. She wouldn't have interrupted his flow of thought now for all the plasma in the Crab nebula.
The object of her contemplation broke into a triumphant grin.
"Here's the thing. Just think of all the stuff Neelix and Kes have schlepped onboard during our last landfall, him to the pantry, her to the aeroponics bay. That's how rats and mice used to get onboard the great sailing ships in the past. With the food. It – hopefully it's not a they - probably hitched a ride on the leola root. That stuff is diabolical."
He cast her a speculative look. "Maybe we should throw it all out the airlock."
Kathryn snorted slightly at the hopeful tone in his voice, but what Tom had said made sense, and Kathryn was once more surprised by the pilot's ability to cut through acquired wisdom and preconceptions and focus on the essential. Useful skill, that; she filed the observation in her memory banks for later examination. For now, there were other matters to be considered.
She frowned in concentration, the scientist in her having – at least momentarily – overridden the latent musophobe.
"Access?" she asked. "What about access."
"Oh, that's easy. Computer, end program Paris Three and provide a three-dimensional schematic of the Captain's quarters, plus decks immediately above and below. Leave out all furniture except for … " he cleared his throat past a second's unexpected hesitation, "… the Captain's bed."
Tom's tone was that of a man on a mission now, the late hour notwithstanding, and Kathryn couldn't help but find herself swept up in his enthusiasm. She cast him a sideways glance as he examined the schematic, observing her helmsman as he unselfconsciously ran his hand through his not-quite-Starfleet-regulation-length hair.
He was completely focused on his task, his features relaxed except for a slight frown of concentration. He was really a very handsome man, she thought, especially when he didn't try to keep the world at arm's length with that cynical smirk he still wore like a shield far more often than she liked. Much better looking than his father. Or even … Don't examine that one too closely, Kathryn, she chided herself, and turned her mind back to the problem at hand.
"Highlight all open conduits behind my bed," she commanded the computer.
"There! Auxiliary ventilation," Tom exclaimed, with a smug expression. "And look where it opens up, Captain, right here." His finger stabbed at a tiny juncture.
"Into the vertical part of Jefferies Tube 32, which runs down to Deck Two. And the horizontal portion of it ends behind my former private dining room."
"Which is home now to Neelix' Pantry Of Delta Quadrant Horrors. A local rodent's idea of paradise, no doubt."
She didn't bother to chide him for his rather uncharitable comment on their morale officer's culinary talents, focused as she already was on the necessary next step.
"So how do we get rid of it?"
"Flood the whole area with one of Tuvok's special death rays? Have B'Elanna and Harry build the ultimate mousetrap? Or if that fails, I'm sure Chakotay has some hideously effective Maquis trick up his sleeve. Morning briefing should be an adventure in creative problem solving, and by tomorrow night you can sleep soundly again, Captain."
She glared at him. He was clearly enjoying this now, perhaps just a little bit too much. And at her expense, based on the thousand or so imps she saw dancing behind his eyes as he pictured the discussion.
Kathryn Janeway, who can stare down the Kazon and the Vidiians, plotting to rain destruction upon four little pink feet and tiny whiskers….
Her voice turned to gravel. "I tell you what, Mr. Paris. There's no time like the present to engage in a spot of extermination. Why don't you see what you can do. Now. Leave me a message if it takes you very long, and I'll tell Chakotay to put one of the relief pilots on Alpha shift."
She smiled sweetly at the pilot's stunned face. It was perfect, really. Sending him into the bowels of the ship for a few hours would keep Tom Paris, who by all indications was far from ready to go to sleep, from another round of self-flagellation; she wouldn't have to expose her … reluctance about rodents to others on the senior staff; and it would teach him a lesson about insouciance in the face of his commanding officer.
"You have your assignment, Lieutenant. Dismissed."
His blue eyes bored into hers for a moment and his lips quirked into an odd smile, which for some odd reason reverberated deep inside Kathryn's stomach.
"Yes, Ma'am. As you wish."
He inclined his head towards her a little and then he was gone, leaving a slightly dazed Captain holding her glass with no table on which to set it down.
What the hell had just happened?
The wall panel behind Neelix' pantry was not tight, as per Starfleet regulation. It was clear that something – probably the Talaxian cook's impossibly huge metal pots – had been banging against it frequently when being put back on their shelves; as a result, it had been knocked loose and was slightly ajar. The perfect escape route.
A small trail of tiny specks was leading from the panel to a basket of yellow roots. The fragrance of the latter made him gag in instinctive revulsion, and he glared at them in distaste. Leola root: worse than the Kazon when it came to Delta Quadrant scourges, as far as Tom was concerned. He ran his tricorder over the specks. Yep, they were what he'd thought: Evidence.
He pocketed a piece of leola root, opened the panel and crawled inside, clamping down on his claustrophic instincts as he did so. Captain Janeway had asked this of him, and he had pretty early on determined that he would go to the end of the universe for the woman who had gotten him out of Auckland. And if in doing so he could spare her the indignity of admitting to the senior staff that she was scared of mice, well – that was a bonus, as far as Tom was concerned.
As he folded up his long frame and settled on his hands and knees, he muttered a ritual curse in memory of Lance Jefferies, the twenty-first century engineer whose idea of "easy access" service tunnels was definitely not meant for twenty-fourth century pilots. Especially not a pilot whose mother had believed in raising her children on a high-protein diet. Best get it over with, Thomas.
Not bothering to close the door panel behind him – what was the point? it wouldn't stop what he was looking for – Tom asked the computer to erect a Level One force field at the exit. He had kept his tricorder on its highest calibration, and meticulously moved it ahead of himself as he crawled forward on his hands and knees. To no avail – there were no signs of life; he could only hope that whatever-it-was was not silicate- or energy-based, or otherwise impervious to his tricorder's settings.
What the tricorder did pick up, though, was the occasional piece of "evidence" on the floor of the tube. Tom assiduously tried to avoid putting his hands down on those areas. He didn't need the EMH to tell him that animal droppings were not the healthiest thing to come into direct contact with, however convenient they were as an elementary tracking device. This was one lot of breadcrumbs he wouldn't bring home.
He came to a node in the tube. Oh, great. The tube not only split off into four lateral branches, but an additional vertical one. Tom searched all three new corridors for droppings with his tricorder, coming up empty, before he remembered: the Captain's quarters were one deck up. With any luck, his prey was not into roaming and stuck to the direct path to its personal horn of plenty in the kitchen.
He stood up, enjoying the luxury of unfolding and stretching his cramped body for a moment, and examined the walls and rungs of the ladder leading to the higher decks. Nothing. Of course not, you idiot, he chided himself. Droppings don't stay on vertical surfaces, and small critters wouldn't use human-sized ladders.
"Well, here goes nothing," Tom muttered and started to climb. He briefly wondered what B'Elanna Torres would make of finding him in what she probably considered her personal domain, in the middle of the night, tricorder between his teeth. She'd probably have him committed to Sickbay.
He tried to recall the schematic he and Captain Janeway had looked at in the holodeck. Just where did the auxiliary ventilation pipe merge into the tube? Shit. Nothing for it – he'd have to break his silence.
"Computer, indicate ventilation access in Jefferies Tube 32 vertical. Indicate height in relation to access ladder rungs."
"The primary ventilation shaft is located at the node with Jefferies Tube 33 on Deck Three, ladder rung location not applicable. Auxiliary ventilation access points are located at the level of rungs eight and sixteen, on the port and starboard side respectively."
He resisted his usual impulse to say 'thank you'. Two choices he could deal with.
Tom started to climb, counting as he went. He paused when his head was at rung eight and searched the metal walls with his eyes. There. Right underneath the ladder – how convenient. He pointed the tricorder into the small opening. Nothing. No droppings, no life signs. Or maybe nobody was home? He cursed softly and climbed higher.
At rung sixteen he did a visual scan of the wall opposite. Now that he knew what he was looking for he found it easily. Hooking his left foot under the rung and holding on to the ladder with his left hand, he leaned as far towards the opposite wall as he could. Tom thanked his lucky stars that fear of heights had never been his problem. Would have made for a short career as a pilot, too, he considered irrelevantly. More importantly, for once his height in relation to the diameter of the Jefferies tube was an advantage, and he did not have to lean forward too precariously in order to hold the tricorder up to the tube.
Bingo. Droppings and … wait a minute … yes! Life signs. Small, but definitely there. And not humanoid, so it wasn't Kathryn Janeway, who would be back in her quarters by now. Ah yes, there she was – he looked briefly at the pulsating blip that represented his Captain, but innate respect for her privacy made him snap the tricorder shut.
Tom hooked his arm around the ladder and considered his options. Scaring the thing, whatever it was, out of its hiding place was out – it would run away from the noise and further up into the aux vent. He scoured his memory banks. He liked the outdoors – in fact he liked them a lot, given how much time he spent inside glorified tin cans – but had always much preferred to skiing through freshly fallen snow, or running through a forest after a rainfall, to hunting. Animals were best left alone, as far as Tom Paris was concerned.
But despite Tom's lack of interest in engagement with the local wildlife, his grandfather, whose hobby had been taking night-time holovids of the animals around his mountain cabin, had managed to drag him out into the occasional moonlit night. Young Tom had gone along mostly for the sensation of not having to be in bed; the price he'd paid had been listening to his granddad's enthusiastic attempts at instructing him in the fine art of stalking.
And one thing his Grandfather, himself a formidable battle strategist during his days with Starfleet, had told him was this: The first rule of the hunt is patience. Don't go looking for your prey, Tommy. Go to where they will be, then let them come to you. He suppressed a grin at the memory of how this advice had fed into his success with the female population at the Academy, and moved to operationalize the concept for real.
Moving in utmost silence, Tom took the piece of leola root out of his pocket, placed it at the edge of the entrance to the vent and leaned back against the ladder.
"There," he muttered under his breath. "Stink away, you disgusting hunk of DQ nutrition. Go attract something that actually evolved to like you."
And then he waited.
He waited and waited, until his feet and his left arm threatened to go to sleep. He shifted his body around on the ladder to relieve the prickling sensation and get his blood flowing again, but it didn't take long for the problem to shift with him. Worse, he was starting to fall asleep.
Maybe whistling might help? What was that story his mom had read him when he was little, about a guy who played a flute and cleared a whole medieval town of a rat infestation? He considered comming Harry and asking him to bring his clarinet, when it occurred to him that he was going out of his mind.
Clearly, patience wasn't a Tom Paris thing.
Wait. What was that? A sudden rustling sound, like … little feet. And was that a snuffle?
A small black nose appeared in the vent opening, followed by long whiskers and a yellowish furry head. Tom clipped his tricorder on his belt and slowly pulled his phaser out of its holster. The piece of leola root started to move a little, then rolled forward. For a split second, it teetered on the edge, then disappeared down the chute. The creature emitted a little squeak and scrabbled down the metallic wall after its prize.
Tom suppressed a curse, as well as the impulse to go after it. First things first.
"Computer, erect a level five force field across aux vent across from rung 16 in Jeffries Tube 32 vertical."
He watched with smug satisfaction as the small force field buzzed to life. There – the Captain's future nighttime rest was assured. And now for a spot of pest control…
He started to climb down the ladder, carefully, so as not to make more noise than necessary – not an easy thing with a phaser in one hand, he found. That rodent thing, whatever it was, had to have suction cups on its feet … Looking down, he spotted the piece of vegetable on the floor of the Jefferies tube, and saw motion beside it. He stopped, settled his feet on one of the lower rungs, and paused for a second to assess the tactical status quo.
That second, however, was all it took for the nerves in his already numbed left foot to cancel their connection with his brain, and his foot slipped off. He instinctively reached for the ladder with his right hand, only to have the phaser it still held collide with the rung, causing the weapon to clatter onto the floor - just ahead of the cursing pilot himself.
Tom could only watch as a small yellow blur streaked up the wall towards the air vent where it had made its home. He knew what would happen, and just managed a "Computer, level five force field across Jefferies Tube 32 vertical, Deck Three" as the creature hit its nose on the force field he had erected across its erstwhile entrance way. It gave a little squeak, and another when it tried to escape upwards only to discover yet another road block, the hard way.
The second impact seemed to stun the small intruder, and it lost its grip on the wall, landing on the floor by Tom's feet with a small but resounding thud.
"Ha," he gloated at it. "I know fighting with force fields is dirty pool, but it's four o'clock in the morning and you, my friend, are standing between me and my bed. Not to mention the Captain's."
He caught himself and frowned a little as he tried to figure out what he had just said, and whether it made sufficient sense that he should feel embarrassed by it. Oh well. No one had heard him anyway, so what the hell. The critter wouldn't be around long enough to testify to this ex-con's Freudian slip, if it was one.
He went into a crouch and started to reach for the motionless creature, but as his hand approached for the grab it suddenly revived and, with a series of indignant squeals, ran over his right foot and towards the juncture of the tubes,
"Noooo…" Tom managed to plead - to absolutely no avail. The mouse – for that was what it looked, nevermind acted like - streaked into the long end of JT 32, away from the mess hall and pantry.
Tom called for another force field down that tube and, with malicious satisfaction, listened for the light fzzzz as his prey collided with it. He picked up his phaser and crawled into the tube behind the animal, cursing the fact that neither the metal floor nor his knees came with any form of padding.
He made slow progress, scanning a constant 360 degrees worth of tube as he went; after all, the thing had no problems with verticals and may even be able to run on the ceiling. Bugs could do it on earth, why not Delta Quadrant rodents?
Sure enough, it came directly at him, right overhead, and at enormous speed. He reared up trying to stop – or at least deter – the little dervish with his hands, but only succeeded in banging his head on the ceiling of the low tube.
His cursing streak entered warp before he managed to catch his breath and could issue one more coherent command to the computer.
"Computer, erect Level Five force field one meter behind me. moving as I go. And – please – issue verbal warning if I get too close. I'm having major klutz issues here. Next time I'll stick to synthahol."
The field buzzed on, and he resolved not to succumb to the highly irrational urge to stretch his legs out behind him. There. That would narrow and shrink the field of action for his adversary. Your doom is closing in on you, you little sucker.
He turned around and, allowing himself a smug grin, crawled back towards where the tube opened into the node, secure in the knowledge that whatever it was he was chasing now had no place to go. The grin left his face as quickly as it had come, when out of nowhere the possibility that it may be venomous occurred to him.
Nah. If it was, it would have gone for him already. He sure had given it ample opportunity to lay him out flat …
Bzzz. Another hit against the forward force field, followed by a small thud. A few meters down the tube, Tom saw a small ball of fur on the floor.
"Gotcha!" he exulted, and crawled forward quickly. Sitting on his haunches before the stunned creature, he pulled out his phaser and studied it for a moment. Yellow fur, big eyes, black nose, long, small, four-toed pink feet, silky-looking tail curled around its tiny body, which was panting in exhaustion.
Good, at least I'm not the only one who's had to work hard here tonight, Tom thought vindictively.
As if sensing the imminent danger it was in and knowing the game was finally up, the creature sat up, putting its front paws in front of its chest.
Tom took aim with his phaser, and the creature stiffened and fell on its side.
Kathryn Janeway watched her pilot enter the bridge and head down the steps to the helm with his usual loose and graceful stride, nothing in his face betraying the fact that he had spent an almost entirely sleepless night. She wasn't sure whether she should admire or resent him for his apparent resilience.
Chakotay had registered his concern at her own haggard appearance practically the second he had clapped eyes on her. "You don't look very rested, Captain,"he had said. "Are you sure you shouldn't let the Doctor have a look at you?" Thanks, Commander.
It really wasn't fair – was it because she was a woman? Was it her translucent Irish skin, or the fact that she was at least a dozen years his senior, that the bags under her eyes resembled the Craters of Loria? Tom looked fresh and cool, apparently totally unaffected by the night's events. No bags, no haggard lines, not a hair out of place … Oh, and his skin was Irish, too, so that obviously wasn't it.
Just as he'd appeared at Auckland when she had first seen him - the thought came unbidden. There, working on shuttle repair detail with a blow torch in one hand and a location monitor around his ankle, registration number carefully concealed under freshly regenerated skin, his only visible concession to his condition had been the sheen of sweat on his tanned face. The contrast to the naked despair she had seen in his face last night in the shadows at Sandrine's could not have been starker. Tom Paris – master of mimicry, able to fool everyone around him into thinking that he was perfectly fine, when he spent nights wrestling his demons …
But whatever it was that allowed him to appear his usual, unflappable self, Kathryn was not immune to some of the baser human instincts. Resentment at the genetic throw of the dice that had turned up aces for the bag-free young pilot was beginning to win out, when Tom suddenly turned his gaze in her direction and … winked? Not only that, but he briefly flashed her his right thumb, before clapping Culhane on the shoulder in farewell and settling into the newly vacated seat at the conn.
"Steady as she goes, Mr. Paris," she managed to rasp out before turning to her First Officer. "Maintain speed at Warp Six and don't fly us into anything."
"Will do my best, Ma'am," came his immediate, clipped response. "Nothing bigger than a mouse in this sector of space anyway."
She glared at the back of his fair head and rose out of her chair.
"You have the bridge, Mr. Chakotay. I'll be in my ready room." Tuvok looked at her in cool, unblinking, Vulcan silence as she stalked past his station on her way into her personal sanctum, head held high.
Once there, she managed to bury herself in a series of overdue reports for an hour or so. Normally she cherished those uneventful, boring days aboard Voyager – few and far between they were, it seemed - when no one was trying to kill, mutilate or entrap her crew. Today was an exception. The sheer ordinariness of the morning somehow just … chafed. Perhaps it was the excess adrenaline, from trying to stay awake after a mere three hours of sleep? Or was the haunted vulnerability she had seen in Tom Paris' eyes the night before?
No. He'd said mouse. She needed to know, and no need pretending that she could wait any longer just to salvage her dignity.
She tapped her comm badge. "Janeway to Paris. Can you join me in my ready room for a moment, Lieutenant?"
The pilot turned in his seat and motioned towards Lang, busy at the auxiliary Ops console, to take his place. The ensign nodded and smoothly slid into his seat, adjusting it for her own height before taking stock of the instruments. Tom watched her for a second, to satisfy himself that she would handle his ship with the proper care and attention, before heading up the steps.
He almost ostentatiously ignored Chakotay's questioning frown, giving his XO a nonchalant I-don't-know-what-this-is-about-and-no-I'm-not-in-trouble shrug as he passed him on his way to the ready room.
"You wished to see me, Captain?" he drawled carelessly after the doors swished closed behind him. He was standing in classic at-ease position, hands loosely clasped behind his back, bright blue eyes dancing just a little.
"Cut the crap, Mr. Paris. Report!" she growled at him. "What did you find?"
She could see that he was considering stringing her along for a moment, and increased the caliber of her grey-eyed glare. It was with no small degree of satisfaction that she watched him wrestle his triumphant gloat into submission.
"Mission accomplished," he said matter-of-factly.
"One small, furry, unidentified Delta Quadrant mammalian successfully rousted out and detained in Jefferies Tube 32. Apparent place of origin - a recent shipment of leola root transported aboard approximately three days ago; no indication that there was more than one specimen. Evidence of impending construction of a suitable habitat in the space behind your …" here he faltered unaccountably, "… bed has been removed. Ma'am."
He settled back into staring straight ahead, but his eyes quickly strayed back to Kathryn's face, evidently looking to gauge her reaction. It came quickly.
"Thank you, Mr. Paris. I notice you said detained. I seem to recall ordering you to get rid of it. Was there … a problem?"
She observed with interest a slight tensing in the pilot's shoulders, and he shifted uncomfortably from one foot to the other before her desk. The decision to cut him some slack came unbidden - a sudden, unaccountable feeling of warmth that she dismissed as soon as she felt it wash over her insides.
"Relax, Mr. Paris. Please, just tell me what happened. You couldn't fire your phaser because … you were in a confined location?" She was giving him an out, if he was willing to take it. Her order had been pretty clear – extermination. And he had, apparently, failed to carry it out.
Tom tightened his lower lip and looked down at his feet. Apparently he found his courage there, somewhere on the tips of his Starfleet-shined boots, for he lifted his clear blue eyes back up to hers and straightened to almost full attention.
"No ma'am." His resolve left him again, and he sagged a little. "Truth be told, I couldn't pull the trigger."
"May I ask why?"
Tom took a deep breath, and the words tumbled out of his mouth. "I couldn't do it. Couldn't kill him. He was … he was just so … so goddamn cute."
Kathryn stared at him, stunned disbelief written across her face. "Cute?"
Tom nodded defiantly. Now that he had fessed up, he was clearly prepared to stand his ground.
"Yes, ma'am. No doubt about it. Cute. Downright adorable, in fact. Probably an evolutionary back-up defence system, for when mimicry among the leola plants fails him."
She couldn't help herself. She snorted. There was something about Tom Paris' view of the world and his way of expressing it that never failed to captivate her, Tuvok's raised eyebrows and Chakotay's disapproving frowns notwithstanding. Recapturing her dignity with aplomb, she shook her head.
"So tell me, what have you done with this … this alien intruder?"
"He's in my quarters, ma'am. Securely confined. He fainted when I aimed my phaser at him. Keeled over with shock. So I carried him home, wrapped up in my jacket."
Kathryn weighed her next words. Clearly, keeping an invasive alien life form – however small – onboard Voyager was not acceptable, and contrary to Starfleet regulations. Tom Paris was out of line and had, in fact, disobeyed her direct order. She knew what Tuvok's position would be, and now that she knew the creature was alive and where it was located, protocol required that certain steps be taken. But before she could open her mouth, Tom suddenly stepped forward, and gripped the edge of her desk with both hands.
"I know the drill, Captain, and I am prepared to follow your order of … of extermination. But before you issue this little critter with a death warrant, you should at least have a look at him."
His tone had turned almost pleading. "I'm convinced he's harmless."
There was something in the pilot's eyes, something irresistible that caused Kathryn's defenses to buckle. And as if to take the pilot's side the scientist in her began to stir and beg to be noticed, despite the overwhelming presence of the indignant Captain and the quivering musophobe. She sighed her resignation.
"Fine, Lieutenant. Eighteen hundred hours. Your quarters. Dismissed."
Failing to conceal the relieved grin that lit up his features at the stay of execution, Tom nodded once.
"Yes, ma'am," he practically sang out. He turned on his heel and headed back out onto the bridge with a spring in his step, ready to fly.
Kathryn paused in front of Tom Paris' quarters on Deck Four, not sure what to expect. Four months into their journey, she had yet to enter the private sphere of any of her crewmembers - other than Tuvok's Vulcan sanctum. She tapped the door chime. "Come in," the pilot's clear tenor rang out, and the door swished open.
She wasn't certain why the meticulous state of his quarters surprised her – Tom had been raised in Starfleet after all. There was a good number of personal items, including several neat stacks of replicated paper books, but somehow she had expected an element of … chaos, something out of place, to reflect the bright random thread within the fabric of Voyager's crew that she had come to see in him.
But before she could succumb to the urge to scrutinize his personal space further for evidence of surprising personality traits, her attention was drawn by a large metal cargo container on the coffee table. The lid had been removed, and replaced with a tight wire mesh.
"Is that … it?" she asked, more hesitantly than she had intended.
"Yep." He gave her a sideways glance, and a lopsided grin.
"Step on up and have a look. He won't bite. I think."
Cursing herself for the chills she felt running down her spine, Kathryn Janeway mustered every ounce of her inner strength and closed in on the container, where something was moving around, up and down the walls.
"Captain, meet Mickey."
She shot him a disbelieving stare. "You gave it a name?"
"Not it. Him. He's most definitely a him. Which is a Good Thing, actually, 'cause it means he couldn't have gone forth and multiplied in a quiet corner of the ship. That we know of, anyway. Oh, and I checked the auxiliary vent with a nanobot after I secured him in here. He was building a nest in the wall behind your quarters, but I managed to confirm that he definitely acted alone."
That was not exactly a response to her challenge about the name-giving, but she decided to let it go. Taking a deep breath, she peeked into the box. The inside was bare, except for what appeared to be the remnants of one of Tom's socks, already well on its way to becoming a nest of some sort.
The little creature inside gave a start, and detached himself from a piece of leola root he had apparently been chewing – no, shredding - with considerable enthusiasm. Tiny feet scrabbled on smooth metal, the sound she had been hearing for three nights. The creature shot this way and that, and, failing to find refuge in the container, cowered in the middle of the pile of fabric, quivering, trying to make himself as small as he possibly could and wrapping his long tail around his body for protection.
"It's a mouse!" Kathryn exclaimed involuntarily.
"Well, technically, it isn't," Tom corrected her fastidiously. "I scanned Mickey pretty thoroughly, and while he's got rodent teeth he also has a four-chambered heart, four stomachs, and seems to be a ruminant."
His face scrunched up in distaste. "I mean, can you imagine - regurgitating leola root four times before finally being done with it?"
He noticed her stern look and raised his hands in mock surrender. "But in terms of size, general appearance, behaviour and probable function and place on the food chain, yeah, Mickey is basically a mouse. A yellow mouse."
"That got into our food supply and caused whatever contamination there," Kathryn's gravelly voice shot back.
Tom broke into a broad grin. "Oh my," he drawled. "Poor Neelix. Guess we're going to have to flush all that future leola root surprise out of the airlock, won't we? Crying shame, that would be."
Kathryn held up her hand to ward him off, and wasted no time disabusing him of his optimism. She was the Captain after all, and as such had certain responsibilities that could not afford to indulge her pilot's dietary prejudices.
"Not so fast, Mr. Paris. I will advise Neelix to ensure that all relevant food stocks are properly processed, to avoid possible parasites or pathogens. We're fifteen light years from the nearest M-class system and can't afford to throw out supplies just because some … some local vermin has hitched a ride in it."
To Kathryn's surprise, Tom's handsome features, so open and animated a few seconds ago, suddenly clamped shut with the speed of storm cloud moving into the mountains. His jaw set, and whatever witty retort he might have been ready to make just a few seconds ago visibly turned to ash in his mouth.
Taken aback by the sudden transformation, she felt compelled to challenge him. "I hope you haven't become attached to this … this creature to such an extent that you can't accept its true nature. It is what it is. Vermin."
Tom looked down at his fingernails for a moment, then turned his gaze on her with grim determination. His tone was flat, soft, and knifed through Kathryn's commanding officer's righteousness like a blade made of Zarcadian diamond.
"Vermin, Captain? You know, that's what some of the Fleeters called me when I first came onboard. Maquis, too."
He snorted contemptuously, although it was not clear to Kathryn just who his contempt was directed at.
"They probably still would, you know, if you hadn't given me those pips, Captain. Making me a Lieutenant turned me into someone they have to respect, even if they don't. Even if they probably shouldn't. After all, I am what I am."
Kathryn's insides clenched. She knew, of course, that Tom's presence on Voyager had been a thorn in many people's sides; certainly, her late First Officer and Chief Medical Officer had made no secret of the fact that they had held the young man in utmost contempt. And she certainly knew, and had seen again last night, that Tom Paris himself saw little of value when he looked in the mirror. But this was the first time he had ever given voice to some of the harassment he had suffered from others onboard her ship. And maybe was suffering still.
She looked into his face, almost as emotionless as Tuvok's now, searching for evidence of pain, of bitterness or even anger - anything. There was nothing. Only the flat gaze of those impossibly blue eyes, and within them a quiet, desperate acceptance that cut her to the quick. But whatever scorn and derision he was prepared to accept for himself, however much the fight had deserted him when it came to asserting his own worth, he would not allow others to suffer a similar judgment. His posture said as much.
Unwillingly, her eyes travelled down to the small creature in the cage, still quivering, but cautiously unfurling his tail now that the imminent danger appeared to have passed. Tom's voice cut through the sudden silence in his quarters.
"You gave me those pips, captain. And I gave him a name."
His jaw clamped shut again, his eyes not leaving her face, he stood ramrod straight now. Awaiting judgment. Again.
"I see," was the best she could muster for the moment, her throat suddenly and unaccountably constricted.
Inside the cargo container, the small creature began to wash itself, fastidiously and enthusiastically, wiping its little hand over its whiskers a few times before taking its tail into its tiny mouth and pulling it through, small blueish tongue busily licking all the way.
Kathryn let out a deep breath.
"I suppose there's no harm in keeping him in your quarters, until we make landfall again and can let him go."
Her tone turned stern as she managed to rally the Captain within. "But I will hold you personally responsible if he gets out. Make no mistake, Mr. Paris. You will be on your hands and knees, crawling through every Jefferies tube on the ship to find him. Is that clear?"
He visibly relaxed, and his eyes warmed a few degrees, relief – and something else - shining out of them as he spoke.
"Thank you, Captain. You have my word, he'll stay right here until we can find him a suitable new home."
And then, maybe because he was able to recover and reconstruct his defenses more quickly than Kathryn would have thought humanly possible, or maybe just because he was Tom Paris, he added, "But I can't promise that I won't encourage him to eat as much leola root as he can."
Kathryn shook her head, not bothering to conceal her own blossoming smile. "Deal."
She looked at the creature again, finding to her surprise that she could do so without the shudder she had been forced to suppress when she had first clapped eyes on him. He really was kind of … cute. Perhaps even adorable. But she'd be damned if she'd admit it, certainly not to her helmsman.
But there was still a call for basic courtesies to be followed. And so she allowed the smile to remain on her face, even as she summoned her commanding officer's voice.
"In any event, thank you for what you did for me, Tom. I'm sure I'll be able to sleep better tonight. I just hope he doesn't keep you up, though."
"Don't worry Captain. I had all sorts of pets in my room when I was a kid. Including some pretty noisy things, like hamsters. And if I can fall asleep while the warp core hums or while Harry plays his clarinet, I should be able to sleep through Mickey chewing his cud. I've found that when it comes to sleeping soundly it's not noise itself that's the problem – it's what a sound represents that keeps you up."
Kathryn nodded. "Indeed. Well, I better go now. I promised Chakotay that I would eat a proper dinner tonight."
She turned, but not before making her formal farewell.
"Good night. Tom. And ... Mickey."
She headed for the door, but something made her turn around before stepping through. She watched Tom bend over the cage and, as a small, private smile dawned on his face, he whispered to the small creature inside.
"See? I told you she'd give you a chance, too."