Does a war ever really end?
This story is part of my post-Endgame cycle, set shortly after Tom Paris has assumed command of a re-commissioned Voyager (see "Off the Shoulder of Orion"). For the titles of the other stories - and a handy chronological sequence - please visit my profile page. Despite the occasional self-indulgent reference, however, this one stands alone.
A couple of technical notes. The story is marked 'Janeway-Paris' given the central relationship dynamics, and due to the limitations of FFN which allows only two characters to be listed. The Paris/Torres marriage remains alive and well in my world (subject to the occasional hiccup, given the protagonists' well-documented lack of perfection). For people puzzled by the chapter headings, a brief translation is offered at the end of each chapter.
Paramount owns the ship and all the characters and locations you can find by googling Memory Alpha. Those you can't and the story itself are mine. I write for fun, not profit.
AFTER THE ASHES
By Alpha Flyer
There is a silence that goes beyond the absence of sound.
Some things no voice can do justice, no song embrace.
In a place where the ashes fall like snow (soft flakes, that once were farms, homes, cities and the people that dwelled within) the silence itself makes response.
There are no words to bring back the laughter of children, after the ashes have started their dance on indifferent winds.
Chapter 1 – Salle d'Armes
"Expose your wrist, then parry the counter-attack in octave and hit to the outside flank or thigh. Left-handers have a tendency to turn a little when they try to counter-attack. Remember – the key is to find your opponent's weak spot, and get them to open it up for you by making them think you made a mistake. Like this. One – counter – two."
The tac-tac of the blades rang through the small gymnasium, their ancient martial music as anachronistic as it was exhilarating. Jean-Luc Picard easily blocked the riposte, making a counter to his pupil's thigh. The hit having been acknowledged with a raised hand, Picard lifted the fencing mask up from his face, allowing it to rest on top of his head as he wiped the sweat off his forehead with the gauntlet of his glove.
"Epée fencing is a subtle art, Mr. Paris. If you signal your move the way you just did, your opponent can see your intention from a mile away. Do that only when you want him to see, to lure him in. For the actual hit, use just a little snap of your fingers, to flick the blade onto the target – don't wind up with your whole wrist. That takes an eternity and risks freeing the blade you've just blocked. If you do it right, I won't realize I'm about to be hit until it's already happening, and there isn't a lot I can do about it."
Picard put his mask back on. "Let's try this again. Draw the attack, parry and riposte, but use only your thumb and index finger to whip the blade onto the target."
Tom, who had copied the Admiral in removing his mask, flicked it back in front of his face with a sharp nod, and relaxed into the en garde stance. He had learned to enjoy fencing lessons during his time at the Kirk Centre - despite the skepticism of many of his classmates, who questioned what a thousand-year-old combat sport could possibly have to do with advanced strategic and tactical command decisions in the age of warp drive and photon cannons. Tom had no problems at all making the strategic connections. Fencing required subtlety, patience, and the ability to play a game of cat-and-mouse before striking with lightning speed. Not to mention trying not to fall flat on your ass, while running backwards and keeping up your defences, all at the same time – seven years in the Delta Quadrant were enough evidence of the need for that particular skill.
Tom's biggest problem was coaxing a gangly, no-longer-quite-youthful body into providing the necessary fleet-footedness and balance, and getting an arm used to wielding hockey sticks, tennis rackets, velocity paddles and ski poles to work with much smaller, subtler target ranges, using fingers and wrist instead. And then there where the lactic acid build-ups in places he hadn't even known he possessed muscles ... The first time he had come home from footwork practice, B'Elanna had uncharitably compared her husband's normally loose and graceful stride to the waddle of an injured puddle duck.
Picard, despite these and other shortcomings, had identified Tom Paris as one of the few students with a modicum of talent for the ancient sport he loved so much.
"You're quite mobile, despite your height, and you can think on your feet. That almost makes up for your unfortunate tendency to constantly want to be on the attack," he had said (leaving Tom to wonder whether there was supposed to be a compliment in there somewhere).
"My former security Officer Worf was like that. Always on the attack, with excitable, wide, threatening movements – all of which made him easy to pick off with a sneaky counter-attack. Some opponents are best waited out. If you learn that, and a bit of patience, you'll have a whole new tactical vocabulary at your disposal."
Noting Tom's genuine interest in the sport, Picard had given him a holoprogram featuring himself variously as instructor and as opponent, for times when he was in space for extended periods of time. But whenever Tom was on Earth – and the Admiral somehow always knew when that was - Picard made a point of inviting his erstwhile student to a live lesson or two. And, Tom suspected, a cross-examination on whether he was making adequate use of his professional education at the Kirk Centre.
This particular session was marked by the fact that Tom had had very little time for holo-pursuits while on his last mission – his first as Captain – and was obviously just as rusty as he felt. They practiced for another twenty minutes or so until Tom's leg muscles were ready to cry foul, and his right arm felt like it was about to fall off. Picard removed his mask again, and Tom followed suit. The two men saluted each other with their blades, and shook hands.
"Much better with your fingers and wrist the last few times around. Not bad point accuracy. But you still need to work on that flat-footed lunge of yours. The fact that you can outreach most people with your height means you don't have to lean forward to do it. Leaning puts all your weight on your front foot, and then you can't recover your balance fast enough to get away, in case of a counter attack."
"Thanks, I think," Tom replied with a cheerful grin. He was sore as hell, but it was a good sore – the kind that comes off good exercise and honest sweat. Perhaps he could persuade the Doc to run a subcutaneous stimulator over certain parts of his anatomy, so he'd escape his wife's ridicule and be able to walk tomorrow.
"I hope I'll be able to make it. I hear Nacheyev has another mission planned for us, and I expect to be called in tomorrow – no idea when. And tomorrow evening, I promised Will Riker to pop over for poker night for a bit. The Enterprise is still at McKinley, and I think he feels the urge to fleece me in retaliation for stealing Harry Kim."
The corner of Picard's mouth twitched. "Yes, I heard about that. Will complained to me too, but if helps any, I don't think he really meant it. I think actually he was trying to make sure I'd support Kim's transfer, namely by making me feel guilty over what happened with your First Officer."
The Admiral wrapped a towel around his neck and bent down to pick up his spare weapon. Serious again, he shook his head.
"Now about Tervellyan … I'm sure you understand that was a collective failure, and had nothing to do with you. Nobody picked up the signals. I've asked Deanna Troi to have a look at our psychological profiling methods, to see whether we can improve them, get better and earlier warning next time."
"Good luck with that," Tom said, refusing to conceal the skepticism in his voice. Short of highly invasive telepathic scrutiny, he didn't think any amount of testing would expose potential problems – and Starfleet had already had to make it clear that it would not resort to the methods deployed by the likes of the Orion Syndicate to test 'suitability for service'.
More importantly, though, he really didn't want to discuss the issue; the wounds were still too raw. A change of topic was clearly indicated, and Tom took the fact that the Admiral was heading over to the equipment locker as welcome confirmation that he wouldn't pursue the matter.
"You haven't heard anything about Voyager's next mission, have you?"
Although Picard was still relatively junior in the admiralty, his wealth of experience meant that he was frequently consulted on sensitive issues – and the closed-lipped response Tom had received to earlier inquiries with Nacheyev's office suggested that whatever Voyager would be asked to do, was sensitive indeed.
"Nice try, Captain," Picard laughed. His expression turned a little sour. "You know Fleet Admiral Alynna Nacheyev doesn't like being pre-empted."
Aha. So Picard did know. And the tone he'd used when referring to Nacheyev … Tom's ears pricked up. There was a story behind that slight inflection, a past. And the past, he knew better than most, could be both a barrier and a gateway. It was all in how you used it. He gave the man his most charming, disarming grin.
"Not even a hint?" he asked, as he handed his own practice weapon over. "So I can do some advance reading, look good at the briefing tomorrow?"
Somewhat conspiratorially, he added, "Not let her have all the cards for a change?"
Picard chuckled and shook his head. "Janeway was right. You really are incorrigible. Drink?"
"Sure," Tom shrugged. "Non-alcoholic though. After what you did to my body just now, even mere synthehol would lay me out flat."
Picard snorted. "Young people today. No stamina."
He walked over to the public replicator, punched in one of the available commands, and handed Tom a blue, translucent bottle. The younger man examined the label skeptically and with a slight frown.
"Something to get my electrolytes back in a row?" He shrugged. "Oh well. Bring it on, I guess."
Both men took deep draughts in companionable silence. Tom waited. Patience, he told himself. He'd put out the bait; whether the Admiral would rise to it was beyond his control.
Finally, contemplating the rim of his bottle, Picard asked conversationally, "What do you know about the conflict in the Denarian system, Mr. Paris?"
Tom almost smiled in private triumph. Hook, line and sinker. Thank you, Ice Queen, for whatever you did to Picard.
"The Binary War, between the Denarians and the Talari? Nasty, brutish and long. Going on since before I started at the Academy and still going, I think, with no sign of abatement. Why?"
The words had no sooner left his mouth that understanding dawned in Tom Paris. He found his confirmation in Picard's face, and groaned.
"Oh, no. No. Please say it ain't so. Not a diplomatic mission! The last time …"
"… you were involved in a diplomatic mission, you did rather splendidly as I recall, even if matters didn't get resolved exactly in the manner foreseen by Starfleet." Picard waved off Tom's protest.
"But don't worry, I don't think they're expecting you to play the role of senior diplomat; I'm told you'll be taking someone with you on Voyager to do the job. Whom, I'm afraid I'm not at liberty to disclose. I guess you'll have to find the rest out tomorrow. Oh, and as for Alynna Nacheyev …"
Picard gave him an unreadable look, not entirely devoid of humour.
"Let's just say we've had our differences over the years. But I guess you figured that out already. Well done, Mr. Paris. Touché."
And that, as they said, was that. It was clear that Picard was not prepared to divulge anything more, and Tom had to make do with the consolation prize: an extra-long, extra-hot water shower, followed by transport back to Voyager and a vociferous complaint to his wife.
"So from the looks of it, Voyager will be asked to perform a shuttle service for some Federation Bigwig, to this backwater binary system full of hostile locals. So we can hang aimlessly in space while the Bigwig goes planetside and tries to make peace, where everyone else has failed for the last twenty years," he groused while changing back into his uniform.
"And with my luck, they'll make me come along and stand in a corner, for that reassuring and impressive uniformed presence."
B'Elanna snorted. "Poor Baby. Make sure you polish those pips. But what makes you think that's all it'll be?"
They exchanged glances; neither needed to remind the other that their last mission had started out as a delivery of humanitarian goods, and morphed into something else entirely.
"Something Picard said." Tom sighed.
"You know, I was hoping for a spot of exploration this time, preferably with absolutely no interaction with local populations. Apparently there's a new nebula-like phenomenon forming, right out of subspace off Antares. Now that could be fun to fly through. I mean, would getting that kind of thing be too much to ask?"
"Since when are you into nebulas?" his wife made absolutely no effort to hide her skepticism. "And may I remind you that someone else will be doing the actual flying? No, don't touch that, Miral, honey. It's Mommy's favourite hyper spanner."
She reached forward in an attempt to disengage her enterprising daughter's grip from the tool in question, eliciting a squeal of protest in the process. Miral pouted and turned to her father for solidarity, but had to be content with being picked up and hugged.
"Why don't you play with the tool set that Grandpa John gave you, munchkin? You can do almost as much damage as with the real thing, without giving your mother conniptions. But for your information, Bee, I've always had a soft spot for nebulas and subspace anomalies."
He gave Miral a quick kiss on the head before setting her back down. He watched her run over to her toy toolbox and smiled indulgently when she turned it upside down to dump out the contents, rummaging through the assorted bits until she found the hyper spanner. Neither Tom nor his child made any move to clean up the mess, or gave as much as the slightest indication that they even noticed it. B'Elanna rolled her eyes in maternal exasperation.
"In fact, wasn't it when I was collecting plasma in that subspace thingy and got stuck, that you first gave a public indication that you … cared whether I lived or died? At least so Harry reported, afterwards."
"Subspace thingy? A scientific term to show off your expertise in these things, Mr. Astrophysics Major?"
Belatedly, B'Elanna seemed to realize that she wasn't really addressing the issue her husband had raised.
Glaring at him in mock indignation, she added, "And Harry I-so-desperately-want-my-best-friends-to-be-an-item Kim should have kept his speculations to himself. If I sounded worried that time – and that's a Very Big If, hotshot - it was because I couldn't face the idea of losing yet another engineering team to eight weeks' worth of shuttle replacement detail. Plus, I really wanted that plasma."
"Uh-huh. Sure. Miral, your Mommy is as lousy at lying as your Daddy is at being a diplomat. Whaddya say, kiddo. Pizza?"
Not waiting for the little girl's enthusiastic assent, he walked over to B'Elanna and gave her ear a playful lick.
"I'm starving," he said. Changing his voice to a husky whisper, he added, "And not just for pizza. Fencing unleashes untold quantities of endorphins that we can put to excellent use after her ladyship has gone to bed."
B'Elanna gave him a whack and headed over to the replicator, swinging her rear just a little bit more than strictly necessary for climbing over a pile of scattered toys. She ordered two pizzas and her usual salad, handing the plates to Tom to distribute on the table and schooling her face back into family dinner mode.
"So, Libby tells me Tommy has started crawling. And taking the lids off things. On the same day. She found him trying to climb into the Jefferies tube in their new quarters this afternoon."
Tom chuckled. The presence of small children onboard had changed the atmosphere on Voyager considerably, he found – and generally for the better, in his opinion, even if the opportunities for spontaneously spicing up dinner with ... other activities were getting rare. Most of their old crew would have given their eyes' teeth to be able to come home at the end of a long shift for a spot of normal family mayhem.
"Guess childproofing his quarters is beyond the capacities of a former Ops officer? Let's give them our list of do's and don'ts for toddler maintenance. And that hyper spanner to batten down the hatches."
An hour or so later, B'Elanna returned from Miral's room to find her husband bent over the computer on their work station, a grim expression carved on his face. She walked up behind him, wrapping her arms around his neck in an affectionate gesture and peered at the screen.
What she saw made her gasp.
"What … what did that?"
On the screen was a landscape out of Dante's Inferno, or worse. Jagged remnants of what once must have been tall buildings, metal struts sticking out every which way, crumpled like paper. Tree stumps, pointing into the air like accusing fingers, cut to the first knuckle by an act of unspeakable violence. A river, choked with debris, yet curiously uninterested in leaving its banks.
And everything, everywhere, was covered in ash.
No, that wasn't quite right. Everything was ash.
Her grip around Tom's shoulders tightened, her nails digging into his flesh until he pried her fingers loose with a muted ouch. Understanding that she was looking for an explanation, even if there was none, he offered what he knew in soft, even tones.
"You're looking at the effects of the latest in Talarian weapons technology. They called it The Scourge. Remember the Metreon cascade that destroyed Neelix' home world, Rynax, and killed his family? This one was apparently similar. More limited in scope, but no less indiscriminate. It started with a concussive effect that flattened all structures taller than three feet or so. Then the heat generated from the core burned everything, from organic materials to man-made structures."
Tom sat back and rubbed his face with both hands, as if to wipe away what he had seen.
"They deployed about half a dozen of these on the most populated continent on the Denarian homeworld. Instant death and destruction, over an area the size of Australia. Except for the water. It didn't affect the water."
"Kahless," she whispered, her voice momentarily deprived of feeling, the same way the image on the screen seemed deprived of any colour but grey. She didn't need to ask about the civilian population that might have lived there, and whether they had escaped.
An area the size of Australia.
"Yeah. And like the atomic bombs dropped on Japan during the Second World War on Earth, the Scourge was a game changer. The Denarians decided that maybe peace talks were a good thing after all, and indicated their willingness to come to the table. Of course all this happened after they had pretty well laid waste to three of the Talarian moons. No good guys in this one."
"And that's where we're going? Delightful."
Tom resolutely shut off the monitor. No need to keep looking at an image he knew would be burned into both their retinas for a very long time. He dreaded the possibility of having to look at the real thing.
And here he had thought that killing 82 civilians on Tarakis was an atrocity beyond comprehension. He choked down the memory of the screams that would still come, unbidden, at times when his defenses were down. Implanted memories, yes. Not his, yes. But true. And real. He'd pulled that trigger - he, or someone like him. Again and again.
In a way, the scouring of Denaros was less personal, and he wondered if the people who had ordered it, pushed the buttons, heard the screaming.
He could see in B'Elanna's face that she knew what was in his mind, and gave a little shake of his head to clear it, and turned his thoughts resolutely back to the now.
"Well, I don't know for sure that's where we're going, but Picard's hint was a pretty strong one."
He pulled B'Elanna around and onto his lap, encircled her waist with both arms, and buried his head in her hair. Holding on to her warmth seemed to calm some of the Tarakian demons that were threatening to run amuck inside his skull. This much had changed, he knew: The first time, he had refused her help … He was no longer such a fool.
He breathed deeply, evenly, in his mate's presence, but the image of what was on that screen remained.
At least, he had learned, the fighting in that faraway star system had stopped. There had been a ceasefire in effect for about six weeks now, and based on what he could piece together, the Federation had offered – or, more likely, been asked - to go to the binary suns as a neutral party, to broker their mutual survival.
"You know why Picard told me as much as he did? I think it was to pull one over on Nacheyev. She must have pissed him off any number of times over the last few years."
"She rubs just about anyone the wrong way. I'm amazed you haven't locked horns with her yet."
B'Elanna followed the new direction of their conversation gladly, if only to push he image she had seen out of her mind. For now, anyway. If Tom was right about their mission, she would soon enough be seeing more than she wanted, of a war she had never even heard about until this day.
"In fact, she seems to like you. Kahless knows why."
Tom snorted half-heartedly. "Now there's a scary thought."
He had been thoroughly disquieted to find out that the Fleet Admiral not only seemed to know who he was, but that she had trusted his instincts on more than one occasion. But he also knew that it would be only a question of times before those very instincts would collide with Starfleet interests or protocol – and then the honeymoon would definitely be over. If Picard had managed to lock horns with her, how could Tom Paris hope to escape …
"Truth is, I think she doesn't know what to make of me. Picard's first home-made homunculus of unorthodoxy. Declaring me a failure, especially after what happened with Tervellyan, would be an indictment of her creation of the Kirk Centre. As long as I keep getting lucky …" He let the thought trail off as his eyes drifted back to the screen.
B'Elanna, for her part, was determined now to dispel what they had seen. To let it be an abstract, faraway image for a while longer. With a resolute punch, she turned off the screen.
Denial did not come naturally to her, but if it would spare Tom another night of Tarakis-induced trauma, she was prepared to give it a try. He had been hit hardest of all the crew by the artificial memories of the very real slaughter of innocent civilians; they had found fertile ground in a mind already seeded with traumatic experiences. The nights Tom's subconscious allowed the horrors to boil to the surface were difficult for both of them.
She snaked her arms around her mate's neck and nuzzled the tender spot right behind his ear.
"Still got some of those endorphins you mentioned earlier? Are you ready to put them to use?"
Tom buried his nose in her hair and inhaled deeply. His voice slightly muffled, but his arms tightening around her in appreciation of what she was trying to do, he said, "I don't know, Bee. After this, I may require some convincing."
She bit him lightly on the cheek – not hard, just enough to leave an indentation, and brushed her lips over the marks she had made.
"Klingon females can be very persuasive, Captain."
AN: The salle d'armes is the place where fencers train, prepare for competition and fight. Literally translates as "hall of weapons".