"Mr. Paris, I believe it is time for us to take the next step." Tom instantly looks up in surprise. The Doctor quickly adds "in your medical training" before Tom can say anything. He hadn't intended to start anything yet, at least not in sickbay. Tom visibly relaxes, but grins at him evilly. The Doctor accesses his Paris interpretive subroutine and identifies it as number 203.3, his 'just you wait' smile. He has never seen this particular smile directed toward anyone other than Torres or Kim and has certainly never been the recipient before. This indicates that Tom is most likely responding to the recent changes in his behavior.

This is somewhat worrisome, but the Doctor is determined to remain the consummate professional. "It is time for us to progress to something a little more challenging for you. With your approval, I would like to begin training you in advanced surgical procedures. So that if anything ever goes wrong with my program, you will be able to perform all medical procedures as required until I can be brought back online."

The thought of losing the Doctor obviously troubles Tom, but he nods his agreement. "That should never happen, but I guess it makes sense to be prepared just in case." Tom pushes aside the paperwork in front of him, ready to begin immediately. He frowns lightly and queries, "Does this mean I'll need to put in extra duty hours in sickbay?"

"No, Mr. Paris. I have talked to the captain, and she has agreed to transfer most of your routine medical functions to other personnel so that we can focus on your training without detracting from your other duties on the ship." At this, Tom brightens perceptibly, the slight frown fading away. "I have also arranged my appointments to allow us as much time together as possible." The Doctor neglects to add that he had done so before deciding to begin advanced training.

"If you agree, the change in assignments will take effect at your next duty shift. We may begin training at that time." Tom is preoccupied with something, a slightly crooked smile tracing its way across his features. The Doctor identifies it as smile 34.6, a clear indication that he's planning something.

"I agree," Tom replies, his blue eyes glinting with mischief, "On one condition." What is he up to? His expression reflects playful mischief, but he clearly conveys friendliness and acceptance as well. "If I'm going to take surgical lessons with you, the deal has to work both ways. That means you get to take piloting lessons with me."

The Doctor nods his agreement, pleased with the suggestion. "Very well, Mr. Paris. That seems an equitable arrangement. We will have the chance to switch roles, taking turns as both instructor and pupil." And will also have the opportunity to spend time alone together outside the confines of sickbay. The perfect way to begin exploring new possibilities in this relationship. "I agree to your condition."

Tom beams at him with his 'you won't regret this' smile, number 46.7. "Perfect." The Doctor finds his obvious enthusiasm hard to resist, moving imperceptibly closer, but realizes his response in time to arrest the movement. There is much to accomplish before strict emotional control can be maintained around Tom. If such control is preferable. The Doctor has not yet reached a satisfactory prediction of Tom's probable response to such a loss of control.

"You close down sickbay in a couple of hours, right Doc?" The Doctor nods. "Then how 'bout we start the training tonight? I've got an hour or two of holodeck time tonight and hadn't decided what to use it on yet. If you just meet me there at, say, 1900 hours, I've got some flight sims I can take you through. Think I'll start you off easy. Probably a shuttlecraft sim."

After confirming the time, Tom starts toward the door, his shift over for the day. He's mumbling to himself, planning what exactly to show the Doctor, which simulations to use, and how best to begin training. The Doctor watches him go, admiring his slender frame and the graceful movements of his body. Even with no conscious thought allotted for movement, he possesses a natural control of himself and the surrounding space. The Doctor watches as Tom moves smoothly aside to let an entering crewman pass and just as easily resumes his course. No wasted energy, no jarring motion, no conscious effort. Just a natural possession and awareness.

The Doctor absently takes the proffered PADD from the crewman, who quickly exits. He glances at it automatically, but does not process the information. In only a few hours, he has a date with Tom!

An appointment, he corrects quickly. For training.

But despite these reminders, he finds himself eagerly anticipating the evening. It has been a long time since he has last been alone with Tom in private, for reasons not necessitated by their duties to the ship. They have started spending more time together as their friendship deepens, but these occasions usually took place at Sandrines or some other public place. But now, at last…

Alone. With Tom. And only a few hours to prepare. He needs to think of things to talk about, see if there is any way to safely develop the possibilities suggested by his evolving program. But this is after all a training simulation. He has to maintain a professional demeanor. However, Tom is also using his personal holodeck time for the session, something the biologicals considered a valuable commodity. He has to recognize the personal nature of this gesture. The Doctor frowns slightly. Surely it would not be appropriate to belittle such a gesture of friendship by arriving in his standard medical uniform. But it is still a training exercise and thus requires some degree of formality. The Doctor's frown deepens. How exactly should he instruct the computer to project his appearance?

"He's a sensualist. I'd suggest something with an interesting texture. Something he won't be able to keep his hands off." The Doctor looks up, startled, to find B'Elanna Torres on the other side of his office console. He had been focused on the computer screen, reviewing the clothing section of the cultural library to find the appropriate mix of professionalism and something more, and had not noticed Torres's entrance. Before he has time to recover, Torres leans down and puts both arms on the desk, leaning challengingly toward him.

"It's Tom, isn't it." Her eyes flash aggressively, daring him to try to deny it. Her voice is low and flat, with just a hint of a growl, not a question at all but a statement of fact.

Intimidated in spite of himself, and thoroughly flustered by her directness, the Doctor stammers incoherently for a few seconds before he catches himself and falls silent. He knows Torres has been involved with Tom fairly recently, but thought it had ended mutually. He isn't sure if he's ready to fight a Klingon for a mate. Half-Klingon, he reminds himself. And he hasn't even done anything yet. And besides, they've broken up. Who is she to accuse him? He isn't doing anything wrong.

He looks up, prepared to answer her challenge. But he quickly realizes that she's smiling. Her lips split open in a grin, which grows wider as he reacts with confusion and aggravation. "What's the meaning of this, Lieutenant Torres?" he demands. This seems to be the breaking point. She stands upright again, abandoning the aggressive posturing, and laughs, softly at first, then growing to proportions only Klingons could achieve.

The Doctor restrains himself from speaking, unwilling to provide her with further amusement, until she at last stops laughing. "It's okay, Doctor." She smiles at him until he relaxes fractionally. "Kahless, it's not like I don't understand. Been there myself."

"If I may ask…." His voice trails off hesitantly, still unsure what this is all about. "How did you know?"

"Couldn't think of any other explanation for your recent feelings interfering with your medical duties." Her eyes crease slightly with suppressed laughter. "Before we got together, I remember how relieved I was that Tom didn't work in engineering all the time. And I just knew." She places her hands lightly on her hips, leaning toward him with an evil smile on her lips. "He is intoxicating, isn't he?"

The Doctor hesitates, tempted to deny it, but decides that Torres clearly intends no malice. "Well…" he clears his throat softly before continuing. "I suppose he can be a little distracting at times." He can feel his expressive subroutines elevating his facial coloration and knows he's blushing.

"I think that's an understatement." Her cranial ridges tint purple with the memory. She tilts her head sideways as she looks at him, a question in her eyes. "So you do intend to pursue it?"

He glances away, unwilling to answer so direct a question, but his expression serves as answer enough. "That's what I thought." She smiles at him again, still open and friendly. "I just wanted to say…." She takes a deep breath before continuing. "It's worth it. No matter how defensive he gets or how angry he makes you. It's worth all the aggravation in the long run."

She begins to pace in front of him, caught up in finding the perfect way to express herself. "Too many people have given up on him too soon. Myself included." She stops abruptly, whirling to face him. "If you feel tempted to stop trying. Think you don't want to deal with it anymore. Or anything at all. Please come talk to me first, and I'll help you through it. Whatever you do, don't give up prematurely or you'll live to regret it."

The Doctor meets her gaze steadily. No matter how uncomfortable he is with admitting his attraction, he refuses to meet such open honesty with ambivalence of any kind. "I understand." He extends his hand toward her across the desktop, Response 89.7 as suggested to convey sincerity and reassurance. She hesitates only a second before responding, reaching out to grasp his hand. She squeezes it with surprising strength before releasing it. "I won't give up on him." She looks relieved, but still seems unsure. "I promise."

Torres stands silent, searching his eyes, but at last seems satisfied. "I hope you can keep that promise. I really do." She holds his eyes for a moment longer, before dropping them guiltily. "Tom deserves someone who will believe in him unconditionally. I hope you can do that better than I did." The Doctor tries to think of a response to comfort her, but she turns away and is gone before he has a chance to speak.

He sits motionless for a moment, processing the conversation, but realizes he's supposed to meet Tom soon and still hasn't decided on his projection. Hmm… a sensualist. That seems consistent with what he has observed of Tom. "Computer, initiate new search of this database. Limit to Terran entries containing the word texture in the brief description." Still several thousand entries. Tom has demonstrated an interest in Earth culture around the turn of the millennium. "Limit to twentieth or twenty-first centuries." Still two thousand. "With a link to twenty-fourth century entries." He doesn't want to look like he's stepped out of a historical holonovel. There, only 479 entries. "Display visual information." His office terminal is programmed for his faster perceptual abilities, and the search results flash quickly across the screen in less than a minute. "Display entries 63, 248, and 412."

Satisfied, the Doctor programs his mobile emitter to project his image accordingly. He then adjusts the colors to match his personal preference. He stands to glance at his reflection in the windows of his office. Off white dress shirt of rough wool, soft suede vest in a deep brown with burgundy satin lining, corduroy pants in a soft tan several shades lighter than the vest. He adds weathered leather loafers and admires his reflection thoughtfully. Quite handsome really, if he does say so himself, but of course he has a pleasing face to work with.

He leaves sickbay, his program predicting and analyzing possible outcomes of this evening. He is unsure how much Tom intends, but feels confident the evening offers more than simple piloting lessons.

When he reaches the holodeck, Tom is waiting for him. He's leaning up against the bulkhead, arms crossed casually across his chest, softly humming to himself as he waits, one finger slightly thumping with the rhythm. He does not notice the Doctor's approach and is looking idly down the corridor in the other direction, allowing the Doctor a chance to observe him.

Tom is dressed all in black, simple jeans and shirt, topped by an unadorned leather jacket. This bodes well for the evening. From the Doctor's observations, Tom's dress seems to be an indication of his expectations, albeit a sometimes inconsistent one. When he goes into danger or among people he doesn't trust, as when he left the ship to identify Seska's spy, he tends to dress as unattractively as possible, sticking to drab greens and yellowed earth tones that clash with his coloration. When he is relaxed, he uses soft blues and grays. These deepen to more vivid colors and dramatic blacks when he's up to something. Perhaps that explains why Tom seems so comfortable in uniform: the black and vivid red are already part of his personal code for confidence and authority.

Tom looks up suddenly, cognizant of his presence for the first time. He drops his arms to his sides, immediately shifting from his relaxed position against the wall to greet the Doctor. "Hey Doc, glad you're here. I've got the program all ready for us."

Tom seems relieved to be done waiting and able to move into action at last. The Doctor quickly accesses his internal chronometer, confirming that he has arrived approximately 2.346 minutes early, just as he had anticipated. "Did I misunderstand our meeting time, Mr. Paris? I had not realized I was late." He has learned to recognize Tom's restlessness easily, but does not understand its occurrence in the present situation.

Tom shrugs sheepishly and grins. "Guess I got a little antsy waiting in my quarters," he confesses. "I decided to go ahead and come down early. I wanted to make a couple of modifications to the program before you got here." He moves to tap the control panel, calling up the training simulation as he speaks. The Doctor cocks his head sideways and raises his brows in what his body language subroutine suggests is an unspoken question.

Tom smiles mischievously. "Don't worry, Doc. I just changed the program to assume the operator had an eidetic memory and the highest level of manual dexterity."

The Doctor determines that this is Smile 63.2, reserved for friendly impishness. He responds with a movement copied from Tuvok, raising one eyebrow in feigned surprise. "I was not aware Starfleet shuttle simulations were so adaptable."

Tom holds his hand to his chest in mock offense. "They aren't, Doctor. I would never try to train someone with one of those programs." Although still pretending to be offended, his eyes sparkle with pride. "This is my baby. This program can challenge a pilot of any skill level. I still use this program sometimes when I'm not running sims with Voyager or the Delta Flyer. And I've brought Naomi here for a piloting lesson."

He extends a hand theatrically toward the door. The Doctor nods, quickly taking the lead, but feels nervous for the first time. He reminds himself that this is, after all, supposed to be flight training. The nervousness is obviously unfounded considering his adroitness and adaptability, but he is nevertheless agitated. Despite his confidence, the Doctor is anxious to impress Tom with his abilities.

The Doctor passes through the holodeck arch and stops abruptly upon seeing the shuttle bay. All simulations he has seen or heard described open directly onto the shuttle. He scans the shuttle bay noting the level of detail with a modest grin of appreciation. The intricacies of the program are distinctly reminiscent of Sandrines. The perpetual hum of warp engines pervades the shuttle bay like the constant cloud of smoke that saturates Sandrines. There is even an unnamed crewman working to repair a damaged shuttle.

While the Doctor admires his holoprogramming abilities, Tom has moved to the nearest shuttle and now stands waiting, beaming with obvious pride. The Doctor quickly analyzes his own expression and replaces awe with confident determination as he steps up to the shuttle doors.

Inside, Tom leads the way to the front of the small shuttle. He moves gracefully into the pilot's seat, gesturing the Doctor to his place before he lovingly runs his hands over the control panel. The Doctor stands watching his fluid movements in silent fascination. Realizing his distraction, he quickly moves to take his seat before Tom can pull himself away from the feel of his ship.

"Well, Doc. I guess class is in session." Tom smiles at him laughingly, obviously enjoying the role reversal. His attention is focused on the Doctor, body turned to face toward him and eyes riveted, but one hand still traces its way across the control panel as he speaks, moving slowly in intimate familiarity and gentle possessiveness. "I figure I'll run through the pre-flight checks and takeoff procedures, explaining what I'm doing, and show you the basics of maneuvering. Your memory records and fine motor control should allow you to grasp the basics quickly, enough to mimic the fundamentals. Then we'll put you in the pilot's seat and let you experiment with flight." Tom smiles broadly, but the Doctor does not pause to identify the expression. He is finding it difficult to concentrate.

Tom sits motionless in the chair, focused on his instructions, but the pilot's body is not accustomed to stillness. Even while Tom's mental attention is focused on his words, the restlessness and inner tension of the man seeks an outlet. And finds it. One hand gently caresses the control panel, long slender fingers softly moving across the controls, exploring the panel instinctively. The movements are not strong enough to trigger the computer, but rather seem a subconscious expression of Tom's restlessness, as if he is reassuring himself that the controls are there, claiming the shuttle as his own. The Doctor can see no physical evidence of anxiety in Tom's body, just the ever-present energy that seems such a part of him.

"That's where the fun part comes in. Anybody can learn to take off and land a shuttle safely. But flying…." Tom's voice rises slightly, his cheeks flushed with enthusiasm. "That's an art. Instinctively controlling the ship." He takes his hand from the panel, gesturing with it as he tries to explain. "Becoming one with it, feeling its power around you and learning to direct it as naturally as you would your own body." He shrugs helplessly, powerless to rationally convey the joy he feels in flying. "I don't really know how to explain it. You can memorize every flight pattern in the manual, learn every technical parameter of the ship, and still be only a competent pilot. To really learn to fly, though… You have to find it inside you. Make the ship a part of you. So that you become aware of every centimeter of space outside the bulkheads as easily as you are of the controls in front of you. So that when you become aware of something, you respond instinctively, and the ship moves with your perception before you even consciously process the thought."

Tom drops his hands to his lap and smiles awkwardly, realizing the intensity of his speech. "Not that you'll feel it the first time," he adds, not wanting to intimidate the Doctor before they even begin the lesson. "But I think you'll understand what I mean once you get behind the conn. It works its way into your blood." Tom turns back to the helm, his hands automatically returning to the panel and finding the proper position on their own. "Guess we should get started."

The Doctor dedicates approximately fourteen percent of his processing abilities to recording and analyzing Tom's verbal instructions, and another fifty-three percent to memorizing physical actions, what controls Tom accesses with his swiftly moving fingers, where he focuses his attention, the varying speed and pressure used on the controls. The rest he allows to wander freely, closely observing Tom as he begins to lift the shuttle off the hangar deck, pre-flight sequence complete.

The Doctor has no doubt that Tom really does experience flying as an extension of himself, despite the metaphysical nature of his description. There can be no other explanation for the way he pilots. The changes are imperceptible to the naked eye, but the Doctor's enhanced perceptual abilities and diagnostic programs allow him to see distinct physical responses in Tom's body. The engines of the shuttle thrum to life, growing stronger as the shuttle lifts off the deck, and the Doctor can see the slight acceleration of Tom's heartbeat, blood pumping faster just under the fair skin, pulse fluttering at his neck. They begin to move toward the open shuttle doors, and the Doctor can see faint lines of tension growing in Tom's body, muscles tensing slightly. Tom leans almost imperceptibly forward, every fiber of his body straining toward the doors, as if he is propelling the shuttle out into open space by sheer longing. A slight tremor passes through Tom's body, muscles tensing and then relaxing completely, as they pass through the atmospheric forcefield into the vacuum of space, the shuttle vibrating slightly at the change in pressure.

At last they are in open space. There is a slight exhalation of breath, and Tom relaxes completely. He settles comfortably back into his chair, hands lovingly guiding the shuttle through a complicated series of loops and turns as he turns his attention to the Doctor. "See? Nothing to it. Take off is pretty simple really. You just have to pay attention to all the little details. After that, it's just instinct." Tom is clearly in his element now, a vague smile on his face as he effortlessly maneuvers the shuttle into a lazy roll that the Doctor knows few pilots can execute smoothly without placing undue stress on the inertial dampeners. Yet he does not even glance at the controls, pale blue eyes focused on the Doctor, as his hands move effortlessly across the panel face. "You have to get a feel for the way the ship moves, get to know her responses, how she reacts when you give her a command. Then it'll all come naturally." The Doctor can hear a slight acceleration of his breathing, see the tips of his ears turning a pale pink, as he turns his attention back to the viewport. "At least until it starts to get interesting and something goes wrong."

Tom directs a command at the computer, and three alien vessels materialize, all larger and with much greater firepower than the Federation shuttle. Tom leans forward in his seat, his heartbeat fast once again as he begins to take the shuttle in wild arcs and tight curves, skillfully avoiding weapons fire even as he continues his instructions in a calm steady voice. "Now, ideally you have someone else at tactical, so that you just have to focus on flying, staying out of the way of their weapons and finding ways to get yourself into firing position at the same time. But in a shuttle, there are only a couple of people there in the first place. If someone gets injured or is making repairs you have to be ready to take care of the fighting yourself." He smiles grimly, preparing himself for the battle. "Computer, transfer tactical controls to helm." And the battle begins.

Tom moves his feet farther apart on the floor, distributing his weight to maintain his balance as the shuttle shakes from enemy fire. His hands fly across the controls, nimbly dancing from the primary navigational controls to the tactical console that has illuminated next to it. The Doctor watches him with fascination, amazed that Terran hands can respond with such speed. Tom guides the shuttle swiftly through the crossfire of the three ships, avoiding phaser shots from every direction and angle. He drops the craft into perfect firing position, each time managing to get in several direct hits against the heavily armored vessels, then fleeing for a new position before any of the ships can manage to get in a clear shot. He even manages to use their fire against them, maneuvering so that they fire at him in a seemingly direct hit, then moving quickly out of the way so they instead hit one of their allied ships. In a few minutes, Tom has destroyed two of his holographic opponents, leaving the last ship undefended. But instead of finishing it off quickly, he maneuvers the shuttle teasingly around it, taunting the ship with his lazy circles, firing only occasionally.

"Unless they've got you outnumbered though, ships like that really aren't a challenge. They're so much less maneuverable that you can just take your time and wear them down. Superior firepower doesn't mean anything if they can't hit you." He settles back into his seat again, eyes on the viewscreen, but now seems more intent on teasing the ship than attacking it. He no longer fires on the enemy vessel, ignoring the tactical display as he focuses on outmaneuvering it. "I like to practice maneuvers with an enemy ship still alive and kicking. Makes it a little more interesting. And helps you hone your awareness of the space around you at the same time."

Tom continues his narration as he takes the ship into more complicated maneuvers, all the while staying close to the still firing ship, but the Doctor finds it hard to listen attentively. Tom's entire body is relaxed now, every line of coiled tension from the battle dissipated into pleased contentment. The only movement is the flicker of his eyes from controls to viewscreen to navigational display. And the constant movement of his hands on the controls. His movements are slow and gentle now, soothingly caressing the controls. His fingers move gracefully over the panel, skimming lightly across the surface, then dipping in to graze a control with his fingertip. Skillful hands teasing a response from the shuttle in a passionate caress, seducing the ship into doing exactly as he wishes.

The Doctor suddenly envies the shuttle, wishing those skillful fingers would run across his own holographic body instead. His vocal subroutines produce an amused snort at this thought. Of all the absurdities. He, the most advanced hologram ever created, capable of evolving beyond even what his creator had conceived, jealous of a holographic shuttlecraft in a training simulation? But the shuttle could not feel the loving caress of Tom's hands. Has no emotions to respond to his touch. Is not capable of action, to take Tom into his arms and respond with a caress of his own. He snorts again. Now this is just getting silly.

Tom looks over at the sound and sees the barely contained laughter in the Doctor's expression. He looks confused and says uncertainly, "Guess I should finish them off and let you have a turn." He fires quickly, destroying the enemy craft and turning back toward the shuttle bay. The Doctor wants to say something, to let Tom know he isn't laughing at him, but is afraid that if he tries to speak he will start laughing uncontrollably. He settles deeper into the co-pilot's seat, trying to regain control. Honestly, the shuttle caressing Tom? He starts to laugh again, and is able to contain it only by refocusing his attention. He tries to imagine himself kissing Tom, taking the pilot into his arms and feeling those gifted hands running across his body. Imagines his own hands on Tom's body, feeling the strong muscles under the skin, the slight perspiration from the excitement of combat.

Tom maneuvers into the shuttle bay, still providing on ongoing narration of his procedure, but the Doctor is no longer listening. He finds that the impulse to laugh is gone, replaced by intense desire, throbbing within him as he has not felt since Denara. Tom touches the shuttle down gently, then turns to face the Doctor. "Well, Doc? Are you ready to try?"

The Doctor quickly analyzes the situation, wondering how he should respond. Tom's actions so far indicate a low probability of rejection. And no matter how Tom responds, the Doctor knows he desperately wants to try. He leans toward Tom, slowly closing the space between them. He brings one hand up, gently steadying Tom's chin with his hand, as he brings his lips to meet Tom's. He lets them rest softly there for a moment, not moving as he watches Tom's eyes register surprise, then acceptance. Once he sees acceptance, he slowly tilts his head, brushing his lips softly across Tom's as he moves.

He closes his eyes as Tom begins to respond, savoring the sensory input as their lips teasingly caress each other. He feels Tom's lips part underneath his own and swiftly moves to take advantage of the opportunity. He darts his tongue inside, feels Tom stiffen slightly as their tongues meet, then relax as the kiss grows deeper. He moves his hand around behind Tom's neck, pulling him closer as he moves from his seat to kneel beside Tom's chair. The Doctor leans into the kiss, exploring Tom's mouth with his tongue, bringing his other hand up to rest lightly on Tom's waist as they kiss. Tom's kiss is more urgent now, his mouth pressed hard against the Doctor's, their tongues mating frantically. The Doctor can feel Tom responding to his touch, every nerve of Tom's body focused toward the passionate contact, both arms coming up around his shoulders, pulling him down into the kiss. They embrace each other, the Doctor's arm moving more firmly around Tom's waist, pulling him slightly up out of his seat, Tom's body rising to meet him, lips locked together, hands tentatively beginning to explore.

Then the kiss is broken, and the Doctor lowers Tom gently back into his seat. They gaze at each other, arms still wrapped in an embrace, both surprised at the intensity of what has just happened. The Doctor notes with satisfaction that Tom's face is flushed with arousal, his breathing elevated. His lips are swollen with the fervor of their kiss. He notes the dazed look in Tom's eyes, which he can only interpret as pleased surprise. This is enough. He has made the first step, and now there would be no turning back, for either of them. He would let Tom recover, reflect on what has transpired between them. There is no hurry. And he wants to take the time to do this right.

This decided, he rises slowly to stand by Tom's chair, gently disentangling himself from Tom's arms. He clears his throat and speaks, his voice slightly husky to his ears, "Well, I guess it's my turn now." Tom looks up at him uncomprehendingly for a moment, then moves to vacate the pilot's seat. "See if I can remember how to do that." He takes Tom's place, noting the slight residual heat from Tom's body, and focuses on the controls in front of him. The Doctor can hear Tom dropping into the seat next to him, silent for the first time since they met outside the holodeck. The Doctor smiles to himself. If he has distracted Tom sufficiently to halt his running commentary, he must have made a strong impression. That part of the evening is a success. Now to see if he can manage to pilot the shuttle sufficiently.

He concentrates on repeating the movements of Tom's hands on the controls, running quickly through the pre-flight checks Tom has demonstrated, and is pleased when the shuttle responds appropriately. Tom's description of an eidetic memory is inaccurate, but the Doctor's rapid processing speed and instant access to his memory files allow him to react in a similar way, at least as far as repetition and mimicry are concerned. He pilots out of the shuttle bay, copying Tom's movements precisely. As he leaves the protection of the ship and moves out into space, he mentally prepares himself to react quickly. Whatever surprises Tom has planned for him, they will occur out here in the open.

The Doctor practices moving the shuttle in different directions, rolling it over, banking sharply left and then right. He frowns slightly as the shuttle jerks under his direction. Not nearly as smooth as Tom's maneuvering, but the computer has not chimed in with any warnings about the inertial dampeners. Good enough. After all, he is a holographic doctor, not a pilot. He couldn't exactly be expected to master piloting from watching Tom once. At least Tom is letting him get used to controlling the shuttle before springing anything unexpected on him.

The Doctor tenses as Tom speaks softly to the computer. Apparently that thought was premature. The space outside the viewscreen shimmers as an alien vessel materializes directly in front of the shuttle, weapons aimed and visibly drawing energy to fire. He swerves quickly to the side, sliding the shuttle under the vessel's wing and to a safe position to its rear, narrowly avoiding the energy beam directed from its now ready weapons. The Doctor's auditory sensors register a surprised grunt from Tom, and he allows himself a small, satisfied smile before focusing on the alien ship again. He has avoided the initial attack, but knows Tom well enough to assume that whatever is in store for him would be more complicated than that.

He maneuvers the shuttle around the larger ship trying to figure out what the trick is. The vessel's primary weapons seem to be large turrets capable of emitting a phased energy beam, similar to primitive phasers, but not nearly as powerful or destructive. The weapons turrets are stationary, however, mostly facing toward the front of the ship, so that staying out of danger is relatively simple. The Doctor fires steadily at the rear turret, the only one that poses a threat unless he allows himself to be trapped in front of the ship, but his primary phasers seem to have no effect. Hmm. Although it would of course take time to destroy a target through active shields, Federation weapons technology has consistently proven sufficient to overcome Delta Quadrant shielding technology. Perhaps that is Tom's surprise.

The Doctor accesses the sensors and quickly confirms his suspicion. The energy from his phasers is immediately and completely absorbed by the vessel's shields. They seem to cause no drain at all on the shield's power. No matter how many times he fires on the alien vessel, no matter where he aims, his weapons will never be able to penetrate its shield. He turns in frustration to Tom, not quite able to keep the aggravation from his voice. "Their shields are impenetrable."

Tom smirks at him, thoroughly pleased with the Doctor's consternation. "That's right. Although that is an admitted long shot in this quadrant, at least for surprise encounters, it's always possible." The Doctor grimaces at the obvious smugness of Tom's expression, disgusted with himself for not figuring out a way to overcome the alien's shields and thus manage to impress his instructor. But he can see in Tom's eyes a hint of pride that the Doctor has figured out the problem so quickly. If Tom had not expected him to see the trick so easily, perhaps there is still a chance to salvage the situation. He does not intend to let Tom down if there is still a solution. "As you figured out, you'll never get through their shields with regular phasers. What you have to do is…"

"Let me…." the Doctor cuts him off quickly before Tom can tell him the solution, but finds he doesn't know how to complete the sentence. He has no idea how to defeat the ship. "Let me see if I can figure out something." Not exactly decisive action, but Tom seems pleased that he is unwilling to accept either defeat or assistance. He circles the ship, easily avoiding its weapons, as he considers the paradox. Weapons that are laughably ineffective, yet shielding that is impossible to penetrate. Well, he supposes its weapons would be remarkably effective if a ship was unfortunate enough to be trapped in the wrong place. But as long as you are quick enough and smart enough not to be caught in front of its primary weapons, the vessel poses no real threat.

Why would anyone design a space vessel with such limited weapons ability? Judging by their advanced shield technology, they are obviously capable of creating more flexible offensive strategies, yet they have chosen not to. All of the offensive weaponry is concentrated in the anterior section of the ship, as if they expect to encounter hostility only from the front. The Doctor pauses at this thought, quickly analyzing the probability of such an expectation. Perhaps that is it. Although it seems unlikely that any space battle would not include three-dimensional attacks, it seems the only likely explanation. If their primary opponent attacks only from the front, whether from limited conceptual abilities or from some strange code of honor, they would have no need of weapons facing any other direction.

But if this were the case, why would they need shields that protected them from every angle? There is that solitary posterior turret, protecting the rear of the ship. Perhaps for retreat? And if they were forced to turn in retreat, the shields would have to provide protection while they maneuvered to leave. Thus three-dimensional protection, but still from a single point of attack. Testing a theory, the Doctor fires a sustained phaser beam at the alien vessel. After maintaining the beam for exactly five seconds, he ceases fire and studies the sensor readings. As he suspected, the shields actually grow stronger at the point of attack. He tries again, focusing primary phasers on one location in a sustained beam, then firing the secondary phaser at a different location while the primary phasers are still active. According to the sensors, the alien shields are significantly weaker at the second site, allowing him to momentarily drain some of the energy from their shields. At last he is able to make some progress. But the vessel quickly compensates, shields still easily absorbing the combined energy of his phasers.

What he needs is some sort of anesthetic. To make the shield less sensitive to his phasers. To slow the shield compensation. But he can't exactly numb the shield's pain receptors, so to speak. The Doctor thinks for a moment, analyzing possible strategies. But perhaps he can overload them. He turns to Tom, to find the pilot studying him intently. "Tom, is it possible to control the phaser beam width?" He blushes, not really sure of the technical terms, but confident his treatment has a possibility for success.

There is a pause while Tom pulls himself from his thoughts to answer. "Yes, of course, Doc. But…." Tom's eyes show surprise and puzzlement. Although he no doubt has a solution, it clearly has nothing to do with the Doctor's question. Tom swallows his doubts, willing to let the Doctor follow his instincts. "How would you like to change them?"

"Make the primary phasers have as wide a beam as you can and still maintain firing power. And the secondary phaser on as narrow a beam as possible." Tom studies him for a moment, obviously wondering the purpose, but the Doctor says nothing to explain. He prefers to see if his treatment is effective first. Tom shrugs and leans over to enter in the necessary commands.

"There. It's ready." Tom leans back in his seat, curiously watching the Doctor to see what he will do next.

"Thank you, Tom." The Doctor smiles at him briefly, pleased that Tom trusts him enough not to require an explanation. "Now to see if this works." He focuses his attention on the alien ship, maneuvering to stay in a consistent relative position hugging closely to the moving vessel, the shuttle pointed directly at the aliens. He engages the primary phasers in a sustained beam, directed off to the side so that they hit the shields at an angle and skim across the surface. He adjusts the angle slightly so that the beam touches the maximum surface area possible before reflecting off into space. Then he activates the secondary phaser, focusing it directly in front of him perpendicular to the shield's surface.

As he has anticipated, the narrow beam cuts through the shields like an archaic scalpel, impacting the side of the ship where the computer has determined the shield generator is located. He quickly works to shut down the shields, managing to complete his task before the shields recover. Once the shields are inoperative, the Doctor shuts down the primary phasers and uses only the narrow beam of the secondary phaser. He slowly maneuvers around the ship, using the beam to carefully cut an incision around the base of each weapons turret, separating them from the primary hull without causing a hull breach. Once he has deactivated each of the weapons in this way, he turns the shuttle back toward Voyager and navigates back into the shuttle bay, precisely repeating Tom's landing technique.

After landing the shuttle, he turns to Tom expectantly. "Well?" But Tom is speechless, staring at him with obvious bewilderment. While Tom is clearly impressed that he has figured out how to overcome the shielding technology, he does not understand the Doctor's actions after the shield generator was destroyed.

"You did very well." Tom quickly suppresses his confusion, stepping comfortably back into the role of instructor. "You handled the maneuvering very well, especially hugging their shields at the end. A little jerky at times, but very smooth for your first time." He smiles encouragingly at the Doctor as they both stand up to exit the shuttle. "Quick reflexes, avoiding the first attack like that. And capable of improvising and following your instincts, figuring out how to get around their shields. Not the way I would have done it, but obviously effective. But Doc," he pauses, cocking his head to the side, brows raised with curiosity, "Why didn't you finish them off?"

The Doctor turns to face him, stopping in the doorway of the shuttle. He looks at Tom with affection, wondering how to explain himself. Tom is a man of action, always willing to throw himself into danger to protect his ship and her crew, to sacrifice himself willingly, and to kill if necessary. How to explain? He smiles gently. Perhaps the simplest way is the best. "I'm a doctor, Tom. I can do no harm. And now, neither can they."

THE END - but have you read Witchcraft? If you enjoyed Unexpected Possibilities, don't forget to check out the Doctor's POV in Witchcraft.

Comments are love - I'd love to hear what you think.