Lessons Learned from Loneliness

Chapter 1

The punch landed without even announcing it was on its way. It knocked Tom Paris clear off his feet and back into a row of barstools.

As Tom's feet skidded out from under him, his first thought was, "What the hell?" His second was, "What do I have to do to get a break around here?"

The last few weeks on Voyager had been a strain on everyone. Not even Neelix's party had been successful in lifting the crew's spirits. Actually, it was one of the least successful parties in the ship's history. People stood around, trying not to be too obvious about staring at the senior staff, trying to think of something, or someone else to talk about.

No one felt up to discussing the Equinox or its very un-Starfleet treatment of the Delta quadrant aliens, not to mention the Equinox crew's betrayal of the Voyager crew and their mistreatment of the two crewmembers who had been stranded on the Equinox when it fled. People weren't ready for social chitchat about what had gone on during Voyager's pursuit of the Equinox either. It was all still too fresh - the Captain's unwavering determination to track down the Equinox, the disagreement between the Captain and her First Officer over the treatment of the captured Equinox crewmember, the Equinox's eventual destruction with Captain Ransom still on board and his final bequest of the surviving Equinox crew to Voyager.

Those Equinox crewmembers were now an inescapable reminder of these unsettling events. By the end of the party the crew's mood was as soggy as the croutons that the Captain had brought to add to Chakotay's salad.

The atmosphere on Voyager's bridge had been particularly uncomfortable during the hunt for the rogue Starfleet vessel. It had been impossible for Tom Paris or for Harry Kim to escape the strain of watching Voyager's topmost senior staff at odds over the question of how to deal with the Equinox. Trapped by duty, at their stations, there had been no way for either of them to dodge the tension.

The Equinox was history now. They'd even held a ceremony to restore Voyager's dedication plaque that had fallen from its place on the bridge. But Tom still felt like he was walking on eggs every time he came on duty on the bridge. It was hard to tell which was worse - the occasional lapses into awkwardness, or the Captain's determination to carry on in front of her crew as if all the pieces on the ship were back in in their regular places again.

So Tom Paris wasn't surprised when the demand for holodeck time spiked to a new level of high. He could sympathize when crewmembers became irritable if they had to wait outside the holodecks for their turn.

Tom had a private reason to wish for the encounter with the Equinox to retreat as quickly as possible into the past. He was seriously unhappy about the way good old Max, the Equinox's First Officer and B'Elanna's old boyfriend from her days at the academy, had treated B'Elanna when he came on Voyager. Max had used her, and his former relationship with her, as little more than a useful convenience to cover up his infiltration of Voyager's security systems. Tom couldn't help but be concerned about the way B'Elanna's ex-beau's subsequent fate might have affected her. But B'Elanna only said that she should have known better, that Max always had been a petaQ. She said that she'd save her regrets for the crewmembers on the Equinox who had trusted Max and had followed him to their deaths. That was the story that she was sticking with anyway.

When Voyager first approached the Markonian outpost where they were currently docked, the bright station lights with their festive colors made such a cheerful sight that Tom wasn't that surprised to see the crew's spirits finally begin to rebound, at least a little. The Captain took full advantage of the opportunity presented by the station to provide a change of pace for her crew. She negotiated visitation rights for the ship with the station and a large number of locals from the outpost took advantage of Captain Janeway's reciprocal invitation to come aboard to tour Voyager. The ship's corridors quickly filled with boisterous, inquisitive aliens of all shapes, sizes and colors. Many of the visitors brought gifts for the Captain and her crew. More than a few of them selected small 'gifts' to take back from the ship in exchange. It definitely made a break from the routine for Voyager's crew to host these lively guests.

Tom had a lot of experience putting pieces back together, and he could tell that the visitors were certainly providing the crew with a nice change of pace. But what he figured would do his spirits even more good was a visit of his own to the outpost for some old-fashioned R and R. He tried to talk B'Elanna into joining him - with no success. She insisted on staying put on Voyager. Even with vital systems off limits to visitors and Tuvok's security teams on duty, she was adamant about personally maintaining vigilance over her precious engines, without, as she so plainly put it, Tom hovering around, getting in her way. So, Tom was now on his way to find Harry to convince him to head over to the station with him.

In the corridor ahead of Tom, Ken Dalby was standing in the middle of the passageway, blocking Tom's way and glaring at a closed door. The door marked the quarters where he had dropped off the Equinox crewman who was assigned to work with him this week. Dalby was getting more and more annoyed with his babysitting charge. The guy had tried all week to work an angle with the Maquis on Voyager, all along the lines of "You're an outsider. I'm an outsider too. Let's be pals."

Dalby had no patience with that kind of shit. He didn't see any of them volunteering to help when his home was overrun and his wife killed by the Cardassians. And the Equinox crew didn't seem so anxious to hang out and make nice with the Voyager Maquis when they abandoned them along with all the rest of the Voyager crew to turn tail and make their own run for home. The only one he had any patience with now was Marla Gilmore. She had at least tried to make things right. So Dalby was clear on how he felt about being pals with the Equinox crew.

What he wasn't so clear on, was how he felt about what Janeway had done, pushing to the extreme to track down the Equinox. That part left him with a sour taste in his mouth.

Ken Dalby had loved his wife. He had never loved anyone so much in his life. Miracle of miracles, she had loved him back. But sometimes they argued. He couldn't help it. It was his nature to be pig-headed. His wife could hold her own with him. Still, she'd once told him that although she would never leave him, no matter what, there were times when she just needed to go for a long walk.

Dalby was a part of Voyager now. He had no intention of leaving the ship. But man, right now he wished he could go for a long walk.

"Problem?" Tom asked when it became clear that Dalby wasn't planning to move any time soon.

Dalby tore his eyes away from the door. "Nah, just getting fed up with babysitting."

Tom thought quickly. It looked like there were more than a few people on Voyager who could use the kind of break that he had in mind. "I'm going over to the station with Ensign Kim to find a bar to get some beer," he said. "Why don't you come along? We can make it a party."

Ken considered the proposal. Long walk? Beer? In the mood he was in, that was not a bad trade off - good for dealing with the taste in his mouth too. He nodded. "I just might do that."

"Great! See you in, say, half an hour?" Tom thought that should be plenty of time for him to pick up Harry and corral a few others too.

Dalby nodded again and headed back to his station to sign off from duty, grumbling to himself just to keep in practice.

Tom continued on his way, keeping an eye out for more willing bodies to make it a real party. This might work out even better than he'd first thought.

Even though Voyager was physically docked at the station, Tuvok insisted that all visitors arriving and leaving the ship do so via the transporters. It was another one of those 'better safe than sorry' things. By the time Tom got Harry to the transporter room, he had a respectable number of crewmembers in tow. It was a diverse group, lively enough to engage in friendly banter that augured well for the outing.

The junket to find a bar started off well enough. They located an establishment that was well stocked with beer and served honest portions. Their mixed group included Jenny Delaney on a rare outing without her twin sister, Megan. She persuaded the barkeeper to let them take over a couple of prime tables, right beside a court set up in the middle of the bar. They settled in and got down to the serious work of sampling the local beer. The beer was tasty, the natives were friendly, and for a while all went well. Tom leaned back in his chair and smiled. This was much better. Quite a few spirits seemed to be in good shape now.

Then events took an unexpected turn. Two large Kinbori from the crowd seated on the other side of the court came over and invited Harry and Tom to play some kind of tennis game with big, clunky racquets. The skunk-like odor emanating from the Kinbori was enough to discourage competitive sportsmanship. But one of their own, a normally quiet crewman, piped up. "Great idea!"

The beer had apparently revved up everyone else's thirst for competition too - as long as it was Tom and Harry doing the competing.

"Harry, you have to take the challenge," Jenny encouraged Harry.

"Yeah, Paris," Ken Dalby called out. "Show them what you can do."

Buoyed by further shouts of encouragement from their not too discerning tablemates, Tom and Harry decided to give it a try.

At the beginning of the game, one of the Kinbori hit a ball over the net and Harry managed to make contact with his unwieldy racquet to return the volley.

That's when all hell broke loose.

The other team's cheering section broke into raucous hooting that sounded like boos. The Kinbori directly across from Tom screamed, threw his racquet to the floor, jumped up and down, leaped across the net, and punched Tom in the eye with enough force to knock him off his feet.

Harry was stunned. He rushed over to assist Tom before the Kinbori could get in another punch. At the tables on their side of the court the Voyager contingent got to their feet, ready to assist.

Tom crashed into the stools set up along the far side of the court. That hurt. But it broke his fall. He regained his balance and waved Harry off. He also rejected the implied help from the rest of his crewmates. His Starfleet training kicked in and he tried to defuse the situation. After all, he was a senior officer and was supposed to set an example. He opened his hands in what was generally accepted as a placating gesture. "Look friend," he said to his attacker. "There must be some misunderstanding. Maybe…"

That's when the other Kinbori hauled off and punched Harry in the mouth. The Kinbori team's cheering section took advantage of this move to vacate their benches and jump in.

Oh well, so much for diplomacy, Tom shrugged his apology to his shipmates. "It looks like they want to play a different kind of game," he commented wryly.

The rest of the Voyagers piled onto the court, some climbing over tables to get there. Ken Dalby drained the last of his beer before placing the empty glass on a table. No point in wasting a decent brew. Then he reached out to grab an alien who looked to be almost twice his size and punched him in the stomach.

It was clear that the bar was prepared for the occasional fight. The beer glasses they provided were the unbreakable kind, too light to cause major damage if used as missiles. Except for a few stools, most of the furniture was heavy duty and firmly bolted to the floor. Tom spared a moment to size up the opposition. Jenny had partnered up with Ken Dalby. They promised to make a formidable team. Harry looked ready to hold his own. Their other crewmates were scattered among the Kinbori. Everyone looked to be in good shape. Tom picked out a target for himself and dove in.

The barkeeper ducked around the combatants to get to the doors. He opened them wide and waved the brawlers outside to take advantage of the clear space in the 'street' in front of the bar. In no time at all the corridor was filled with a noisy tangle of Kinbori and Voyagers surrounded by various onlookers who appeared in the doorways of neighboring establishments to shout encouragement and advice from a safe distance.

The other businesses on the 'street' benefited from the flow of customers in and out of the bar. Many of the bar's customers stopped to shop in nearby stores, especially after alcohol got them into an expansive and generous mood. So the other business owners usually cast a tolerant eye on these occasional disruptions. The recreational store across the corridor had even lent the bar a set of Kinbori racquets and a net when they heard that several Kinbori ships would be docked at the station for a few cycles. Their sales of racquets had been brisk.

But farther up the corridor, the proprietor of a clothing shop swore in irritation as his customers exited his store to go and watch the fight. This had already happened twice in the last nine work cycles. He was losing patience with these interruptions to his business. He reached under his counter to press an alarm that would summon station security. They could be here in a matter of minutes. Once they hauled these pesky brawlers to jail, he could return to the profitable business of making sales to his customers.

What happened to the brawlers would be on their heads. It would serve them right if station authorities locked them up for a prolonged stay.