AUTHOR'S NOTE:

This story follows "Off the Shoulder of Orion" and "After the Ashes," and while I have tried not to make it necessary, certain things might resonate a bit more if you've read those. It contains excursions into Orion culture that are pure head canon, like my Andorians – all resemblance to creatures seen on Star Trek is purely visual! We don't get to see enough of the Orions when they pop up over the years to have a coherent picture, so I made one up. I regret nothing.

Apologies for being so late in delivering this fic; RL has been a tad toxic lately. To top it off, I've started moonlighting in the "Avengers" fandom. (Focusing on Hawkeye - I guess I have a thing for writing about damaged males! Thanks to those of my VOY readers who followed me there; last chapter of "In the Service" coming soon...)

As per usual I own none of this, except the story and the aforementioned head canon and a couple of characters that won't score a hit when you google them.


Proof of Life

By Alpha Flyer


Prologue

She knows she is dying.

She knows that in the ordinary course of events, this would be a time to reflect on a life well-lived.

To watch highlights flash past, be thankful for gifts large and small. To recall faces, moments, laughter and tears; things that she touched or that touched her.

A time to extinguish regrets and to make peace.

But her death is not ordinary, and there is no time for thoughts of self.

All that remains is duty and loyalty and service – things that defined her in life, and so must in death.

She thinks she has failed.

All that remains is the warning, and time's running out with the blood from her throat, pulsing, weakening.

The steps recede. The door closes. She is alone.

She dips her finger in the pool of red.

Taps her warning on the floor, draws the pattern before darkness comes.

It comes


Chapter 1

Two weeks earlier

Tom Paris had never been huge on self-analysis (self-flagellation, yes, that he had elevated to an art form). As a result, he didn't bother examining too closely just why he had been so extremely keen to spend a day on his parents' estate, following the debriefings of his last mission.

Whether it was spending the last few weeks in the company of a little girl whose own family had been blown into space, or whether it was the simple luxury of being able to come home after a mission, after seven years of … not - it didn't really matter, did it? Fact was, right now this was the place he wanted to be more than anywhere else, and if that thought made him look like an idiot for holding all that bitterness for so many years, then so be it.

He had freely told B'Elanna just how much he was looking forward to sitting in a sunlit kitchen over a plate of his mother's non-replicated cookies, to listen to exclamations on how Miral had grown in the last three months, and to having a good solid argument with his father.

Well, so much for avoiding self-analysis. His wife stared at him as if he was covered in something alien and very, very slimy.

"Let me get this straight. You, Thomas Eugene Paris, want to argue with your father?"

The utter disbelief in his mate's voice caused a rueful smile to quirk across Tom's face, and he shrugged. How could he explain that somewhere in the course of the last couple of years – and after some fairly intense sessions with a certain Betazoid counselor - he'd finally managed to convince himself that his father might actually be interested in what he had to say?

Easier just to admit that he had come to enjoy their sparring sessions, psych stuff be damned. And that the Old Man was nowhere near as bone-headed as he used to be … or as Tom used to think he was … and that he held views that could actually be interesting, however … old-fashioned.

"Well, he's good to bounce ideas off of. He's been around the Quadrant and Starfleet, and while I may not agree with everything he's got to say, it's useful to figure out where he's coming from. Who knows – it may help me avoid some of the toes I've forever been stomping on."

B'Elanna contemplated her husband for a moment. Was this the same man who, over the years they had spent in the Delta Quadrant, had, in private moments, snarled his anger and whispered his regrets over his inability to talk to his father?

"Kahless, Tom, if I didn't know any better, and if I hadn't just watched you lying flat on the floor trying to help Miral recreate the Crystal Palace of Malnair with a bunch of isolinear chips you stole from Engineering – and don't think for a moment I didn't notice! - I'd be almost tempted to think you were growing up."

"Yeah, well," he shrugged again, giving her his most innocent grin. "It was bound to happen at some point."

And then he lunged for her, whirled her around and gave her a bite in the neck that he knew would send shivers down her spine. He watched with satisfaction as the skin on her right arm, bare in the Starfleet issue tank top she had stripped down to as soon as she had entered their quarters, developed a satisfying rash of goose bumps.

"But don't worry, Bee. I do plan on retaining a certain streak of irresponsibility, just to keep things interesting."

…..

And so here they were, Julia Paris exchanging amused glances with her daughter-in-law as their respective mates went at it over coffee and non-replicated cookies. The discussion was intense if not … vigorous, ranging from the desirability of developing transwarp technology (yes, but don't you encourage them test it on humans, son!) to trying to interest the Orion system in membership in the Federation (are you fucking kidding me, Dad?).

The latter debate was still ongoing, and managed to draw in even Tom's mother, who glared at her husband of several dozen years for "taking the side of those horrible people that practice slavery".

"There's no evidence that the Orion government endorses the slave trade, or even that they sanction the activities of the Syndicate," Owen pointed out, not for the first time.

"And besides, if we denied Federation membership to every system that hasn't brought crime under control, we wouldn't be able to consider Bajor or any of the colonies in the Tarikoff belt," he added, in a transparent attempt to wring what points he could from his various family members' history with the Maquis. "Something I have been asked to look at by Starfleet, by the way."

"Right," Tom replied, leaning back in his chair, the chocolate chip cookie crumbs on his tunic serving to take a bit of the edge off the dangerous glint in his eyes.

"The Belt colonies are one thing. They still want to join the Federation, after what it did to them for over a decade? Good for them. And yeah, the odd spot of piracy shouldn't stand in the way of their happiness."

He took a sip of his drink.

"But are you seriously telling me that's the same thing as the Orions' cozy relationship with the Crime syndicate? The Syndicate virtually controls the system, runs its own inter-planetary trade with anyone from the Romulans to terrorists, and most of the people with any power on their planet are members. So exactly what Orion government are we talking about here?"

"The one that deserves our support," Owen continued doggedly. "Maybe it's not quite a government yet, fine, it's more like a dissident movement. But there are people there who are trying to join the rest of the world, and we owe it to them to help. It's called 'constructive engagement,' Tom. For the Federation to turn away from them means that the people who are trying to improve things are on their own. We can't let that happen."

Tom shook his head. He was tempted to cite the Cardassian Treaty as an example of the kind of thing that happened when the Federation snuggled up to criminals, but that would be a low blow so he refrained.

"Well, I don't buy it," he said. "Every Orion I ever met who wasn't a slave was busily making profits of the misery of others."

Owen saw his opening, and pounced gleefully.

"That's right, Tom. What about those slave women you rescued? That girl you picked up? They didn't make any profits."

Tom found himself getting just a little indignant now. Maybe having an argument wasn't such a great idea?

"No, they were the victims of the misery the Syndicate inflicts. And yes, they deserve our help. And we gave it. But that's hardly the Orion government now, is it."

"No," Owen replied. "But they are the kind of people that could be. And helping them one at a time is like putting a bandaid on a sucking chest wound. We have to find a better approach."

Score one for the Old Man, B'Elanna's eyes told Tom over her mug. He leaned back in his chair and brushed off the cookie crumbs.

"Fine, you made your point, Dad. But that's all happy theory, until you can find someone on the other end of the comm line on Orion V that you can actually talk to. Who doesn't turn up dead, as soon as you hang up."

Julia Paris chose that moment to announce her readiness to serve dinner; Tom for one wasn't too unhappy to change topics, or he might say too much and freak out his mother. She was, of course, used to seeing first her husband and then her son embrace a life of danger with Starfleet, but having both of them subject to a "missina in action, presumed lost" report had wrung from her just about all the tolerance she was prepared to give. Details on the security briefing Tom and Kathryn Janeway had been forced to sit through would not be well received.

Tom would be the first to admit that a day's worth of threat assessment reports and refresher training in Hostile Environment Vigilance And Precautions (!) upon their return from the Denarian system had driven whatever interest he might have had in Orion society right out of him. The words of the briefer from security (Section 31?) rang in his mind:

"You are targets, Admiral Janeway, Captain Paris. If kill orders have not yet been issued against you by the Orion Crime Syndicate, they soon will be. Your disruption of their destabilization efforts and their mining operations in the Denarian system will not be forgiven, and the Syndicate will want to make certain that others in Starfleet won't emulate what you did. The Syndicate has a wide reach, and a long memory. Do not forget this, not even for a moment."

Tom's eyes settled on Miral, who was greeting a plate of freshly roasted chicken with an enthusiasm suitable for someone who had not eaten in a month. Would she grow up without a father, thanks to some lowlife's business model of crime and retribution?

Candidates for Federation membership, my targeted ass.

…..

Oh-eight hundred hours, and the comms channel chimed right on cue. Tom and Harry Kim, his First Officer, were sitting in the Captain's ready room, their backs turned on the arches of McKinley space station that held Voyager in their spidery, shimmering web.

"Captain." The flat voice of Vice Admiral Nacheyev came over the line.

"Admiral."

Two could play at that game, Tom figured. This was, what, the third or fourth time he was getting his orders straight from the top? Far from feeling flattered, or sensing his career and ego being stroked, he considered this amount of personal attention from the Head of Starfleet to be rather enervating and disconcerting. How many other junior captains could lay claim to this degree of visibility, if they fucked up?

Nacheyev gave her usual pinched smile.

"Please go secure, Voyager."

Tom and Harry exchanged looks. Starfleet comms enjoyed considerable encryption values on a good day; going secure meant extra layers supposedly impossible to crack. Unless you managed to obtain the command codes, of course. Like everything in the Federation's security systems, the illusion of protection was worth only as much as its weakest human link …

Tom uttered a few commands to the computer, and the image on the monitor changed – the word "secure" was superimposed roughly across the Admiral's cheekbones.

"I feel safer already," Tom whispered to his best friend.

"Captain Paris, Commander Kim. New mission orders. We will transmit coordinates to you … now."

She nodded to someone off screen, and a little blip indicated receipt by Voyager's system.

"Acknowledged," Tom confirmed.

"The mission parameters are … delicate, Captain," she continued. "You are aware that several of the colonies in the Tarikoff Belt have applied for membership in the Federation, presumably so as to strengthen their ties to the Federation in the event the Cardassian Union make a resurgence in the sector. Ordinarily we would not consider them ready, but given … their past history, the Council is prepared to consider their application on an expedited basis."

"Atonement for past sins? I suppose there are worse impulses in politics."

Harry cast a scandalized look at his friend and Captain, but Tom ignored him. So did the Fleet Admiral. Almost.

"Quite," she said frostily, but there might just have been a glint in her eyes. Hard to tell, over a secure line.

"In any event, you will be familiar with certain recent incidents of … piracy in the sector. There have been a number of high-profile interceptions of private and commercial vessels, and in many instances, ransom has been paid. It appears that quite a profitable business has sprung up."

It was Harry's turn to demonstrate incredulity.

"People are still paying ransom for kidnappings? I thought there was a policy against that in the Federation."

Tom clenched his jaw, and breathed out slowly. His childhood had been haunted by that very policy, following then-Captain Owen Paris' abduction and ... mistreatment at the hands of Cardassian forces. Not even a Starfleet Captain in possession of military secrets merited a relaxation of the "no bargains" policy. The shell of a man who returned - after a bloody extraction that cost more than a dozen lives – had borne little resemblance to the indulgent and loving father who had left San Francisco four months earlier.

Nacheyev was more than familiar with the Paris family history, of course, and therefore it was to Tom that she addressed her response – in a tone carefully modulated to convey sympathy and understanding.

"That policy is still in place. But we have no control over private citizens and commercial interests, and it's been those that have essentially created this … industry. A law trying to restrain such payments has been before the Council for months now, but shows no progress towards enactment."

Of course.

"Let me guess. Enlightened self-interest. A number of the Councilors have campaign contributors or constituents whose business interests have been affected, and who'd rather pay up than lose their ships and cargo. Cost of doing business in the outer reaches."

Nacheyev said nothing, how could she, but the lingering look that she gave Tom did nothing to suggest that he was wrong.

"Be that as it may," she continued as if he hadn't spoken, "Since Federation interests are affected, there is an excellent argument for Starfleet to increase its presence in the region, to act as a deterrent even if we have no enforcement authority in the region as yet. Voyager's crew has extensive experience in long-range monitoring of communications, tracking and tracing."

Tom almost snorted, but limited himself to a polite nod.

"You want us to find out if it's just spur of the moment banditry, or if there's a guiding hand behind it."

"Precisely," she said, in a tone that made it clear to both officers that the interview was over.

Almost.

"A reminder, Captain: Starfleet has no jurisdiction in the Belt. That means we have no right to intervene, except in defence of life. You will understand that the colonies, given their history, are … wary of us. In other words, we expect reports, not interference. Nacheyev out."

The Federation insignia replaced the Admiral's head on the monitor, and Tom terminated the connection. For a moment, the two friends sat in silence, digesting what they had heard.

"Don't you think life was easier when we had a command team to tell us what to do next?" Harry quipped. "Instead of having to make it up ourselves, I mean."

"Yeah, well. Time to grow up, Har. So whaddya think?" Tom leaned back in his chair. "This is a quiz. Let's see how well you do, Commander."

Harry glared at him a little, but really, he'd asked for it.

"Sounds like a pretty straightforward mission. Go in sniff around, find some facts, look for patterns, make connections, come back, report. Like I said, straightforward."

"Yeah, like the Snowflakes was a straightforward mission. Find out who diverts humanitarian aid, Nacheyev said. You were still on the Enterprise then but you know bloody well how it ended. So come on, you know better than that. Why'd Nacheyev hand this to us? In person?"

Harry sighed.

"Okay, fine. So there's probably politics involved."

"Very good, Commander. And my favourite kind of politics, too: Don't pull on that, you don't know what it's attached to. What else?"

"Dicey region. Starfleet's remains deeply unpopular with much of the local population."

"B plus, Harry. You're getting there. And I'll give you a hint: So we're going into the Tarikoff Belt - with the one ship in the fleet that has more former Maquis on board than any of the others. Bee, Ayala, Dalby, Chell, the rest ... hell, even me if you squint. So what does that tell you?"

Tom obviously considered this one rhetorical, and so responded himself.

"Instant street cred with the locals. Nacheyev is probably hoping that we can look under rugs where the Federation can't. Starfleet has no jurisdiction, my ass."

Harry sat back in his chair, looking distinctly intrigued.

"You think she's sending us because she wants us to intervene, in case we see something, and thinks we can get away with it?"

Tom shrugged.

"Who knows what the hell Nacheyev thinks at any given time, Har. Her agenda has agendas, for Kahless' sake. What I do know is that if we get in trouble in the Belt, and B'Elanna or Mike Ayala make a call, there'll be someone picking up the phone at the other end of the line. And our dear Fleet Admiral is counting on that, I bet."

"Phone?" Harry looked puzzled for a moment, then shook his head. "Never mind."

They sat in silence for a few moments, each digesting what they had heard, and what they hadn't. Tom was chewing his lower lip, wondering whether the tingling in his gut was an extra-sensory warning of some kind, or just a reminder that he'd eaten too many of his mother's cookies the day before.

Harry came to a conclusion first, and – oddly - it seemed to be a happy one. Happy-ish, anyway.

"Well, whatever. It actually sounds exciting. So when do we leave? Nacheyev wasn't very specific."

Tom looked at his best friend, slightly puzzled.

"You seem awfully … eager all of a sudden? What happened? An epiphany about the secret delights of piracy among the stars?"

Harry took a deep breath, and made a – not entirely successful – attempt to school his features into serious officer mode.

"Oh, come on, Tom. Piracy. You have to admit that this is … kind of cool, on some level." He hesitated just a little when he saw his friend's frown. "Isn't it?"

"As in, yohoho, and a bottle of blood wine? Captain Proton and the Magic Eye Patch?"

Tom tried to get into Harry's enthusiasm, but found himself failing rather miserably. Maybe it was B'Elanna's comment that she thought he was growing up – time to give up boyish things? Or maybe it was the thought that abducting private and commercial vessels for ransom was, all things considered, rather more sordid than it was romantic.

Either way, he couldn't deny the fact that for his third mission as Captain, the Fleet Admiral seemed to put a fair bit of faith into his judgment in sensitive circumstances. He didn't know whether to be flattered or concerned. Bit of both, probably.

"Well, I do say one thing," Harry's interruption pre-empted any further thoughts on the matter.

"At least we'll be a long way from Orion."