Chief Helm Officer:

The Memoirs of Lt. Benara Stadi

By Jamelia

He was going to be trouble. I didn't need any telepathic abilities to know it, either. He was long, lean, drop-dead gorgeous, and oozed attitude. Just my type.

From the way he languidly stared at me, with those crystalline blue eyes lazily traveling up and down my body, his fine lips quivering in anticipation and hinting at the sensual delights he could offer, I knew I could just dive into his arms and lose myself in his body for as long as it lasted - which I had a hunch wouldn't be for very long. For as long as it lasted, though . . . yum.

I make no apologies. It had been over six months since Fitz and I had called it quits. I hadn't been involved with anyone else in all that time. A woman has needs. I've never been fond of sleeping alone, but that doesn't mean I'd take just anyone. I have my standards.

I knew this guy was a bad boy just waiting to break the heart of anyone who was unwary enough to become seriously involved with him. I might have risked a few hours on a quickie fling if I'd encountered him on Risa or shore leave somewhere, despite my perceptions of his character, but that wasn't an option this time. My captain had ordered me to ferry him "on the double" between the ship transporting him from Earth to the Bajoran sector and Voyager. That meant no time for dallying. Strictly business.

Besides, we were going to be serving on the same ship for an unknown length of time. From what I already knew of his history, I thought I'd be better off giving him a smack to keep him in his place than a kiss. The last thing I needed was a jailbird for a boyfriend, no matter how he made my whole body tremble at my first sight of him.

"Are you Mr. Thomas E. Paris, Voyager's new 'observer'?" I asked, more to identify myself to him than the other way around. I knew very well who he was from the photograph embedded in his computer file.

"That's my name and my game right now," he drawled, pursing his lips together as he closed his mouth on the last word. Gods, I could just hear the wolf-whistle all but fighting to get out.

"Get your gear and follow me," I said brusquely, whirling around to escape the promise in his eyes. I'd had enough of broken promises in my life already.

I heard the brush of his duffle dragging against the floor for a split second, then his boot heels clicking against the floor as he followed me to the shuttle. To calm my raging hormones I recalled what Fitz insisted on telling me when he found out about my errand; about the pieces of bodies he'd had to bag up after the pilot had broken them apart at Caldik Prime. He hadn't known at the time that Paris' error had caused their deaths, of course. Until he'd confessed and been thrown out of Starfleet, no one had even suspected it, apparently. Fitz, of course, claimed he knew something had to be missing from Paris' story even then, although he didn't know enough about flight training missions at the time to be able to guess what it might be.

Personally, I think Fitz never had a clue about what had happened until learning of Tom's confession of guilt. Then he put it all together. It was like him to make claims like that, though, one of those irritating habits that finally made me call it quits with him. Perhaps I wasn't being fair - it could also have been the ghost of our broken relationship still haunting me. After talking with Fitz, however, I resolved not to have anything more to do with Thomas E. Paris, late of Starfleet, than duty required. My visceral reaction to him when I actually met the man face-to-face was a shock. Usually, I was very good at keeping myself under control when I'd decided something like that.

I have no idea what his expression might have told me about him as he strode behind me, but I'm pretty sure he was staring at my butt. I kept my personal shielding up tight to keep out any lecherous thoughts he might be having. If he was being the perfect gentleman, unlikely as that may have been, I didn't know it at the time. He cleared his throat a few times, but he held his tongue as we approached the shuttle.

When we arrived, I stumbled a little on the first step. That was a surprise. I never did things like that. Paris was right there, in perfect position to grab my elbow and keep me from falling. Mentally, I recoiled, trying to erect my shields even higher before he could buffet me with lustful thoughts.

I was buffeted, all right, but not with lust. Despite his insolent examination of my body, I discovered sex was the last thing on his mind. The man carried within him a crushingly heavy burden of guilt, regret, and self-loathing. Causing the death of his friends was ripping him apart from within. I sensed not a wolf whistle, but rather the blood-curdling howl of a lone wolf shrieking out his loneliness and despair at the moon, in agony because he had been exiled from his pack.

I know a lot of people think Betazoids are forever poking inside their minds, telepathically extracting their secret thoughts even on casual acquaintance. Absolutely untrue - that's the last thing we would do or would want to do. Besides being unethical, which is drummed into us in early childhood before we have even a hint of a telepathic sense, it's totally impractical. If anything, such a belief illustrates how little those not of a telepathic race know what it's like having thoughts from strangers intruding into one's consciousness at all hours of the day. It would be total chaos.

For our own sanity, we are trained to block out the telepathic sendings of others unless we are in a deliberate, mutually agreed-upon mental conversation. It's difficult for me to explain to one without a telepathic sense how we signal our permission for this, but it's something we do almost without thinking. Subtle tendrils of invitation and acquiescence are projected, and we seldom have trouble discerning those who are open to a silent chat and those who, for whatever reason, are not interested in pursuing such a communication at any given time. Conversely, we are adept at shielding our innermost thoughts and emotional reactions from others unless we are "sending" to each other.

Those of other races generally have no knowledge of such shielding. It is all up to the Betazoid to block thoughts and emotions out. While it takes training, after a while it becomes second nature.

But just as non-telepathic individuals may try not to eavesdrop upon a spoken conversation but still overhear one anyway, a telepath may sense the thoughts of another despite a mighty effort to avoid it. Paris was like that from the first. Since I'd learned pretty quickly that Tom Paris was not the selfish, unfeeling bastard Fitz said he was, I pitied the man.

So, when he started flirting shamelessly, I let him. It took an effort not to laugh, actually. What dumb pick-up lines! To be charitable, he must have gotten pretty rusty while he was locked up in Auckland, but my playing along served another purpose. While we were trading barbs, his emotional turmoil smoothed over enough for me to tolerate being near him. When he responded to my question about whether he always flew at women at warp speed with, "only when they're in visual range," I was unable to keep my face completely free of a smirk. By the time we were approaching Deep Space Nine, I found myself imagining a few warm and sensual ways to pass the time with Mr. Paris, despite my vow to keep away from him.

At his first sight of Voyager, all flirting stopped, on my part as well as his. As I proudly ticked off Voyager's stats, he leaned forward, hungrily drinking in the ship's clean lines. I doubt anyone could have missed what he felt from looking at his face, let alone a Betazoid who could feel how badly he wanted it. Tom Paris was a true pilot. He'd forgotten all about me. He fell deeply in love with Voyager at first sight. His naked yearning to take Voyager's controls in hand and fly her, rather than me, emanated from him in pulses of desire.

At least I knew I was no longer in danger of falling into a relationship that had no future. There was no way I was going to compete with HER.

I avoided Paris for the next couple of days as we headed out to the Badlands on our mission. It was better that way. Whenever I did encounter him, the flaring of emotions from him was disquieting, at best. Throw in the revulsion radiating from anyone who happened to be near him, and I felt like I was being pummeled relentlessly. The man certainly knew how to stir up trouble. I doubt he realized how damaging his brittle facade was. His defense mechanism of pretending not to care about anything - when he wasn't actively trying to piss everyone else off - engendered an enmity among the crew that was painful to me, let alone him.

I think that's when I also knew his true purpose was to punish himself for what he'd done. As if losing his freedom as well as the right to pilot a starship, the one thing he cared about most (at that time, at least), wasn't enough! It's strange to think that someone who walked around with a tree-sized chip on his shoulder could have been beating himself up with it, but that was the reality.

No one wanted to hear about the reality, of course. I could perceive that pretty easily from my crew mates, so I didn't bother to say anything. I decided I'd clue in my shipmates about the "real" Tom Paris later, after the close of our mission. When he was no longer around, they might be in the mood to listen. I'm a little ashamed to admit my lack of courage now. In my own defense, I never had all that much time to change my mind. Once we arrived in the Badlands, everything happened so quickly.

We were on the bridge. Our new ops officer announced that we were being scanned by a coherent tetryon beam. Then he announced that a displacement wave was moving towards us. Something else happened, but I never could remember for myself what it was. It takes a few minutes of consciousness for a short term memory to transfer into a long term memory, but I didn't get them. I learned later my console exploded as the ship was grabbed by the displacement wave. I was thrown away from my helm chair just far enough from the console when it exploded that I wasn't killed. Maimed and blinded, yes, but not killed.

I heard all about the Caretaker later. Much later. But thanks to the Caretaker, I lost the next several weeks of my life. By the time I was conscious again, my life, and that of everyone on Voyager, had changed completely.

"Hey, there, Sleeping Beauty. Are you finally waking up?"

I swam out of insensibility, stroking towards the light tenor voice, trying to orient myself to time and place by identifying it, but it took a tremendous effort. If I hadn't felt the mixture of bravado and self-loathing lurking in the mind underneath the voice, I don't know if I would have recognized it as that of Tom Paris. I moaned a little and tried to force my eyes open to see.

I felt a hand grab mine as I struggled to part my lids. I could have sworn I had opened them, but I still couldn't see anything.

That's when I knew, just before Tom's concern and worry transformed into a flash of pity. He amazingly put it down ruthlessly and replaced it with what I can only describe as friendly determination. He was about to confirm my fear.

"I'm blind, aren't I?" I said, forestalling the need for him to tell me the unhappy truth.

"Yes. The helm console exploded. The Doc's kept you in an artificial coma for several weeks to give you a chance to heal."

He didn't need to say any more. It was impossible for him to block out his memory of rushing to the ruined console, turning me around, and gasping as the extent of my injuries became apparent. I didn't need eyes to see his fingers touching my neck to find the feeble flutter of pulse, to relive the surge of panic when he quickly shoved away from me just far enough to sweep me up in his arms, or to visualize him rushing me to sickbay. Thankfully, thanks to emergency power, the turbolift was still working. My stomach churned at his memory of my ruined face.

Involuntarily, I reached up to touch my cheek. Smooth skin. The doctor had healed me, at least there.

Only the doctor he imagined working over me was a total stranger, not Fitz. I was puzzled. I must have projected my confusion to him, for he said, "Dr. Fitzgerald was killed the same time you were injured. Don't worry. We've got the Emergency Medical Hologram supplying all our medical needs now. Oh, and you've got me, too, of course. Field Medic Tom Paris, at your service."

I had barely digested what Tom had just told me, that Fitz was dead, when another voice, rather gruff and formal, called out, "Ah, yes. I see you're awake, Lieutenant Stadi. Excellent. We have some decisions to make about your care, as soon as I have an opportunity to discuss them. However, at the moment Mr. Neelix is in critical need of attention. Mr. Paris, please stop flirting with my patient and come help me with him."

"He's waking up, Doctor," I heard a mellow and sweetly rich voice, feminine, but which I was certain I'd never heard before.

"Mr. Paris! I need you now!" The EMH's voice was imperious.

"Gotta go," Tom whispered, giving my hand another squeeze. As he did, I caught a glimpse of a jumble of memories to mull over. The mysterious Talaxian and his lover Kes, obviously the possessor of the mellow female voice, were our crew mates now.

This Neelix had had his lungs stolen by some alien race called the Vidiians. I'd never heard of them before, either, but that was not a surprise. Overriding every other memory I'd just picked up from Tom was one brutal fact. Voyager was in the Delta Quadrant. It would take us a lifetime to get home. And then, like the grinding of a hundred and fifty sets of mechanical gears all failing at the same time, I became conscious of a buzz of voices, thoughts, and emotions all ringing in my head at the same time. I tried to shut them out. I panicked when I realized I couldn't.

The EMH and Kes filled me in later, after Neelix's crisis with was resolved by Kes donating one of her lungs to him. I had been comatose for weeks after Caretaker snatched Voyager into the Delta Quadrant. I probably would have died if not for our "observer." He'd carried me down to Sickbay and threw me into a stasis unit which kept me alive, just barely, until our Chief Medical Officer could find the time to work on me. Because I was in stasis, I was the only one of the crew the Caretaker never bothered to examine on his array. I assume he either didn't perceive my presence as a living being or didn't feel I could survive long enough to fulfill his purpose. With everyone else gone, the EMH was free to spend all of his time working on me, and I had needed every minute he could spare.

My eyes had been completely destroyed in the explosion of the console. The EMH was able to restore my face to its former state via his skills as a plastic surgeon, but the only thing he could do about my sight was provide me with a visual prosthesis. As he'd promised, once the crisis with Neelix's lungs was over, the Doctor discussed my options. I could have a VISOR, a time-honored technology, or he could try fitting me with experimental artificial eyeballs, which he believed could be implanted in my reconstructed eye sockets. The implants would work much like the VISOR. He said he could not make them look like Betazoid eyes, or even human eyes, for that matter, since the pupils would have a mechanical sort of look. He promised to work on refining them in his spare time.

Since VISORs are well known for causing a great deal of pain to their wearers, I opted for the experimental implants. Like the VISOR, the implants enabled me to see wavelengths of light far outside of the normal spectrum of any humanoid being, an advantage once one gets used to them. I would never see the same way as others again. I could probably have gone back to piloting regularly, if a visual aid was all that it took to get me back to the helm. That had also been reconstructed, obviously, while I was comatose.

Unfortunately, a visual aid wasn't all I needed. I also needed relief from the migraine headaches that wouldn't quit. They waxed and waned all day long. Sometimes they were only a dull ache, but generally the inside my skull pounded continuously in pain, thanks to the clamor of about a hundred and fifty or so minds butting heads inside my own. I don't think I could have survived the pain from a VISOR, too.

I had suffered the type of brain damage feared most by Betazoids, even more than totally losing the ability to communicate telepathically. My ability to erect personal shielding to wall away the thoughts of others had been permanently compromised. The thoughts of everyone on board the ship intruded upon me every waking hour. And awake I most surely was, for almost all hours of the day, because falling to sleep was almost impossible under those conditions. To sleep at all, I had to make my bed inside a stasis chamber in Sickbay. It was, in a word, Hell, and for months after that first talk with Tom, I was barely a part of the crew. If Commander Tuvok hadn't helped me put my life back together, I think I'd still be sleeping in a stasis chamber.

Tuvok did wonders for me. Through weekly mind melds he was able to accomplish what my one Betazoid crew mate (the murderer, Lon Suder) could not. He helped me pick through my memories to rediscover the techniques I'd learned as a child, when I first developed my telepathic abilities, so I could deal with extraneous mental incursions. I had to face the fact that I would never again be able to completely shut out mental background noise. (This is true even today, when I have the benefit of the best therapists on Betazed. I am permanently disabled.) I finally learned enough filters so that, instead of only being a permanent drain on the ship's resources, I became a useful member of Voyager's crew once again, although only a part-time one.

It was always hard, though, and even harder for me to accept my changed circumstances: I was the Chief Helm Officer of Voyager, but I didn't dare take the conn except in the deepest hours of Gamma Shift. When most of the crew was asleep, I was better able to filter out the "noise" from those who remained awake, whether they were on or off duty. At first I could only handle the distractions and fly the ship when Commander Tuvok was in command, because he was able to channel his own thoughts so precisely. He was able to "send" me only what I needed for navigation purposes. I wonder now how hard that was upon him. He had studied Vulcan mental disciplines, but I know how difficult it is to NOT think about something when you know you're not supposed to think about it!

As time went on I learned to work with both Lieutenant Rollins and Ensign Harry Kim as well, but that easy communion between commanding officer and Betazoid helm officer, the mutually agreed upon mental tie that enabled me to implement a course change before the captain had a chance to say the new heading aloud - that sort of speedy reaction was gone forever. I had lost two senses, and the one I missed the most was the ability to live within my mind alone.

I often wondered, during that first year, if I wouldn't have been better off dead, like Fitz. Or Cavit, who had been replaced as first officer by the Maquis officer we had been sent to find; or our engineer, who had been a fine person despite not being nearly as creative as our new half-Klingon chief engineer, B'Elanna Torres, also a former Maquis. Certainly the new primary helm officer, Lieutenant j.g. (brevet rank) Thomas Eugene Paris, was far my superior at the helm. The funny thing is, I think he may have been before, too, even though he had no Betazoid blood in him that I ever heard about. The man could anticipate the captain's orders even better than I ever did.

People tried to hide that from me, but it was impossible. Their thoughts showed me, even before the prosthetic devices were implanted so that I could see him in action for myself. All of them couldn't be exaggerating his skills to exactly the same degree. No, I eventually had to admit it to myself. Even if I had never been injured, Tom Paris would have been the superior pilot. Because of my injury, there was no contest at all.