by J.A. Toner, a.k.a. "Jamelia"
A note about chronology: "Abandoned" and "Shelter" take place a short time after the Star Trek Voyager episode, "Worst Case Scenario." "Separation" and "Vows" take place after the two-part episode, "Scorpion 1 & 2."
"How's your footing, B'Elanna?"
"It's OK, Tom. How about yours?"
"Solid as a rock, as always, Torres."
Thomas Eugene Paris flashed a groaning B'Elanna Torres one of his trademark crooked grins to punctuate his reply. The helmsman and chief engineer of Voyager clung precariously to a craggy rock face, suspended above a narrow valley on the southern continent of the nameless fourth planet of the yellow-white star which was designated only as V3-F01-1572 by the staff in Stellar Cartography. They hadn't gotten around to giving the star an actual name either. If Voyager's sensors had not detected the presence of a very high grade of dilithium crystal on the planet's surface, the two lieutenants and their crewmates gathering tubers in the valley below would not have bothered to visit the star system at all. Since Voyager needed dilithium for its own warp engines and as valued commodities for trading, Captain Janeway had decided that this particular side trip would be worth the delay it would cause in their trip back home to the Alpha Quadrant. When the trip is expected to last 70 years or so, one week's delay to obtain a substance that will be needed anyway is a sacrifice easily made. If at the same time they could secure tasty edibles to supplement Neelix's food stocks, so much the better.
"Check your tricorder again to see how close we are to that formation, Tom."
He pulled the tricorder off his belt and held it over his head. "The readings are very strong directly above us, about 10 more meters from here." Carefully replacing the device, Tom inched up the cliff, fixing his feet in the crevasses in the schist, allowing his full weight on each foot before moving his hands gingerly up to a higher position. A glance down at his half-Klingon, half-human companion verified that she was being as careful as he in grabbing each handhold and foothold. Although the rocky surface was uneven enough to give them good footing, they did not want to take anything too much for granted, despite the safety line attaching them to one another. Neither wanted a repeat performance of the fall in the mines of the Sakari world. Neelix's plunge while they were rappelling down a steep mine shaft had endangered B'Elanna Torres' life, contributing one more complication to an away team mission that already had become fraught with difficulties. Because of all that had happened on that mission, this time B'Elanna had elected to bring along Tom alone when climbing the cliff, once it was clear that that was the only way the dilithium deposits could be reached.
"Warm enough, B'Elanna?"
"A little too warm, actually. It's a good thing we left the jackets at the base of the cliff." She slipped the front closure of her gray uniform down a hand-span below her neck. Catching another grin on Tom's face and knowing he was thinking about the last time she had worn this particular away team outfit, she added "Don't even say it, Paris."
He laughed. "This is great. I don't even have to say anything to you anymore to be branded a smart-ass. Pretty gneiss, don't you think?" He held up a small chunk of sparkling, speckled rock that had crumbled off the rock face into his hand.
She groaned at the bad pun. "They're getting worse all the time, Paris. 'We're starting with a clean slate'? 'My schisters would have loved this'? Please tell me you don't have one for sandstone."
"I'll granite you that, I don't have one for sandstone. Let me think . . . ."
" If we weren't tethered together I think I'd throw you down the cliff for that one." She was trying not to laugh. "I'm having enough trouble with keeping my breath without having to suffer through your bad jokes, too."
"I promise I'll be good."
"Sure, you will-until you can think up another one even more excruciating than the last!" she growled. Hearing her growl, he flashed her another brief look and winked at her, but this time, he caught himself before provoking her any further.
The past few weeks had been good ones. B'Elanna might have accepted some of his invitations to dinner or his holodeck programs earlier if she had anticipated how comfortable they would become with each other, and so quickly. With his reputation as a mercurial womanizer, B'Elanna had expected she would have to fend off his advances at every turn. Instead, he had treated her like a buddy, almost the way he treated his best friend Harry. Almost, but not quite. She was always aware of his very attractive male physique and sensed he was just as attracted to her own strong but very female body.
There was that bet he had won, of course, paid off in her participation in a Klingon martial arts program. Tom was a lot more enthusiastic about learning how to fight with a bat'leth than she was, and he had truly annoyed her with his pushiness. B'Elanna knew he was trying to appeal to her Klingon side, but she simply had no interest in honing that aspect of her nature. It only caused trouble. Of course, it was comforting that he didn't appear put off by it, most of the time, anyway.
His gentlemanly behavior had even inspired her to do a little research on the life and loves of Thomas Eugene Paris since he had come to Voyager. Her investigations had disclosed some unexpected facts about the helmsman's love life, proving once again the truth of the old adage, "Don't believe everything you hear."
While her thoughts had been on holodeck programs, dinners, and a blue-eyed enigma, the shelf Tom and B'Elanna had been climbing widened to a width that could easily accommodate their feet. Compared to most of the climb, traversing the last few meters of their trip was easy. Finally, she heard the welcome words, "I see the vein."
Scrambling up next to him, B'Elanna saw, near an intrusion of basalt, the tell-tale strip of blue/green/violet dilithium crystals that had been the goal of their search. She flipped her own tricorder open and smiled at what she saw. "This is it, Tom. Look at these readings!"
"There must be quite a bit here, unless the quality is even better than what we found in those asteroids two years ago." That terrific find had led to Tom's making the first successful transwarp flight by anyone in the Federation, though no one off Voyager knew of it. B'Elanna was surprised that he had alluded to it; he usually avoided any refererence to the incident because of his embarrassment over what had transpired afterwards.
The tricorders confirmed that a significant quantity of high grade dilithium crystals was embedded in the rock of the cliff. After bending down to clean the shelf upon which they were standing of any loose shards of rock, Tom climbed a little higher, above the crest of the anticline, and installed four pitons with safety lines attached. Since a failed piton had caused Neelix's fall, B'Elanna had agreed with Tom that depending upon Federation equipment to be foolproof was foolhardy. This time, there were two lines apiece for them to use in lowering bags of retrieved materials or for their own descents. This mission was not to have any complications if either one of them had anything to say about it.
As he started to lower himself back to the dilithium formation, Tom tapped his comm badge and signaled to the away team in the valley below them. "Paris to Neelix."
:::Neelix here, Lieutenant.:::
"We've found the dilithium, Neelix, and we're going to be excavating a fair amount of rock. You'll have to move your teams away from the cliff."
:::Have no fear, Lieutenant. In anticipation of your need to remove extensive amounts of rock in your mining efforts, we started our food gathering at the cliff and have been moving steadily away from it, down towards the stream. I must say, Lieutenant, these tubers are going to be a marvelous addition to the menu. I'm planning on having roasted tubers with bilisberry sauce tomorrow. Tuber pie, baked tuber and leola root casserole will be . . . :::
"Uh, that sounds great, Neelix. We can't wait. But I'm going to have to get to work now. B'Elanna's giving me a Janeway kind of stare, if you know what I mean."
:::I understand perfectly, Tom. Neelix out.::: Neelix did understand, having been on the receiving end of Janeway's legendary glares on more than one occasion.
"Tuber and leola root casserole. More wonderful delights from the kitchens of Chez Neelix." Warm brown eyes met clear azure as they laughed together. "Here, let me help you. B'Elanna," said Tom, as she fumbled to turn her backpack around without losing her balance on the shelf. Opening each other's packs and removing their phasers, they started the tedious task of cutting through solid rock to gain access to the treasured dilithium crystals that lay within the cliff.
"Enter," responded Kathryn Janeway to the signal from her ready room door. She smiled up at her first officer as he handed her a padd.
"Neelix just reported in about his crew. There's a large amount of some kind of edible tuber in that valley. Larson said that they tasted a lot like yams or sweet potatoes when they first reported finding them. They've already transported up a large quantity and are gathering more. He also reported that Paris and Torres have begun excavating the dilithium from the cliff."
"Wonderful. How are they all holding up physically? They can't gauge their workday by daylight hours alone down there."
"No complaints at the moment. None of them beamed down until it started to warm up in the valley, which was several hours after sunrise. Paris and Torres have been working about five hours down there so far; we'll encourage them to finish up in four hours or so. That way we will have a few hours before sundown as a buffer, in case they need more time. If necessary, we can send relief crews down for the food gatherers. By the way, Vorik's crew on the northernmost continent sent up more beryllium, but Molina's crew still hasn't been able to find much that's edible up there, even though it's late summer where he is looking. Seems there are so many insects that a lot of what appears to be promising is too chewed up to be worth the trouble to collect."
"Call them back, then."
"I was thinking of sending them south to join Neelix. I can have Harry scan to see if he can find a concentration of the tubers somewhere other than where Neelix is. We don't want to over harvest one area, for the sake of the local ecology." He considered his next words for a moment before adding, "Not that there isn't something odd about the ecology down there already. No trees, hardly any shrubs, no large animals and almost no small ones, a limited variety of vegetation. Yet the development of the species we have identified suggests that there should be a much greater variety on this planet than has been found there."
"Do you think this thin nebula the system is passing through has something to do with the unusual planetary conditions?"
"I'll have Harry run some scans and look into it, Captain. If there is a relationship, it could affect the away teams on the surface."
The captain leaned back in her chair, arms crossed behind her head. "Chakotay, just how many of those tubers do we want on board? Given Neelix's proclivity towards getting 'carried away' with new foods . . . "
With an ingenuous expression on his face, Janeway's first officer replied, "You mean, you don't want to have sweet potato shakes and sweet potato pancakes with yamsickles for dessert?"
"Exactly," she returned dryly.
"Larson seemed pretty enthusiastic about them, and so were Kes and Wildman when they cooked up some of the first shipment. The Doctor tested a sample and assured me that they are nutritious, too. I don't think it's overuse of leola root in Neelix's meals that is the cause of all the complaints. The crew just doesn't like them, no matter how they are prepared. I heard that Neelix does have a long list of dishes he already wants to try with this root, but hopefully they won't become too tiresome. At least I hope not. Kes is already planning on planting some in the hydroponics bay."
"I want you to know, Commander, that I plan on making an entry in my personal log to remind myself about this conversation a few months from now. I want to be in a strong position to document 'I told you so' after a few hundred 'sweet potato-and-_' meals from Mr. Neelix."
Chakotay was still chuckling when he returned to the bridge.
"Tom, look at this one! This crystal could have kept the warp core going on one of those old Constitution-class vessels for a year!" Tom smiled at the excitement he could hear in her voice. Their bodies were sprawled full-length in the back of a narrow cave they had carved out of living rock while following the vein of dilithium deeper inside of the cliff.
With great care, B'Elanna extricated the large, beautifully shaped crystal of dilithium from the last fragment of schist holding it to the rock formation. Supporting himself on his elbows, the top of his head almost brushing the ceiling of their artificial cave, Tom accepted the crystal from B'Elanna. He wrapped it in packing cloth and slipped the now-protected crystal into a bag sent up by Neelix after they had created a sitting and working area at the edge of the cliff.
"B'Elanna, this bag is full enough to send down now, I think. Neelix was going to get lunch ready for his crew the last time I talked with him, and that was an hour ago. Unless you're going for some kind of endurance record, I think it's time we took a break."
"You're right. I'm not sure I feel much like eating whatever Neelix is feeding his crew, though." After Tom had backed out enough to permit her egress, B'Elanna commando crawled out of the inner recesses of their miniature mining operation. Both of them groaned in unison as they stretched out their arms, legs, and backs once they were able to sit upright.
"God, that feels good," said Tom. "When we get back on board Voyager, I'm going to go straight to Neelix's resort for a massage. Don't give me that look, Torres. A massage. A real massage, that's all. Unless, of course, you're volunteering for something more than that." He made a show of wiggling his eyebrows suggestively at her, prompting the smile from her that he had expected.
"Dream on, Paris," she said but suddenly grimaced and grabbed at her upper arm as she felt another cramp assault her already sore shoulder.
"I think you might need that massage right now, Torres." Tom changed his position to face her back. Gently but firmly he began kneading her neck, upper back, and shoulders. A bemused expression flitted across his face as the thought of indulging in mutual massages with the fiery but beautiful lieutenant crossed his mind. Unable to hold his tongue any longer, he asked, "Once I'm done with you, you wouldn't mind giving me a turn, would you?'
B'Elanna whipped her head around to get a good look at his expression. He had managed to assume an air of innocence that was not matched by the sparkle in his eyes.
"We'll be too busy digging out more crystals," she said archly. "Right now, I want to eat. I'm too hungry to mind what Neelix has chosen to poison us with today." She picked up the sack Neelix had used for sending supplies up to them. Digging into the bag, she found four wrapped sandwiches, several ration bars, a package of something that resembled lumpy fruit, a bottle of beverage, and two cups. "Lets see what this is." Unwrapping one of the sandwiches, she sniffed cautiously at it before declaring, "This one smells like fish. From Neelix?" she added, incredulously.
"I forgot to tell you. I sent Neelix some tuna salad I replicated for him to use when making our sandwiches. It's Neelix's version of bread, though. I didn't trust what Neelix would be sending us, either." He smiled sheepishly as he gave her a last rub down her upper arm. Sliding on his butt to the spot next to her on the shelf, Tom took the bag out of her hand and peeked inside.
"What are these things, anyway? Oh, I remember. He said he was going to send us up a sample of those tubers they've been digging out of the valley floor." Tom unwrapped the lumpy package and found a fuchsia-colored root, still slightly warm from being phaser-roasted by Neelix's crew. Breaking off a piece, he grinned at B'Elanna. "You will give a suitable eulogy at my memorial service if these turn out to be like 90% of Neelix's specialties?"
"Depends on whether you expect me to praise you to the skies or if you want me to be honest."
"I want you to be brutally honest, of course. Tell everyone, 'Here lies Tom Paris, Best Damn Pilot Who Ever Flew a Starship.'"
"And the most modest one, too, right Hotshot?" she sniggered.
"Just the truth, so help me, God." Assuming a noble, self-sacrificing pose, he picked off a piece of tuber, popped it into his mouth and began to chew.
"I think you can put that eulogy on hold, Torres. This is definitely a 10%-er. Not only edible, but good, too. Umm. Reminds me of Thanksgiving dinner yams. Taste a piece, B'Elanna."
"How do I know I can trust your tastebuds, Tom?" She laughingly feinted away from him as he tried to slip a piece into her mouth. They twisted about for a few moments in the close quarters of the hollow, but with his longer reach he was able to stuff a chunk between her lips without too much trouble. After she had chewed for a few seconds she admitted, "Kind of sweet. Not bad, I guess. I wouldn't want to live on a steady diet of it, though, and knowing Neelix . . . "
"Yeah, I think his favorite cookbook must be 1001 Ways to Overuse Any Ingredient. I hope Tuvok decides to let him join Security. He's really better at that than cooking. And if you breathe a word of that to him, I will deny it, Torres. I wouldn't want to hurt his feelings.
"Even if he is such a trial to our stomachs, Paris?"
His mouth full, Tom shrugged his shoulders noncommittally until he managed to swallow. Finally, he managed, "Even if, B'Elanna . . . "
They munched away for a while, gossiping, teasing each other and chatting about everything and nothing - enjoying each other's company, if the truth be told, though neither one was willing to admit it to the other.
"Commander, Ensign Vorik's team has returned from the surface with the beryllium, but Lt. Carey reports that there still seem to be problems with the transporters," Harry Kim relayed from his bridge station.
"How long did it take this time?"
"The total transport time was 53% longer than expected for the mass of the team and the materials, Commander."
"That's even longer than when Molina came up. Has Lt. Carey come up with any hypothesis yet for the cause?"
"Not really. He's been in the transporter room for the last two hours running a level four diagnostic, but he hasn't found anything yet to explain it. It could be the atmosphere itself, Commander. We've had static over the comm lines to the surface most of the day, and it seems to be increasing." The young ensign spent a few moments calling up readings on his operations console before adding, "Commander, I just noticed something else. When Ensign Lang relieved me for lunch, she took solar activity readings. They're quite different from the current readings. There have been several small solar flares in the past three hours. With the gases in this system from the nebula, there may be a connection between the flares and the transporter problems."
"Mr. Kim, signal the other teams to finish up as soon as possible. If there is interference from the atmosphere, we want everyone back up here before it gets any worse. Better to be safe than sorry."
"Chakotay to Janeway."
"We need you on the bridge."
"Got it, Neelix?" Tom spoke into his hissing comm badge.
:::Yes, Tom. I'll put this bag along with the rest of the transport. Are you going to be beamed up from the cliff, or will you be coming down here with us?:::
"Rappelling down a mountain is the fun part of climbing! You know that."
:::It wasn't so much fun for me last time, you know. You be careful, now, Tom. B'Elanna, too. Don't trust that Federation technology too much!:::
"Don't worry, Neelix. We haven't forgotten about your fall. We'll be down in a few minutes. Paris out." He tapped off his comm badge. "Boy, there sure is a lot of static. Well, ready, B'Elanna? Time to . . . fall like a stone, how's that one?
"Paris, please!" Her grin conveyed her good humor, despite the bad puns. A successfully completed mission always put her in an expansive mood. Carefully checking her lines one last time, B'Elanna nodded her readiness to her partner. Cautiously at first, then with more enthusiasm as they found their rhythm, the lieutenants pushed their feet off the side and slipped down the cliff in a fraction of the time required to climb it earlier in the day.
Later, Tom could not say what made him look down at the valley floor when they were still less than halfway down. Neelix and Larson were standing in a trampled field strewn with what appeared to be strands of straw scattered around them. A few sacks and some digging tools lay by their feet. The flickering blue light of the transporter beam had already grabbed hold of them. He and B'Elanna were still about 20 meters above the base of the cliff when he turned around again. "B'Elanna, what's going on here? Look at Neelix and Larson."
The two crewmen were still standing where they had been, surrounded by an uneven glow of transporter beam that sputtered unevenly, as if in a titanic struggle with the valley itself for possession of the foraging party.
Impulsively jumping down the last few meters to the valley floor, B'Elanna pounded her chest to initiate communications with Voyager. "Torres to Transporter Room. What's going on?"
The badge crackled ominously, and the response was fragmented. ::: . . . trouble wi . . . the transpor . . . can't kee . . . a lock . . . .:::
"B'Elanna, they're still trying to transport the supplies as well as the crew," noted Tom. She could hear the concern in his voice.
"Don't worry about anything but the people, Ensign!" she yelled into her badge to the transporter technician at the other end. B'Elanna and Tom watched as the figures of Neelix and Larson completely coalesced on the surface again for several seconds before the beam enveloped them again. This time, the bags and equipment at the feet of the short Talaxian and tall human were being ignored in the same way that the piles of straw scattered around them on the ground were. Several more agonizing seconds passed before a last pulse of blue light surged and erased the figures of Neelix and Larson.
"Tranporter Room. Do you have them?"
:::They're he . . . ., yes, Lieut . . . nt Tor . . . .:::
"The interference is getting worse, B'Elanna." Tom pulled his tricorder off of his belt and checked the area. "Look at that - there's rough weather ahead." The sky that had been a clear bluish purple all day now roiled with angry orange clouds that swirled out of the western horizon. Pointing the tricorder away from his body, Tom slowly pivoted, taking readings of the entire area while B'Elanna's comm badge continued to sputter.
"Torres to Janeway. Captain? Can you hear me?"
"B'Elanna? Tom?" Several more seconds of crackling ensued before the low-pitched feminine voice of Captain Janeway demanded, "Mr. Kim, expand the wave frequency and boost the gain on this transmission. I don't think they can hear us any better than we can hear them." A few seconds later, after Harry bobbed his head, the captain tried again. "B'Elanna, can you hear me."
:::Just bare . . . aptain. There's lots . . . static. Captain, I don't . . . .want to try . . . ansport under these . . . ditions. Tom found evide . . . .ave nearby . . . .wait . . . out.:::
"Captain, another solar flare has formed and is shooting out of the star's corona. The nebula field again is igniting. We will have to raise shields if the ship is not to sustain further damage to the electronic systems." Tuvok's voice was as impassive as always, but the furrow between his eyebrows was deeper than usual.
Janeway nodded her head while raising her right hand in a gesture that Tuvok knew meant that he was to raise the shields. "B'Elanna, I'm sorry, but we won't be able to transport you off the planet. We've had to raise our shields. The solar flares are wreaking havoc with all our systems. I don't even know how much longer we can risk maintaining orbit. We can try sending you a shuttle." Even as she said it, Janeway knew from the looks exchanged between Harry and Tuvok, not to mention the feeling in her own gut, that that was wishful thinking on her part. With Voyager having trouble with the conditions in orbit, how much worse would it be for a shuttle trying to get down to the surface of the planet?
Tom's voice crackled over the comm line. ::: . . . too late for . . . uttle flight . . . .never make it ba . . . .oyager.:::
"I was going to send the shuttle down to serve as shelter for the two of you."
:::Don't wor . . . a cave here we can . . . shelter. We'll be . . . .right.::: Tom's voice was fading now, as well as being obscured by static.
"Mr. Kim, did Paris say that there was a cave there?" asked Chakotay.
"Yes, sir. We picked up evidence of at least one cave in the area during our initial scans. Tom must have found it."
"B'Elanna, Tom. Take shelter. We'll pick you up as soon as the conditions permit." She waited a moment for acknowledgment of her message, but there was none. With a pained look on her face, the captain added softly, "Janeway out," to the harsh static rushing out over the comm lines.
A few seconds later, everyone on the bridge had to grab hold of a console or their seat as Voyager shuddered. Tuvok reported, "Captain, we can no longer remain in this system with any safety. The conditions within this nebula are too dangerous."
"Agreed." Janeway turned to her first officer. "Commander Chakotay, take the helm and get us out of here."
"Aye, Captain." As he stood before moving down to Tom Paris' usual station, Chakotay's eyes met those of Janeway. Leaving any of their crewmembers to fend for themselves under the hostile conditions facing them on this planet was painful to both commanding officers. To leave their personal reclamation projects Torres and Paris behind was torture.
"Did they say they were leaving orbit, Tom?"
"Sounded like it. It was pretty hard to hear. If the conditions are as bad as that static is telling us, though, I don't think they'd have much choice."
"I wonder how much damage there was to the ship when they had to leave the shields down for so long during the transport."
"At least they got back, didn't they?"
"Yes, but just barely. Look." B'Elanna held up a knapsack that either Larson or Neelix had had with them. The contents spilled out over the ground from a clean hole sliced in the bottom by the failing transporter beam.
"I thought that isn't supposed to happen with modern transporter technology. Wasn't 'All or nothing' supposed to be built in as a failsafe for the system?"
"It is, normally," she answered. "Whatever happened here obviously was not normal."
"We'd better bring as much of this stuff back to that cave over there as we can, B'Elanna. I don't like the looks of that sky."
"I don't think I like this place. Brrr." Torres shivered. With the sun now being obscured by clouds, the temperature was dropping rapidly.
Stooping down, they each grabbed a couple of bags of tubers and their own knapsacks. B'Elanna carried the damaged pack that she had found, while Tom hoisted Neelix's picnic basket, the abandoned tools, and the last bag of dilithium crystals they had dug out of the cliff. They started to trudge to an opening in the cliff about two kilometers distant, their earlier cheerful mood gone. The sky that was now pulsing red and orange would have been beautiful if the brilliant colors had been due only to the sunset. Tom decided to raise their spirits with the one comment that he was sure would get a rise from his companion:
"So Torres, what is it with us and caves, anyway?"