Disclaimer: You know the drill: Paramount and Viacom are the big guys, we're the little guys. They make the money, we don't. This story is purely for the enjoyment of Voyager fans, especially those who appreciate a certain long unseen lieutenant and who don't mind a little romance between "the Starfleet conn officer and the Maquis engineer." Forward your comments to AnnitaS@aol.com.
Acknowledgements: A word of thanks, as always, for the Beta read from my fellow "Joshettes" Lirren and DangerMom and my friend Cait.
Author's Note: This is the third story in the "Carey On" series, following "Uncle Joe" and "Friends and Family," and like the previous stories, it is dedicated to the guy who so ably portrayed our missing, but beloved number two engineer, our own online buddy, that maniacal teddy bear, Josh Clark! Bring back Carey!
Mars, Bars and Vintage Cars
"I'm sorry, Tom, but if we don't recalibrate the control system override buffers, we're in for a major disaster."
"Oh, come on, B'Elanna. You know how much I was looking forward to getting a little time off the ship alone with you. Why can't Carey or Nicoletti or Vorik take care of that?"
B'Elanna sighed. "Because it's my responsibility."
"Have you ever heard of delegating responsibility?" he asked, his voice taking on a pleading tone.
"Yes, but this is..."
"Too important to delegate," Tom concluded for her, then heaved a sigh. "You know, I'm beginning to think you love your engines and warp coils and buffers more than you love me!" He pushed out his bottom lip in such an obviously feigned pout that B'Elanna knew he wasn't serious.
"Well," she replied, a glint in her eye, "they don't complain about the time I spend with you."
"Yes, they do," he disagreed. "By breaking down all the time."
B'Elanna was having a hard time keeping a smile off her face. "Aw, poor Tom. I'm sorry. I guess when you get back I'll just have to make it up to you."
This time it was Tom who couldn't suppress the smile. "Promise?"
"Oh, I promise." This time, she allowed her lips to curl into an almost predatory grin.
"In that case, I'll make this the fastest away mission on record!"
"You still need an engineer if you're going to check out what's left of that crashed ship. Maybe I should send Vorik with you."
Tom frowned. "Uh, I don't exactly have fond memories of the last time I was on a planet with Vorik."
"Oh, don't worry. I'll be up here, and it'll be over six years before he experiences pon farr again. Besides, I think he's finally learned that when a half-Klingon says 'no' she means 'no.'"
"All right, but can't you find someone else? Vulcans don't make the best conversationalists, you know."
"I'll be sure to tell Tuvok you said so!" She laughed when Tom rolled his eyes. "Okay, you win." She turned toward the console behind her. "Lt. Carey?"
"Yes, Chief?" replied the curly-haired man as he turned toward the couple.
"I believe I've heard you complain that you never get to go on any away missions."
"Me? Complain?" he responded with a look of innocence.
"Get kitted up. You're going down to the planet with Paris to check out that ship we picked up on sensors."
A smile appeared on the engineer's handsome face. "Yes, ma'am!" Immediately, he reached under the console and came up with his gear. Strapping on his belt and hefting the kit's strap over his shoulder, he moved to join Paris and Torres.
Tom narrowed his gaze suspiciously. "You seem awfully well prepared for this... unexpected assignment."
"I was a boy scout, Lieutenant," he replied. "You know the motto."
"Yeah, right," Tom replied.
Carey grinned as he walked past them. "Oh, and I promise to make much more interesting conversation than Vorik would. Meet you in Transporter Room 2?"
Tom shook his head and laughed as B'Elanna gaped open-mouthed at Carey. "I'll be right there," he replied.
Carey nodded, the grin still plastered on his face as he turned and strode quickly out of engineering before B'Elanna could recover from her surprise.
"I can't believe he was listening to every word we said!" B'Elanna complained. "Just for that, I shouldn't let him go."
"Now, B'Elanna," Tom chided. "I think Joe just taught us a valuable lesson."
"Oh, and what might that be?"
"We should spend more time alone together... in private."
Her smile returned. "Maybe you're right. We'll have to make a point of it when you get back." She took a look around to be sure no one was watching and stretched up to plant a quick kiss on Tom's cheek. As she started to move away, Tom caught her arms and was about to pull her back, but she resisted.
"Oh, no. Later. In private. Remember?"
The pout returned to Tom's face. "Do you enjoy torturing me?"
"Yes," she replied. "It's my Klingon half. You know, the part you're always after me to get in touch with?"
Tom groaned. "Sometimes I wonder what I've got myself into."
"Too late. You're stuck with me."
He smiled. "Then I'll just have to accept my fate."
"Get out of here before we forget we're in public... again."
Tom nodded and started to turn, then quickly leaned in to touch his lips to her cheek. "Later," he whispered, then headed out the door. B'Elanna smiled as she watched him go, then turned back toward the console.
"Vorik!" she yelled. "I need those recalibration calculations. Now!"
"All set?" Tom asked as he walked into the transporter room hefting his large equipment pack on his shoulder.
"Whenever you are," Carey smiled knowingly in return. Tom was about to reply when his comm badge sounded.
"Kim to Paris."
"Paris here. What's up, Harry?"
"Sensors have picked up a high intensity electrical storm, and I emphasize *high intensity*, headed for the crash site. This planet appears to have storms that would make the worst thunderstorm on Earth seem like picnic weather. It'll be there in a couple of hours and looks like it might last a while. The captain wants you to get as much information as you can and get back to Voyager. Then, we can decide if there's something worth waiting out the storm to go back down for."
"Understood. We'll make it fast. Paris out." He turned to the engineer. "No time to dawdle."
"Figures," Carey sighed. "I finally get a chance to get off the ship and I get a time limit!" He angled a look up at Paris as they stepped on the transporter pads. "Guess it's a good thing B'Elanna couldn't go with you. I'm sure I'll be less... distracting?"
Paris offered him an "I'll-get-you-for-that-remark" look as he called to the transporter chief, "Energize."
They materialized just a few feet from the remains of the alien ship. The crash had obviously been a violent one. Carey immediately brought his tricorder up and began to scan as he stepped toward the mass of twisted metal and innumerable scattered fragments.
Paris lifted his own tricorder to scan their surroundings. They were in what amounted to a small valley, about a half mile from where the surface started a steep climb to become rocky cliffs, dotted with what appeared to be naturally occurring caves. There were so many that face of the cliff resembled Swiss cheese, with the lowest of the caves several hundred meters up from the valley floor.
Even the surface where they stood was rocky, with only sparse vegetation evident. The scans found no sign of life forms higher than the weeds.
"Pretty dreary place," the pilot remarked. "It looks like the scans we got from Voyager were right. Nothing much here but rocks." He adjusted the scanner and trained it at the cliff. "And no trace of any valuable mineral deposits."
"No life signs here either," Joe added. "But there are the remains of two carbon-based life forms. Looks like they died on impact."
"Recently?" Tom asked.
The engineer shook his head. "From the decomposition of the bodies and the erosion of what's left of the ship, this thing has been here for at least a couple of years. No functional equipment. Looks like their engines were similar to those of Earth's old sub-light speed exploration vessels."
"A pre-warp civilization? Must have been from one of the nearby planetary systems."
"It doesn't look like anyone else has been here. My guess is they were exploring and got lost, ran into some kind of problem and crashed." He paused from his survey for a moment. "Their families probably don't know what happened to them."
Tom's head came around at the somber tone he suddenly heard in Carey's voice and immediately understood its meaning. He watched as the engineer stared off for a moment, lost in thought, or perhaps memories, then shook his head as if to dispel them. He trained his attention back to his tricorder and was once again all business.
Tom considered whether or not to say something, but decided to let the moment pass. It wasn't the time or the place to get into any personal discussions, but he made a mental note to himself. Joe had been a good friend to both him and B'Elanna, and Tom Paris didn't like to see his friends unhappy.
They spent the next hour going over every part of the ship they could access and coming up with nothing useful. Tom made a point of taking detailed bioscans of the crew's remains, grisly as that task was. There was little chance they would ever come across the race that had lost these explorers, and even if they did, making contact with a pre-warp civilization was strictly prohibited. But he couldn't help but wish they could at least let those people know what had happened to their missing explorers, especially considering how their situation paralleled Voyager's own crew. He knew Joe Carey was feeling the same kinship he felt toward these aliens whose journey would never bring them home. At least for Voyager, there was still hope.
As Carey appeared from the other side of the wreckage, Tom called out to him. "All done?"
Joe nodded. "Nothing here that could be of any use to us. I recorded the markings on the side panel in case we encounter some of their people, but..."
"Yeah, I know."
Both men were silent for a moment, until Carey raised his eyes toward the far horizon. "Looks like that storm is getting here a little faster than Harry thought."
Tom turned to peer behind him. Indeed, the sky just over the far mountains had darkened to a greenish black and the crackling discharges of lightning could easily be seen, both slicing across the cloud mass and streaking down toward the ground.
"Time to go home," Tom agreed and tapped his comm badge. "Paris to Voyager. Two to beam up."
There was no reply. Paris frowned, then glanced toward his companion.
The engineer tapped his own comm badge. "Carey to Voyager." Still, no response. He tried again with the same lack of results.
"Could the storm be interfering with communications?" Tom asked, pretty sure he already knew the answer.
Joe shook his head. "Not at that distance. Even if it were on top of us, we should be able to get a signal through, probably not a clear one, but..."
"Paris to Voyager," Tom tried again, worry creasing his brow as he turned his eyes upward. "Something's wrong up there."
Joe Carey followed the bridge officer's gaze, then looked once more toward the approaching storm. If they didn't get off this planet soon, there would be something very wrong down here, too.
"What the hell happened?" B'Elanna cried as Vorik and Nicoletti finished extinguishing the fire that had suddenly engulfed the override systems control console.
"We got a feedback surge from the transporter buffers," Nicoletti replied as she waved the smoke out of her face.
"We compensated for random feedback," B'Elanna objected.
Vorik's fingers ran over the controls of one of the undamaged consoles. "It appears the transporter relays were being engaged."
"What?" B'Elanna's heart seemed to jump into her throat. If Tom and Joe had been in the midst of beaming back up from the planet when the circuits blew..."
"It was a routine automatic purge of the system," Vorik elaborated. "Apparently it activated at precisely the moment the buffers were out of phase during recalibration. It would be almost impossible to anticipate such an unlikely occurrence."
B'Elanna sighed in relief, but after a moment, her anger returned. "It's our job to anticipate *everything*!" she replied hotly. "Give me a report on the damage."
"Transporters are down," Nicoletti responded, "and so are long-range communications."
"Janeway to Engineering."
B'Elanna closed her eyes. She did *not* want to have to tell the captain about this.
"What's going on down there, B'Elanna? We're reading failures in the communications systems."
"Transporters are down too, Captain," she replied. "We had an unanticipated feedback surge during recalibration. It'll take us a moment to assess the damage and give you a time estimate."
"Make it fast, B'Elanna. We've got an away team on the surface with a potentially deadly storm bearing down on them."
It took B'Elanna a second to reply. "Yes, Captain. I know."
Janeway must have read the pain in her tone. When she replied, her voice was quiet and held a note of empathy. "Let me know as soon as you have an estimate. Janeway out."
B'Elanna forced down the surge of panic she felt and turned to her crew. "Vorik. Get down to transporter control and find out how much damage this thing caused. Nicoletti, get a crew into Jefferies tube A305 and start resetting the circuits. By hand, if you have to, but get it done *now*!"
"Aye, Lieutenant," both officers replied as they moved quickly to their assignments. B'Elanna stepped up to the damaged console, grabbed hold of the panel and wrenched it from its position. The circuit chips were hopelessly fused. "Horner, Peavy, start rerouting these controls to another panel. I'm headed for the communications grid."
As she grabbed her engineering kit and bolted toward her self-appointed task, she couldn't keep her mind from the two men stranded on the planet's surface and the deadly storm that was moving in on them.
And she couldn't ignore that small voice inside her head that kept telling her it was all her fault.
"We've got to find shelter before that storm hits," Tom shouted over the gusting wind that was already starting to increase in intensity.
"Well, this ship won't provide it," Joe answered. "There's nothing left that you could reasonably call shelter and besides, the metal in the hull will certainly draw the lightning. There are plenty of scorch marks on it to indicate that's happened before."
Tom pointed toward the cliffs. "There's a whole honeycomb of caves up there if we can get to them. We should be able to get in deep enough to be safe until the storm passes."
Carey looked at the steep rock face with clear skepticism painted on his features. "And just how do you plan on getting to them?" he asked.
Paris grinned and patted his pack. "After reading Harry's preliminary reports about surface conditions, I decided to bring along my climbing gear, just in case."
Carey returned the grin. "And here I thought you'd packed a picnic lunch to share with Torres!"
Tom shook his head. "Nah. I wasn't thinking about food at the time."
Joe laughed. He should know better than to try out brazen Paris. No one could top the helmsman at cracking jokes in the face of danger.
"Besides," Paris added as they started jogging toward the cliffs, "you aren't the only former boy scout on Voyager."
Once they reached the rocks, they found they could climb quite a distance up before the steepness of the angle forced them to resort to Paris' equipment. Carey was glad he'd taken the pilot up a few weeks ago on his invitation to join him, along with Harry and B'Elanna, in his holodeck rock climbing simulation. While he always kept himself in top shape, it had been a while since he'd had to face this type of physical challenge.
"I hope all those nights just hanging around engineering haven't made you soft," Paris commented as he fired the bolted anchor line toward an overhang high above them.
"The day I can't keep up with a man whose job it is to sit in a chair all day will be the day I retire!" Carey replied. His response was punctuated by a loud clap of thunder. "Uh, Tom, I think we'd better hurry."
"Agreed, just don't rush it. It won't do us any good to panic and fall off this cliff."
"Engineers do *not* panic!" Carey replied, grabbing the line behind Tom.
"Glad to hear it," his companion replied as he tested the rope, then began to pull himself up the side of the rocky facade, effectively bringing their banter to a halt.
Despite his bravado, Carey found himself struggling to keep up with the more experienced Paris. He forced himself to keep Tom's advice firmly in mind, being careful to check his footing before shifting his weight. If he slipped, he would not only send himself crashing back down onto the rocks below, but more than likely he would unbalance his companion as well. Climbing close together on a single rope wasn't recommended, but in this case, they had no choice.
As they climbed, Joe tried to keep his mind off the approaching storm. There was nothing they could do about it except get up this cliff and into one of those caves as quickly as possible. He couldn't help but notice, however, that it was getting appreciably darker. And he couldn't completely ignore the more frequent and almost deafening claps of thunder and the flashes of brightness that were growing closer by the minute.
"I can see a cave just a few meters above," Tom called back to him. "The angle flattens out a little just up here, then gets steep again just in front of the cave."
Carey didn't have the breath to respond. Thankfully, Tom proved to be right. Joe was beginning to have less trouble keeping his feet steady against the more graduated incline. Paris was moving much faster now and Carey pushed himself to keep up. They had almost made it to the cave when disaster, or rather lightning, struck.
The electrically charged bolt impacted with the rock outcropping on which Tom had anchored their rope. Amazingly, the piton remained firm, but part of the outcropping exploded into fragments and began to rain down on them. Joe was still back far enough not to be directly under the downpour. Tom wasn't so lucky.
"Look out!" Carey cried, but knew he was already too late when he heard Tom cry out in surprise and pain. Several of the rocks struck the pilot, dislodging his hold on the rope and sending him falling backward toward the engineer. If the slope had been steeper at that point, neither man would have stood a chance, but Joe braced his feet and, holding the rope with one hand, reached out with the other for Paris as he fell. He managed to snag an arm. Momentum threatened to pull the inert body from his grasp, and he felt the hot burn of tearing muscles in his shoulder as he managed to haul the taller man up, settling Paris in front of him. He heard the pilot's pack continue to crash down the cliff behind him and knew it wouldn't take much for them both to follow.
He clenched his teeth for a moment against the pain in his shoulder as he wrapped his arm firmly around the unconscious man. He couldn't hold on for long with this additional weight and he knew it. He also knew that letting Tom fall to certain death wasn't an option. One thing was for sure, if Paris was truly out of it, they didn't stand a chance.
"Tom!" he cried loudly in the other man's ear as his head rested against Joe's shoulder. "Tom Paris! Wake up!" At first, there was no response, then Carey heard a low groan accompanied the beginning of movement as Paris started to regain his senses. "Tom! You gotta stay with me, buddy. Open those baby blues and tell me you're awake."
Tom slowly raised his head, his face just inches from Carey's, and his eyes began to blink.
"That's the way! Come on, Tom. I'm not gonna be able to hold on much longer."
With obvious effort, Paris managed to keep his eyes open, trying to focus on the image before him.
"No time for small talk, Tom. If we're gonna make it the last few feet up to that cave, I'm gonna need some help."
It took Paris a few seconds to grasp the situation. Still obviously groggy, he started to slowly turn in Carey's grasp and placed his own hands on the rope.
"You're doing great!" Joe encouraged with a grunt, briefly reflecting on how grateful he was Tom had provided them both with climbing gloves. He'd never have been able to maintain his one-handed hold on the rope without them.
Tom managed to take some of his weight off Joe. Not all of it, but enough.
"You gotta start climbing, Tom," Joe told him, knowing he was asking the near impossible from the injured man in front of him. "I can't move till you do," he added.
That proved to be the incentive Paris needed. Very slowly, he managed to pull himself a little way up the rope, shuffling his feet along with him. Joe shifted his own feet so he could continue to provide Paris some support. A two-footed turtle could have moved faster, Carey thought, but at least they were moving. And the flattening incline worked to their favor.
Another bolt of lightning struck just off to their right and Tom groaned loudly, swaying back against Carey as he fought to hold onto consciousness. It was as tenuous as his hold on the climbing rope. It took him a moment, but he pulled himself together and began to climb once more.
After what seemed like an eternity, the rock beneath their feet grew steep once again. The rope line no longer brought them closer to the cave entrance. It was secured almost directly above them now and they seemed to be agonizingly close to the mouth of their would-be shelter. Tom reached one long arm out for the edge of the cave opening, but couldn't quite reach it.
"Too far," he gasped, his voice barely a whisper.
"Not too far," Joe countered. "Come on, Tom, try again." When he did, Carey gave him a shove, hoping to propel him far enough to reach their goal. It sent Paris sprawling forward onto the rocks just below the cave. Joe was afraid he would fall again, but Paris' hands grabbed for purchase and found it. Slowly, he dragged himself up to the lip of the cave and pulled the upper half of his body inside. His legs still dangling outside, he lay unmoving.
Carey had his own ideas about getting himself into the cave. Getting a firm grip around the now vertically hanging rope, he pulled himself up, wrapping his legs around the line below. He shimmied up the rope until he was even with the cave, then used his legs to start himself swinging. Finally, he judged he had enough momentum, and when the rope swung back toward the cliff, he let go and went flying toward the mouth of the cave. He landed just beside Paris, but not quite as far in. His hands searched for anchored rock on which to grab hold, and just before he slid back toward oblivion, they found it. With the last of his strength, and fighting against the pain in his abused shoulder, he pulled himself over the edge of the cave entrance and collapsed.
If he lost consciousness, it was only for a moment. He lay still for several minutes, sucking deep gasps of air into his lungs and trying to still the trembling of his exhausted body. When he finally managed to open his eyes, the first thing he saw was Tom Paris' face. He was still passed out, still hanging precariously over the edge and there was blood streaming from a gash that ran from his temple down past his left eye.
If the sight of his friend's injury wasn't enough, another lightning strike close behind them provided the final impetus to force Joe to move. He pulled himself further into the cave, then carefully grabbing Paris under his arms, hauled him inside as well. They were still too exposed here. Getting to his feet, he lifted the taller man once more, crying out at the pain that shot down his arm as he did so, and managed to move them a few feet deeper inside. He lowered Tom gently down on the gravelly cave floor, reached for his engineering kit, almost surprised to find the strap still looped over his head and shoulder, and placed it on the ground before lowering Tom's head on it. He stripped off his jacket and spread it across his friend's torso. The temperature was still on the warm side, even in the cave, but Tom had been injured and Carey was worried about the possibility of shock. Stripping off his uniform top, he also peeled off his turtleneck. He retrieved his kit, exchanging it for the rolled up uniform top, opened the equipment case, pulled out a knife and began cutting the sleeves off the turtleneck.
Checking his belt, he found his luck still holding. His canteen and phaser were still attached, the tricorder was missing. He checked Tom and found his tricorder and canteen were still there. So they had lost one tricorder, one phaser and the contents of Tom's pack, which no doubt included a medkit. Well, there was no use worrying over that now. They'd just have to make do with what they had.
First, he poured some of the water on a piece of cloth and cleaned Tom's head wound, encouraged to find that the bleeding had slowed considerably. He pressed the cloth against the wound and tied it in place with another strip from his sweater.
Then, he began to methodically check the pilot for other injuries. He immediately found a whole army of cuts and bruises, thankfully most of them minor. Then, he found something not so minor. Paris' right arm was broken between his wrist and his elbow. How he'd managed to pull on the rope with a broken arm was beyond Carey. The break, luckily, a simple fracture, but he had no idea what he could use to split it. When no other inspiration came to him, he carefully placed the fractured arm across Tom's middle and slid the fingers under his equipment belt to anchor it. It would have to do.
Finding no other obvious injuries, he dampened another strip of cloth and began to clean the cuts on Tom's face. His ministrations roused the pilot, who began to move his head from side to side and moaned.
"Easy, Tom," Joe told him. "Try to lie still."
Paris' eyes opened and focused on the man leaning over him. "What... happened?"
"Let's just say the next time you decide to take a shower, you might find water a little easier on the old body than rocks."
Tom squeezed his eyes closed for a moment, then opened them again. "Oh, yeah. I remember. A bolt out of the... black?"
At the feeble attempt at humor, Joe relaxed a bit. "Something like that."
Paris squinted up at him. "You okay?"
Carey grimaced. "Better than you are," he replied. "I think I tore some muscles in my shoulder and my arm seems to be a bit numb, but I'm still functional."
"I'm not," Tom concluded.
"No, my friend, you're not."
Paris concentrated for a moment. "Vision's a little blurry. I think I have a concussion."
"I think that's a pretty safe bet," Joe agreed.
"Various and sundry nicks and scrapes, a few black and blue beauties and one broken arm."
Tom started to lift his head to look down at his arm and immediately thought the better of it. "Don't feel it yet, but I'm sure I will."
"I'm afraid you're right about that."
He turned his attention back to Carey. "I don't suppose we still have the medkit?" The engineer shook his head. "Too bad," Paris continued. "All that advanced training I've got from Doc and here I am with the perfect opportunity to try it out on myself. Wouldn't you know I'd lose the medkit."
"Better than losing you," Joe pointed out.
"Yeah." He forced a pained smile. "Thanks for the catch."
"Don't mention it," Carey replied. "And you thought I was out of shape."
Tom chuckled, then grimaced as the pain shot through his skull.
"Okay, Tom, you said it. You're the one with the medical experience. What should I do, taking into account that we have a tricorder, a phaser and two bottles of water?"
Tom's hand reached up to his head, his fingers examining the makeshift bandage. "Feels like you've taken care of this. What about the arm?"
"Tucked in your belt. Sorry, it was the best I could do."
"It'll be fine as long as it's immobile," Tom told him. "Can you manage with that shoulder?"
"It hurts and this arm won't be much use, but I'll survive. Not much choice. Do you hurt anywhere else? Something I might have missed?"
Tom considered for a moment, then carefully shook his head. "No, it doesn't feel like there's anything wrong internally. Biggest worry is the concussion. I've already been out a couple of times, is that right?"
"Best to keep me awake if you can. Concussions are kinda tricky. I could lose consciousness and the next thing you know, I could be in a coma."
"Guess that medical training *has* paid off."
Tom smiled. "I'm afraid my knowledge of concussions comes from personal experience."
"Then we're lucky you have such a hard head."
Tom cut his eyes toward the engineer. "Joe, the last thing I need is for you to start sounding like Doc!"
Tom closed his eyes and Joe tensed, about to call out his name again, but Paris was apparently just gathering his thoughts. "We need to set the tricorder to send a beacon." He looked back at the engineer. "I assume we're still out of contact?"
"Damn!" Joe sat up straight, quickly located the comm badge he had removed from his uniform and activated it. "Carey to Voyager." There was no response. "I was so busy playing doctor, I forgot to try again, but I guess it didn't matter. I'll set up the beacon."
"I just hope they're in a position to receive it," Tom replied. "I wish we knew what was going on up there."
Carey looked up from his work to catch the worry in Paris' eyes.
"Whatever it is, I'm sure B'Elanna will have it fixed in no time. I guess I lucked out. I'm probably the only engineer on Voyager that isn't getting screamed at right now!"
Paris smiled. "Yeah, you picked a great away mission to come on. I should have warned you, I'm not exactly a good luck charm."
Carey snorted. "Just like a pilot to take all the credit. It could be my bad karma that got us into this mess." He made a final adjustment on the tricorder. "There, that should boost the signal rather nicely."
"You can have all the credit you want for this one," Tom responded quietly. His eyes drifted shut, then opened with a start. "Okay, Joe, it's time for that sparkling conversation you promised me."
"Certainly," Carey replied, placing the tricorder on the ground beside him and settling down next to Paris. "What do you want to talk about?" he asked as he slipped the now sleeveless sweater back on and attached his comm badge to it.
"I don't know..." Tom replied listlessly.
Joe decided it might be a good idea to get Tom to do most of the talking. "Well, why don't you explain to me how you came up with the idea of parking a '57 Chevy on Mars?"
Tom grinned. "I know, you think that's a strange place to go parking."
"No, I think it's a poor choice of cars," Carey replied. "All flash and no substance. Now, if you'd gone with a Thunderbird, or even a classic Mustang..."
"Oh, come off it, Joe," the pilot countered. "You're a competent engineer. How can you possibly put any Ford automobile in the same class as a Chevrolet?"
"Maybe because I'm a *better* than competent engineer. You're just a pilot. You don't know diddly about what's under the hood. You're just dazzled by the paint job and the flashy control panel."
"Oh?" Tom's eyes brightened. "You want to talk carburetors and spark plugs? Fuel efficiency and RPM? Any good pilot appreciates engine power. And any pilot worth his commission makes a point of knowing a thing or two about where that power comes from. I think I can hold my own."
"We'll see," Carey replied as he continued to egg Tom into defending his choice in classic automobiles.
"No!" B'Elanna Torres erupted. "Remodulate the 4750 circuit module to the same parabolic frequency! We can't reinitialize the EPS manifold until the modules are in synch!" Idiots! she thought to herself.
She felt a hand on her arm and spun around, fully intending to deck whoever had the audacity to put their hands on her at a time like this. Instead, she found herself staring into the sympathetic eyes of Harry Kim, and all her anger died.
"Take it easy, B'Elanna," he said quietly, placing his hand back on her arm. "We'll get it to work."
"But will we get it to work in time?" she asked quietly. "That storm's been over their position for almost an hour. If they didn't find shelter in time..."
"You know how resourceful Tom is, and so is Joe. I'm sure they're all right."
"I'm not!" she replied turning away from him and back to her console.
"B'Elanna," Harry's voice remained calm and soothing. "B'Elanna, it's not your fault."
She turned back to look at him again. "Isn't it? It was my idea to run the recalibration while they were gone. If I hadn't, I would have been down there with Tom, the systems wouldn't have failed. Joe would never have been in any danger and Tom and I would be back by now. Both of us. Safe."
"Your assessment is in error, Lieutenant."
B'Elanna and Harry turned as a unit to face the owner of the unexpected voice behind them. Seven of Nine regarded them both for a moment before she continued. "Ensign Vorik and I have just finished repairing the transporter linkages. Transporters should be operational as soon as the systems circuits are repaired."
"I don't remember asking for your help," B'Elanna replied hotly.
"You did not," Seven responded. "But I was available and offered to help the Ensign."
"Why?" B'Elanna wanted to know.
"Because I am familiar with the technology and, as has been pointed out to me, I am a member of this group now. I have a responsibility to assist when that assistance is useful."
B'Elanna turned away, but Harry smiled at the former Borg. "Thank you. We can use all the help we can get."
B'Elanna faced her again. "I don't remember you being so quick to step in on your own and 'assist' in the past. Why now?"
Seven blinked at her once, then responded. "I am still learning what it means to be human and to be a part of a human group. Hopefully, I have begun to understand part of what is expected of me." She paused for a moment. "And I find I am... concerned about the safety of the crewmen on the planet surface."
"You hardly know them."
"That is true. However, when I first came on board, Lieutenant Paris offered me his assistance is learning to function within this group. He seemed particularly concerned that I would feel like an outsider. Although I did not understand the gesture at the time, I have since come to understand that he was acting in friendship. It seems appropriate that I respond by offering my assistance when he is in need."
B'Elanna stared at the taller woman, unsure whether to take what she had said on face value or not. And she felt a surprising wave of jealousy wash over her. It certainly hadn't taken Tom long to "offer his assistance" to this striking young woman.
B'Elanna mentally shook herself. No, that wasn't fair. It was just like Tom to offer to help when he thought someone was having trouble fitting in. The resentful feelings faded. She knew in her heart there was nothing for her to be jealous about.
"Harry's right. Thanks," B'Elanna said stiffly, still not quite able or willing to make peace with this Borg.
"Seven, I'm curious," Harry began. "You said B'Elanna's assessment was in error. What did you mean by that?"
"Lieutenant Torres is assuming responsibility for the accident when, in fact, had she not initiated the recalibration when she did, the damage would have likely been much greater."
"What are you talking about?" B'Elanna demanded.
"According to the transporter linkage logs, the control override buffers had become unstable causing a misalignment in the manifold circuits. There is a high probability that upon the next use of the transporter, the entire system would have overloaded causing a cascade failure in the entire EPS system. The resulting explosion could have injured or killed many members of the crew who were at their stations when the feedback occurred. And whoever was in the process of being transported would have been vaporized."
B'Elanna felt a chill go down her spine. "And the next people who would have used the transporter would have been Tom and Joe to beam back to Voyager." B'Elanna stared at her, her mouth hanging open. Harry recovered from the shock more quickly.
"So you're saying that if B'Elanna hadn't started the recalibration..."
"The fact that the overload occurred during recalibration, when many of the systems were disconnected from the main buffers, limited the scope of the explosion to the testing console itself."
"The overload couldn't get to the main power grid."
Seven nodded. "Had the transporter system not initiated its routine purge at that precise moment during recalibration, there would have been no explosion at all and the procedure would have detected the problem in time to remedy it. By choosing to run the procedure when you did, Lieutenant, you averted a much more serious accident. Therefore, your assertion that you should be blamed for endangering members of this crew is erroneous."
B'Elanna stared at her for a moment. Then, nodded and started to turn away. She suddenly stopped, cocked her head for a moment as she considered everything she'd just learned, then faced Seven again.
"We could use your assistance in resetting the EPS manifold."
"Certainly, Lieutenant," Seven responded immediately and turned to join the other engineers already at work.
B'Elanna watched her go, lost in thought until she remembered Harry was still there. She turned toward her first friend aboard Voyager.
"Seven is right," he whispered. "It could have been a lot worse. What you did was the right thing and the explosion was just a one-in-a-million accident."
B'Elanna nodded. "Maybe so."
"Tom and Joe would have been killed," he insisted.
B'Elanna smiled tightly at him. "Harry, we don't know that they aren't dead on that planet right now."
"B'Elanna..." Before he could reply, she turned and walked away, leaving Harry to reflect on what she'd said. If it were true, if they didn't get Tom and Joe back safe and sound, no amount of logic would be able to convince B'Elanna Torres that she couldn't have done something more.
Taking a deep breath, Harry turned and headed back to the bridge. He would find a way to get the sensors to work through those storms if he had to run every configurational variation in the book. Tom and Joe had to be alive.
They just had to be.
They had been debating cars for what seemed like hours and Tom was beginning to fade. He wasn't even rising to Joe's baiting him anymore. That was definitely a bad sign. The engineer decided to try a different subject.
"You know, that view you programmed of the Martian landscape, it's very accurate. You must have been to Mars once."
Tom forced his eyes open and shifted carefully on the hard ground. "Yeah, I've been there," he replied. "Once when I was a kid, my dad took me with him when he went to visit the administrator of the civilian spaceport there. I thought it was going to be a great adventure, but I ended up spending most of my time just waiting for Dad to finish some meeting or another."
"But you went back?"
"Yeah." He paused for a long moment. "Just after I was thrown out of Starfleet."
Uh, oh, Joe thought. Not a good memory. "I spent some time on old Rusty, too. That's what the locals call it. You know, the red planet. Spent most of my time in this one particular bar called Madison's. Not so great for conversation, but the girls were friendly and nice to look at and the management didn't water down their drinks. Fact is, that cliff in your holoprogram is right above the place. Of course, it's probably too straight down below it to see without falling over."
Tom looked at him in surprise. "You know Madison's?"
Joe grinned. "I take it you've been there?"
The pilot laughed. "You could say *I* spent a lot of time there. First rate place, too, you're right about that. And I've seen my share of bars from one end of the quadrant to the other. Made a hobby of it when I left the Starfleet."
Joe watched him silently, he could see the memories playing out on Tom's face. "Right after it happened, I couldn't get away from Earth fast enough. Of course, I didn't have a lot of money, so I only got as far as the Mars outposts. Old Maddie used to let me do chores for him in return for drinks and an occasional meal. It had all the atmosphere of a real dive, but Maddie made sure everything was above board. He took a lot of pride in the place."
"Yeah, I remember him. Had a red beard that always looked like a bird had been nesting in it."
Tom chuckled. "That's him! I stayed on Mars for a couple of months. Then one night, these two Starfleet officers came in. There wasn't a lot of publicity over my departure from Starfleet, not like during the trial later when I was captured with the Maquis. But word of it certainly made the rounds among the rank and file. Not every day an admiral's son is drummed out. These guys recognized me and one thing led to another until I got into a fight with them. If I hadn't been drunk, I'd probably have taken 'em both. But..."
"Did they clean the floor with you?" Joe asked.
Paris shook his head. "Nope. Because Old Maddie stepped in and stopped them. Then, after he'd run them off, he told me I wasn't to come back. It wasn't that he held what I'd done against me. He just didn't like fights in his place." He sighed. "First Starfleet, then Madison's. Seemed nobody wanted me around. So, I made a deal for passage on this Tellarite freighter that was headed for the Cardassian border. Found myself another bar and that's where I hooked up with the Maquis."
"So you didn't go looking for the Maquis?"
"Not exactly. But when I heard what they had to say, I decided it was as good a place as any to go. I had no direction, no future. I guess I was a little desperate for a place to belong. And there was a lot of anger deep down inside me. I thought I could put it to good use against the Cardassians. Of course, I wasn't exactly welcomed into the Maquis with open arms either. Chakotay had me pegged as a failure, a drunk and a mercenary. And at the time, he was right. But he still needed a good pilot."
Joe hesitated for a moment, then decided this was probably the best opportunity he'd ever get. "Can I ask you a question? Feel free to tell me it's none of my business, but I've always been curious."
"About what?" Tom asked.
"I'd heard all those stories about your past and what a rotten apple you were, and you have to admit, when we were first marooned out here, you had attitude oozing from every pore." Tom smiled. "But *I* never saw the man those stories described. You always did your job and more and I came to my own conclusions about you. I've got to know you better after all these years and you've always been the first to stand up and take responsibility for your actions. Why did you lie about Caldik Prime?"
Tom hesitated only a moment before he spoke. "Honestly, I'm not sure myself. It's easy to blame my father, say I was afraid of disappointing him, but then I was a grown man at the time. I was responsible for my own actions. Maybe I was afraid of losing the one thing that had always been important to me, and the one thing I shared with my father - Starfleet. We had different approaches and we never agreed on much of anything. He believed in the Federation's principles and I was looking for adventure. I could find it in Starfleet and make him proud of me at the same time.
"When the accident happened, I guess I just panicked. I was afraid of losing what I'd worked for, what my father had planned for all my life. And it was so easy. There was no way for anyone to find out I'd lied. Of course, I underestimated my conscience. If I didn't take the blame, then it would be put on those friends I'd killed. I finally realized I couldn't live with myself if I didn't clear their names. So, I came forward and told the truth... and lost it all. The career in Starfleet, all my friends, and worst of all, any chance of ever making my father proud of me. Maybe he *had* always demanded too much from me. But this wasn't his fault, it was mine for not realizing there were some things more important than pleasing my father. Maybe if I'd told the truth from the beginning, he could have eventually come to accept me for who I am. But he could never forgive me for the lie. I sealed my own fate."
His gaze had been unfocussed as he talked; now, he turned back toward Carey. "You're a good guy, Joe, and you're a fine, dedicated Starfleet officer. It would never occur to you to lie about something that important. You can't expect to understand why I did what I did, especially when I can't really understand it myself."
It was Carey's turn to look away. "Yeah. I'm a paragon of virtue." He took a deep breath and blew it out slowly. "You know that time I spent on Mars? I was on mandatory leave from Starfleet. I was about six months out of the academy and had managed to get my first posting along with my best friend, Ray McLean. We were about as cocky and sure of ourselves as you probably were at that age. And we could get pretty wild. Oh, we never neglected our duty, but we didn't neglect our free time either. One night, Ray was on duty, and I went out with some other guys from the ship. I got into my own bar fight."
Tom looked at him in surprise. Joe shrugged.
"Anyway, I got the shit kicked out of me and ended up in sickbay back on the ship. I got a reprimand for the fight, but the captain was willing to go easy on me once. He made it clear that if it happened again, he'd throw the book at me. The next day was supposed to be Ray's day off, and I was scheduled to be on duty. When the doctor insisted on keeping me for observation, Ray volunteered to cover my shift.
"Well, here I was stuck in sickbay and all hell breaks loose in engineering. One of the conduits overloaded and caused this explosion in one of the consoles. It was contained pretty quickly. The ship was never in any real danger. Problem was, Ray had been sitting at that console - the console I was supposed to be sitting at. And Ray was dead."
Paris flinched at the engineer's words and the tone of voice in which he spoke them. Joe wasn't looking at him and all Tom was seeing was a fuzzy profile, but he didn't have to see to know the expression on the older man's face. He'd seen it enough times in the mirror.
"So you were put on leave and took off for Mars?"
Joe nodded. "Had a lot of thinking to do. I thought I could think better with a bottle of whiskey, but Old Maddie set me straight right away. I told him the story and he told me that getting drunk was what got me into this mess in the first place. It wasn't going to get me out. I didn't want to hear that, but I knew he was right. I stopped drowning myself in booze. And I spent a lot of time in Madison's trying to decide if I was going to go back. For the first time in my life, I wasn't sure about my future. I didn't know if I deserved to be in Starfleet, or if I could face all those people who knew exactly why Ray had been killed in my place."
"But you did," Tom interrupted. "You did go back."
"Yeah, I went back. But I left that wild cocky kid on Mars. And going back was the best decision I ever made. It wasn't easy at first, but it got better as time went on. A few months later, my ship put back in to Earth and that's when I met Sarah."
"And the love of my life. Funny thing is, if we'd met before Ray died, I never would have taken the time to see the things in Sarah that made me love her. And she wouldn't have given the old me the time of day. So, I guess things happen, good and bad, for a reason." He looked back at Tom. "You know what's really funny?"
"You and me. We both made decisions that would change our lives forever, right there in the same bar on Mars."
Tom laughed mirthlessly. "Yeah, I chose to run away and you chose to stop running."
Joe shrugged. "Maybe that's true, but we've both ended up in the same place."
Tom smiled, more genuinely this time, and panned his eyes over their surroundings. "You're right about that one, Joseph."
Outside, the intensity of the storm had begun to lessen, and both men listened for a moment to the now distant thunder. Joe sat silently, lost in his own thoughts for a few minutes. When he looked back, Tom's eyes were closed.
"Hey, Paris! Don't you go to sleep on me!"
The helmsman blinked several times. "Sorry," he mumbled. "Kinda slipped up on me."
"Well, don't let it happen again!"
Tom grunted. "Watch it, Carey. I'm the senior officer here."
"Beg your pardon, *sir,*" he responded. "I certainly won't let it happen again."
"You know, Tom. It took a little longer for things to turn around for you, but they have. That decision you made on Mars may have been a bad one in the short run, but if you hadn't made it, you wouldn't be here. And look at you now. You've got a lot going for you, my friend." He grinned at the pilot. "Not the least of which is my boss."
"I know, and you're right. It is funny. Getting lost in the Delta Quadrant is about the best thing that's ever happened to me, not counting head injuries, of course."
Tom squinted to look at his companion. "I'm sorry. I know it was about the worst thing that could have happened to you. My life is here and your life is back there. Looks like we're still moving in opposite directions."
The silence stretched out for several long minutes before Tom spoke again. "We're gonna make it home, Joe. Like you said, it took me a while to find my way. It'll just take a little longer for us to get everyone else home too. And in the meantime, you've got family on Voyager."
Joe laughed. "Like my 'niece' B'Elanna?"
"And the rest of us, too," Tom replied. "With all we've been through, we've all become a kind of family.
Carey nodded. "Everybody is on his own road in life. Sometimes we get hills and sometimes we get valleys. I guess it's never really good or bad, it's just... life."
"And you never know what's waiting for you around the next bend or over that next hill. All you can do is take what comes and make what you can out of it."
"Life is strange," Joe concluded with mock seriousness, then offered Tom a shrug.
Tom couldn't help but laugh at his friend's expression. "You can say that again."
"Voyager to Paris."
They both jumped at the unexpected voice from Tom's comm badge.
"Paris here, Captain."
"Are you two all right?" Janeway asked.
"Just a little dented, Captain," Tom replied.
Joe leaned closer to Tom. "Captain, Lieutenant Paris needs immediate medical attention."
"No, I'm all right, Captain," Tom argued. "Really."
"Well, transporters should be working in about ten minutes. Do you think you can hold out until then?"
"No problem, Captain," Tom answered quickly. "Is everything all right up there? We were getting a little worried about you."
"We had a small accident, but no one was injured. And we were getting a little worried about the two of you."
"Let everyone know we're just fine," Tom told her.
He could hear the smile in Janeway's voice as she replied. "I'll tell her. Stand by. Janeway out."
Tom smiled up at Joe. "Looks like we're going home."
"Yeah," Carey returned the expression. "It does indeed."
"Are you sure he's going to be all right?" B'Elanna asked as the doctor ran the dermal regenerator over Tom's cut and bruised, but smiling, face.
"Yes, Lieutenant," the doctor replied with exasperation that came naturally, even when he wasn't feeling quite so put upon as he was at this moment. "As I've told you, I've already repaired his fractured arm and the concussion was a mild one, especially compared to some Mr. Paris has come to me with in the past. All he needs is a little *rest.*" He emphasized the last word for effect, but B'Elanna chose to ignore him.
"I think you did this on purpose just to make me feel guilty about not going down to the planet with you," she told Tom.
The smile didn't fade, just twisted a bit to make his expression a bit more cocky. "You got me. I guess you could say I really fell for you, B'Elanna."
The chief engineer narrowed her gaze at him. "You're lucky you're injured, Paris, or I'd smack you for that one."
Tom looked at her closely, and his expression became more serious. "I really am okay, B'Elanna. Stop worrying."
"Stop scaring me to death!"
"Stop arguing in my sickbay!" the doctor told them both.
"Sorry, Doc," Tom apologized.
"Who's arguing?" B'Elanna asked.
Doc rolled his eyes as he moved away.
Joe Carey watched them from his own biobed across the room as Ensign Wildman ran the regenerator over his torn shoulder muscles. He noticed that once they were alone, B'Elanna moved closer to Tom, took his hand, and the two of them spoke in quieter tones. It didn't bother him that he couldn't hear what they were saying. He had no doubt about the underlying feelings behind the words. He'd been there and he remembered them in his own heart. Still, watching his two friends let down their respective masks with each other made him smile.
"You seem awfully happy for someone who was just rescued from a cave on a deserted planet in the middle of an electrical storm."
Joe looked up in surprise at Samantha Wildman's comment. Despite the lightness of her words, he could see she really was a bit confused by his expression. He nodded toward Tom and B'Elanna. Sam watched them for a moment and found herself smiling, too.
"I guess it's just nice to see that some people can find a little happiness... even out here," Joe said.
"Even out here." Carey noticed her melancholy tone and the sadness behind the smile and suddenly realized, she was traveling the same road he was - the same one so many on board Voyager were following. Her husband was back in the Alpha Quadrant, just like Sarah, and she had a child that was growing up without her father, just like his two boys.
"We'll get back to them some day, Samantha," he said softly.
She shook her head. "Sometimes, I'm no so sure."
"Sometimes, I'm not either," he admitted. "But life has a funny way of turning things around when you least expect it. It may take a while, but I still believe we'll get home. And in the meantime, we're lucky. We've got a family right here."
"I didn't know you were such a philosopher, Joe," she replied.
"Don't let it get around," he whispered. "It might ruin my reputation. Besides, I stole it from Paris."
A smile blossomed on her face, chasing some of the sadness from her eyes.
Funny, Joe thought. He'd never really noticed before, but Samantha Wildman had a nice smile.
A very nice smile.
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