Chapter 3 – En Garde
"You're kidding, right?"
Janeway's voice was rimed with just a touch of frost. No matter how much she appreciated Tom Paris' particular brand of straightforwardness in the abstract, she found that after two years apart, she was no longer quite used to the challenge with which he could infuse a normally rhetorical question. At least he had waited until they were back in the privacy of the ready room – a sign of maturity, she supposed – but she saw no need to encourage him.
But apparently, Tom's indignant disbelief was beyond suppression, never mind any considerations of protocol. He barreled on, heedless of the non-verbal warning she was transmitting with her glare. He listed his objections, barely refraining from counting them down on his fingers one by one.
"These systems are emerging from a conflict that has cost millions of lives, displaced countless others, and devastated the better part of a planet. Their forces may be slower to move than we are but they're on edge, ignorant of ... of civilized warfare, determined, and, let's not forget, armed with a weapon we know very little about. And Starfleet is sending a single vessel to guard the Holy Grail, the very thing that all the fighting was about, while politicians argue about who gets to take home the spoils? Am I the only one who thinks this is nuts?"
He shrugged, arms wide in notional surrender to the absurd.
"I mean, whose bright idea was this?"
He was momentarily rendered speechless. But only momentarily. Tom Paris was not one to be derailed for long, even when on a rant. He knew as well as anyone who had served under Kathryn Janeway that she did not make tactical decisions rashly or without due regard to potential failure – well, not very often, and usually successfully. She had not been away from the game long enough to have lost her edge.
And so, with a speed that might have confounded an uninformed observer, Tom's attitude changed from sarcastic and cynical, to skeptical but interested. He would keep an open mind, or at least try. But he had to ask.
Kathryn frowned a little, forcibly reminding herself that her former pilot – and erstwhile ensign - was now the Captain of the ship she was standing in, and as such in a position that entitled him to a response. Besides, he sounded as if he genuinely wanted to know, despite the rawness of his earlier challenge.
Kathryn bought herself some time by heading back to the replicator for another cup of coffee. A smile flashed across her face when the steaming cup of Kona she had requested materialized, and there was no corresponding clicking down of someone's ration account. She picked it up, inhaled the rich aroma and took a sip.
She turned back to Tom and weighed her words carefully – as carefully as she had when she had convinced Alynna Nacheyev of the merits of her strategy, and of letting her use Voyager to carry it out.
"It's quite simple, Tom – or as Tuvok would say, quite logical. As you already figured out, if the planetoid were to be unprotected while the peace talks are ongoing, one side or the other could use the ceasefire to take it over. If we allowed the parties to guard it themselves, the risk of somebody pulling the trigger for whatever reason is too great."
Tom nodded. "Yep – that much is obvious; hence my question. Why negotiate for a share of the Grail if you can take the whole thing, while the other side is busy playing nice. So yes, it needs to be watched. Still doesn't explain why guarding it with a single ship is a good idea though. Quite the contrary."
Kathryn sighed. Reasonable questions, she knew, and she had answered them all before.
"First off, you won't be alone. There will be two Starfleet vessels; Voyager will be joined by another ship. I'm awaiting confirmation from the admiralty whether it will be the Gettysburg or the Al Bataani. They are both in the region already, investigating an emerging subspace phenomenon."
Kathryn smiled ruefully. "Of course, I'd prefer the Al Bataani for sentimental reasons, but she has apparently suffered some hull damage in a freak asteoroid field. She may require dry dock time at Deep Space Seven. I should receive confirmation by tonight."
"Well, I suppose two is better than one," Tom remarked drily. The 'if not by much' he bit off unspoken hung in the air between them.
Kathryn ignored him, and proceeded with her well-rehearsed explanation.
"Both the Denarians and the Talari forces, as you noted, are on edge, and paranoid. If Starfleet went in with an armada, both sides would feel threatened, each assuming we're on the other's side. The Federation will need to be seen as an honest broker without an agenda of its own – other than peace and reconciliation. So we have to go in small, while at the same time sending the message that attempts to take the planetoid would bring the Federation into the mix. That's the strategy. Non-threatening, but effective. Smart deployment."
She paused for a bit, recognizing the lack of conviction on Tom's face for what it was.
Hardly a fool, and always up for a good argument – especially when the ship and crew he cared about were concerned - he took advantage of the brief break in her explanation.
"Would an attack really bring in the Federation? Or would it drive them away, to leave the binaries to muddle through another three decades of war? Could go both ways, depending on who makes the calculation."
"Regardless, whoever might consider attacking Fleet vessels will have to overcome formidable, if not insurmountable odds. Both the binary fleets are equipped and trained really only for space-to-ground action. Neither has a lot of experience in space combat, something Voyager and her crew are pretty well unrivalled at within Starfleet. Attacking you, or a Starfleet vessel in your company, would be suicide."
She lifted her cup in silent salute to her former crew, before continuing to pitch her case to her still-skeptical audience of one.
"The Gettysburg has proven its mettle in other tactically complex missions, as has the Al Bataani. Either would be a good complement to Voyager. Essentially, I am counting on a Starfleet presence that is non-threatening and nimble, but with big tactical capability and experience. It should suffice, in the context of a diplomatic mission requested by both sides, and against potential enemies that are unsophisticated and slow."
"But let's not forget numerous, well-armed and ruthless," Tom couldn't help himself, and straightened up defiantly at the glare he received in response. "I take your point, and I even see the logic behind the strategy – almost, anyway. That doesn't mean I have to like it."
Tom slapped the side of his chair with the palms of both hands, and got up, an air of resignation in his tone. He had tried, and was fresh out of ammunition. Not an original experience with Kathryn Janeway, he considered not without a cerytain amount of amusement.
"I guess we'll be spending our travel time to the Antarean sector doing battle drills. It's been a while."
There were a few things he would have wanted to add, but decided to hold his counsel. Maybe those extra pips really did come with some sort of filter that made it harder to stick your foot in your mouth? He'd have to ask his father.
Kathryn scrutinized his face and body for signs of that Tom Paris defiance she remembered so well – the clenched jaw, the tightened shoulders. Finding neither, she allowed herself a small smile, free of triumph but filled with confidence.
"It will work out, Tom. I know it will."
He returned and held her gaze solemnly.
"Yeah. I hope you're right, and I'm wrong. But we need to get on with departure protocols. Plus I'll have to go over crew rotations with Harry, now that we know our mission."
Realizing his words sounded perhaps too much like a dismissal, especially in light of the discussion that had preceded it, Tom added a smile of his own.
"I trust you don't need me to tell you where everything is on the ship. Consider it yours, as it's always been - including all the coffee you can replicate and that the Doc will let you have. And - welcome back, Captain."
Kathryn held his gaze for a bit, ready to take the peace offering – even as she didn't want to admit to it being necessary.
"Thanks, Tom. I'm sure everything will work out just fine. In the meantime, I think I'll swing by the nursery and say hello to my goddaughter, if you don't mind. Before I pay a visit to the Doctor and get his views on my nutritional habits."
"It's the Gettysburg we're getting as our sidekick. I just got word from Starfleet Command. Constellation class, over twenty-five years of service. Bit of a clunker, in my book, not much use in a fight. Even less as an insurance policy."
Tom frowned at the terminal in his ready room as he flipped it over so Harry could see the specs of the ship Starfleet was dispatching to back them up. Or was it Voyager that was supposed to be backing up the Gettysburg? He hoped that whatever emergency had kept Nacheyev from providing them with clearer mission parameters had been worth it; the uncertainty she'd left him with sure sucked.
"Know anything more about her current Captain than I do? Name's Brin Gallagher."
He directed a questioning gaze at his XO, who had entered carrying a small pile of PADDs and was now standing beside him, peering at the screen while trying to balance his load. Harry shrugged, and cursed when the motion caused one of them to slide out of his grip and clatter on the floor.
"You were there when Riker told us about Jameson, and the things he did with her when she was new. She's had several captains since then, but I don't know anything about Gallagher. Except I think he's senior to you by a couple of years."
Tom sighed. "Right. Great. Everybody's senior to me at this point, Har. I don't even think there's been another captaincy awarded since I got mine."
"Sensitive? About rank? You? Who are you, and what have you done with my best friend's mind this time?"
"I'm serious, Harry. My problem is, Nacheyev didn't make it very clear as to who will run the Starfleet side of the show if things with the Captain's diplomatic mission go sideways. I mean, you were there. She said I have command and control over Voyager. What does that even mean in this situation?"
"Didn't they teach you that at Jim Kirk? No one controls the crew but you, and you have command over what we do from the strategic standpoint. It means you get to decide what to do if we're attacked, Tom."
"I know what command and control means in theory. But what the hell does it mean in practice, when there are two Starfleet vessels, I'm the junior Captain, Voyager is the smaller ship. and there's an Admiral around who's in charge of the overall mission objective? If I think the safe course is to retreat, will Gallagher go? If he asks me to help him carry out an attack I know to be stupid, do I have to go along? And if Janeway orders us both to do something for the sake of diplomacy - then what? Sorting that kind of crap out is just the thing I'm lousy at. I just know I'm going to lose control over my big mouth, and then bye, bye command."
He rubbed his face with both hands. "Shit, Harry, apart from all that, this whole mission has disaster written all over it. I can just smell it. From what I've seen, the Binary War was very much like the kind of conflicts they had on Earth in the late 20th century. Brother against brother, neighbour against neighbour. People able and willing to hit just where they know it hurts the most. Those kinds of conflicts never end cleanly, with someone just laying down the sword. Someone inevitably wants to have the last word."
"You're paranoid," Harry said firmly. "Both sides must want this to be over, or they wouldn't have called in the Federation. And Captain … Admiral Janeway knows what she's doing. She's negotiated peace deals with the Hirogen and the Borg, remember?"
"I know what she's capable of. And I also remember how some of those peace deals ended up, in case you forgot. But I'm not sure any of us know what the Denarians and the Talari are capable of, especially after what they've been doing to each other."
Tom shook his head as if to clear it of unpleasant thoughts. "I hope you're right, Har. Now, let's see what else we have to do. You sure you brought enough PADDs?"
Harry shrugged. "Just making sure I can answer all your questions, Captain."
Tom refrained from rolling his eyes. "So instead of Ensign Eager I get Commander Competent now, is that it? Fine. Let's get on with it. Departure status?"
"McKinley has cleared docking release for noon sharp, forty-five minutes from now."
They spent a few minutes cross-checking the status of various departments and an array of systems diagnostics. The easy exchange almost convinced Tom, despite his earlier misgivings, that at the very they might actually get away with running this ship, between the two of them – especially with Harry's attention to detail. Tom had never considered himself a detail person (he made exceptions when it came to shuttle design and holo-programming), and had found keeping track of mundane things such as staff rotations and supplies the bane of his existence during his stint as XO on the Enterprise. Unconsciously stroking the four pips on his collar, he was perfectly happy to delegate this kind of stuff to someone else.
"Last thing, but by no means the least. Assume Chell's all set up for that do in the mess hall?"
Harry grinned. "Yep. He's even made a small tray of leola root nibbles, for nostalgia's sake."
Tom pulled a face. "Don't tell me how, or why, he managed to replicate the stuff. I'll have to ask B'Elanna to erase the file."
Some four weeks later, the binary suns of Denaros and Talar shone bluish and yellow, respectively, in the view screen when Baytart took Voyager out of warp in the Antarean sector.
"Look pretty innocent from this distance, don't they?" Tom asked Janeway, who had been offered – and accepted – Harry's seat for their arrival in the system.
"All systems do, Tom." She had spent much of her time in her quarters, preparing for negotiations that she knew would be as difficult as they were important.
"Mr. Baytart, please bring the ship to a full stop, equidistant to the two suns."
If Tom noticed the command emanating from beside him he gave no sign of it, and Baytart did not question the familiar voice.
"Full stop," he confirmed.
"Lieutenant Asil, any sign of the Gettysburg?" Tom turned to his ops officer.
"According to their latest subspace communication, we can expect her to arrive at our coordinates in one hour and thirty-eight minutes."
"Good, that gives me time to hail my contacts," Janeway said. "Mind if I use your ready room, Captain?"
Tom shrugged. "Make yourself at home. I want to run another battle drill anyway, now that we're in theatre."
If Janeway was in any way bothered by his rather pointed phrasing, she hid it well. Casting him only a short, meaningful look – which he chose to interpret as reluctant approval - she headed into her former sanctuary without another word.
Tom gazed after her thoughtfully. His former Captain had been rather closed-mouthed about her approach to the forthcoming negotiations, preferring to bury herself in briefing notes and studies in her quarters. She had emerged only for meals, some private dinners – spent mostly gossiping about the more colourful persons at Starfleet Headquarters, or reminiscing about past adventures with Voyager and her crew - and the occasional frolic with Miral and Baby Tommy. Whether her reticence was because secrecy was necessary to her mission, or whether it was simply her preferred modus operandi in her new line of work, he had no idea.
Tom shrugged and turned to the command console beside his chair. There was work to be done.
In the absence of the random perils that seemed to have dogged their every step in the Delta Quadrant, and haunted still by what he had seen of the effects of Talarian weaponry, Tom had kept Harry and the crew on their toes by running almost daily drills. Procedures had ranged from emergency evacs to ship-wide decontamination, radiation shielding and mass transports (to and off the ship). The auxiliary battle bridge, used rather infrequently by then-Captain Janeway, had never functioned more smoothly than it had under the keen attention of Mike Ayala and his deputy, Arno Schmidt.
An hour later, the latest simulation was interrupted by Asil's clipped voice.
"Captain, long-range sensors are picking up a major spatial rift approximately five light years off Talar, consistent with the phenomenon the Gettysburg has been investigating."
She tapped in a few additional commands, then raised her eyebrows in the Vulcan approximation of supreme puzzlement.
"What is interesting to note is that from this distance, the phenomenon appears to be bending light. I am unable to detect the Gettysburg with our instruments, despite our knowledge of her precise coordinates. The tensions between subspace and normal space appear to be producing a secondary cloaking effect."
Both Captain and First Officer headed to the ops console as if drawn there by a single tractor beam. Harry still considered Ops his domain and was keen on seeing the readings for their own sake; Tom, for his part, was as intrigued by the tactical possibilities of the phenomenon as he was by its possible negative impact on flight control. They were still clustered around the console when the formal hail from the Gettysburg arrived.
"Gettysburg to Voyager, Brin Gallagher here. We'll be joining you shortly. Looking forward to seeing some new faces after the weeks we spent out here. You got the champagne on ice yet?"
Tom grinned; he found himself liking the man already. "Nice to meet you, Captain. Tom Paris. We don't do fizzy stuff here, but if I can interest you in a nice South African merlot, I know just the place. And I'd like to chat about that new nebula you've been investigating. It seems to be having some interesting properties."
"Sounds like a trade - I've always wanted to see your ship. Never managed to when she was grounded; just didn't seem right. Ship like that needs to be seen in space."
A dinner meeting for the senior officers and Janeway was quickly arranged, and the Gettysburg signed off.
"Seems like a nice enough guy," Tom remarked to Harry, before heading to his ready room to pass the news of the impending rendezvous to the Admiral.
What he saw took him slightly by surprise. Even with her back still turned to him, he knew that Janeway was glaring at the screen where she had been working. She hit the desk with both hands, emitting a kind of frustrated growl, followed by a hearty "Damn!"
Tom cleared his throat to announce his arrival. "Problems?"
Janeway swiveled her chair around, and grimaced at him.
"Try as I may, my Talari contacts will not allow me to link them into conference with the Denarians. And the Denarians don't want to talk to me on a comm channel without the Talari being present. And that's just to discuss where we should start negotiations, and how many participants each side should bring."
"I see. The classic standoff. So what are you going to do? Shuttle diplomacy?"
She glared at him. "If I didn't know you any better, Tom Paris, I'd keelhaul you for that. But yes, that's exactly what I'll have to do. Take a shuttle to both Denaros and Talar. In person, one at a time, and talk them into meeting face-to-face."
"Shouldn't this kind of basic arrangement been usefully made, before the Federation sent out the high-priced help?" Tom asked incredulously. "I thought you were going in there to mediate negotiations, not to set them up from the ground floor."
Kathryn got up from her chair and started pacing. He watched her go back and forth, across the room and back, hands on her hips until she finally stopped with her back to him in front of the observation window.
"Ordinarily, yes. But this operation … it's a bit different. You see, we've received separate calls for assistance; one from Denaros, and the other from Talar. They both know that the other has contacted the Federation, but what we haven't got is a joint decision to let us steer an actual peace process."
Tom felt his jaw dropping. "So they haven't … they haven't actually agreed to your doing this?"
"In principle, they have. But you have to understand, after almost three decades of brutal war, there are a lot of sensitivities to sitting down with the other side, so there haven't been any formal announcements."
"Or, it would seem, any formal decisions as to how this should all play out."
Kathryn sighed. "The principle of quiet diplomacy is to allow both sides to save face, not to be seen to be ready to surrender or be bullied by an outside force. Kid gloves, low visibility, always let them believe that whatever happens was their idea."
Tom shook his head. "Well, I'm sure glad you're doing this, and not me, Admiral. Smiling politely in the face of boneheaded obstreperousness isn't exactly my forte."
He caught himself, remembering who he was speaking to. "Wait a minute. It isn't exactly yours, either, as I recall. Aren't you the one who said that sometimes diplomacy requires a little sabre rattling?"
"That was in the Delta Quadrant, Tom."
"Ah. Well. That clears it up, then."
"I'm glad to see you haven't lost your tendency towards smart-ass remarks, Captain Paris."
He gave a little shrug that he hoped she would interpret as an apology, but he wasn't quite done yet. The sudden revelation about how little of their mission was actually pre-planned had shaken him a little.
"If there aren't any arrangements made for actual negotiations, I assume you'll be looking for a neutral place to get them to come to? Something like, oh, I don't know. A Federation starship?"
Janeway gave her erstwhile helmsman a speculative look.
"The thought had occurred. I assume you're not keen on volunteering Voyager?"
"Volunteer? Not really. Prepared to serve? I guess so. Lord knows this ship has seen its share of diplomatic or other gatherings, ranging from the tedious to the … extremely odd."
She snorted. "Hasn't it just. But don't worry, I was thinking of using the Gettysburg, if I can get the parties to agree. She's bigger, and I doubt her Captain has given up his private dining room to a series of chefs of dubious qualifications. We'll need a place like that, assuming we can't just occupy your or Gallagher's briefing room - or the holodecks - for what may be several weeks."
Tom felt himself cringe a little at the idea of having his ship hang idle in space while politicians indulged in debates, but he hid it well. Hadn't Will Riker warned him that being a Captain entailed long stretches of absolute tedium?
"As you wish, Admiral. We're at your service. As always."
There was something else in Janeway's eyes though, something that made him pause.
"There's something else, isn't there?"
Kathryn took a deep breath.
"I want you to come with me to Denaros and Talar for the opening round, Tom. On the Flyer."
"Uh-huh." Tom was immensely proud of the straight face he managed to maintain, even at that. "To do … what, exactly?"
She frowned a little at the absence of a facial expression in the man standing across from her, his arms crossed defensively in front of his chest now. Tom Paris was impossible to read sometimes – even if at other times, his face could be an open book. When he wanted it to be.
"I need a Starfleet uniform with a respectable number of pips, I need a pilot, and more specifically, I need an adviser. Someone with your ability to cut through layers of obfuscation and see to the core of an issue."
"An adviser? Me?" Tom's genuine bafflement would not be suppressed now. "To tell you the truth, I'd been wondering why you didn't bring an assistant with you. Any high-level envoy I've ever met travelled with a minion or three."
Kathryn rolled her eyes. "They did give me an EA. Hayes swore up and down that she was the best thing since replicators."
"She's a very competent office manager, who makes sure that I get to transporter pads on time and have all my briefing PADDs with me."
"Ah." Tom nodded, understanding perfectly.
"You guys would have chewed her up and spat her out."
He chuckled. "I always thought we were a welcoming and inclusive bunch on this ship. Are we really that bad?"
"No. You're that good. You would have scared the poor thing witless."
"Glad we cleared that up. Now assuming I agree to leave my ship in the middle of a war zone, what exactly is it you want me to do after I fly you there? Participate? Take notes? Whisper in your ear? Keep you in coffee?"
Kathryn glared at him, but a certain fondness lurked in her eyes as she did so.
"Whisper in my ears, mostly. Do what you do best, challenge whatever they tell me is acquired wisdom, foolproof or the god given truth. Break logjams when they stop listening to me."
She considered him carefully, then broke into a huge grin.
"And keep me in coffee."
AN: "En Garde" isthe call for fencers to stop fidgeting with their equipment, put on their masks, and take their places. The last moment of quiet, before the judge calls for action and the blades start their first, tentative tac-tac.