The Captain arrived on the bridge, and sat down in her chair to study the information that had been transferred to her. "I think you're right, Commander," Janeway announced after she'd checked all the available data. "This does merit investigation."
"I think it would be best to leave Voyager on this side of the nebula and send a shuttle," Chakotay suggested. "The small amount of information that we have only *suggests* that the planet is M-class; with the interference that the nebula is causing we can't tell for certain. We also have no idea if the planet is inhabited or not. If it is, then we have less chance of being detected if we use a smaller vessel."
"Agreed, but let's finish discussing this in my ready room." Janeway replied, rising from her chair.
After handing over command of the bridge to Tuvok, the Captain and First Officer made their way to the ready room. Once inside, Janeway gestured for Chakotay to take a seat opposite her, then looked at him carefully.
"I'd like you to lead this mission," she began, "But I think the Doctor ought to check you out again before you leave. The report he gave me yesterday stated that your brain activity was increasing in certain areas; I'd like to be certain that you're fit before I send you out in a shuttle."
"I understand your concern, Captain, but I'm in excellent health, as I'm sure the Doctor will agree. He's already said that he can find no adverse reactions to the increased brain activity in either myself or Lieutenant Paris, and the headaches that we experienced awhile ago have not returned."
"Yes, well, Mr. Paris is the other prospective member of the away team that I want the Doctor to see," Janeway commented. "In fact I'm not entirely convinced I should let Tom fly this time, he's already been on one mission recently."
"Yes, he has, but we'll need his skills to navigate us through the nebula safely. It doesn't look too foreboding from this end, but that interference could be masking all kinds of potential dangers. Tom's expertise means he often spots trouble that other pilots wouldn't even notice. He would always be my first choice for something like this."
Janeway sat silently pondering Chakotay's argument for a few moments before finally replying. "Very well. If the Doctor pronounces you both fit, you can take Mr. Paris with you as your pilot," she decided. "I'd also like to send Ensign Kim with you. He hasn't been off the ship in quite awhile, and his familiarity with some of the nebula's readings should prove useful to you."
"I can see your reasoning, Captain," Chakotay responded as neutrally as he could. It wasn't enough though, and before he could continue Janeway picked up on his slight hesitancy.
"Is there a problem with Ensign Kim's inclusion in this mission?" she asked.
"No, not professionally," Chakotay stated. "But perhaps you should be aware that there is some personal friction between Mr. Kim and Lieutenant Paris. It may not be the best idea to put them together just yet."
"They've had a disagreement then?"
"Yes, you could call it that."
"Then I think that's all the more reason to send them both. It'll give them chance to work out their differences," Janeway decided.
"Now," she continued, standing. "I'll contact the Doctor and arrange for you and Mr. Paris to have your appointments brought forward, and if he gives you both the all-clear you can depart in an hour's time.
"I'll call up a replacement pilot, so you can collect Tom from the bridge now and inform him that his presence is required in sick bay."
Chakotay realised that Janeway had made her mind up and that any attempt to get her to change it would be futile. He stood up and nodded his acceptance. "I'll let Tom know," he said, and left once the Captain had dismissed him.
Twenty-five minutes after they had reluctantly walked into sick bay, Chakotay and Tom left there with smiles on their faces. According to the Doctor's readouts, their brain activity was significantly closer to normal than the day before. Although the EMH had been unable to explain the change, he had no choice but to pass the men fit for the upcoming mission.
"That wasn't so difficult," Tom remarked as they walked down the corridor that led to the First Officer's quarters.
"No," Chakotay replied. "It just seemed to be a matter of visualising the correct part of our brains, then concentrating on suppressing the activity there."
"Perhaps if we practice we could make the patterns appear completely normal. The Doc wouldn't have any reason to test us then." Tom suggested as they stopped in front of Chakotay's cabin.
"You're right, and we'll work on that as soon as this mission is over," the Commander replied, opening his door. "Now, though, Lieutenant, you'd better go and get packed."
"Yes, Sir," Tom replied, grinning. "I'll meet you at the shuttle in about twenty minutes, okay?"
"See you there," Chakotay said with a smile.
Tom leaned in for a quick kiss, then set off for his own quarters. It didn't take him too long to gather together everything he thought he might need, and he arrived at the shuttle bay a few minutes earlier than he'd expected.
As he stepped through the doors he spotted Harry entering the shuttle. Tom sighed and stopped as he wondered how the Ensign was going to react to him. He didn't really hold out much hope that Harry's attitude would have changed in such a short time, but he did hope that they could coexist without too much tension for the duration of the mission.
Tom knew that Chakotay's authoritative presence would ensure that everything stayed professional between them all while they were on duty, but they wouldn't be working twenty-four hours a day. Even during an away mission they were entitled to rest time if at all possible, and Tom wondered how the three of them would handle that.
His musings were interrupted by a warm hand on his shoulder, and he turned around to face its owner.
"I thought you would've already started the pre-flight checks," Chakotay commented. "Not eager to go?"
"I love flying, you know that, it's just..... I was just thinking about how Harry's gonna react," Tom answered with a sigh. "I just hope there won't be any animosity. I'm not keen on conflict."
"I know, Tom, neither am I," Chakotay said softly. "But let's not pre-empt anything, okay? He doesn't know for certain that we're in a relationship; you never confirmed it and B'Elanna certainly won't have. We may have an opportunity here to talk to him privately about us, and to show him how much we care about each other. Perhaps if he understands that, it will be enough for him to change his mind. Let's just approach this situation positively, okay, then maybe everything will work out."
"I hope so," Tom said quietly.
"So do I," Chakotay agreed. He smiled at the younger man and gestured towards the shuttle. "Let's get going, shall we?" he suggested.
Tom nodded, and together they entered the small craft. Harry acknowledged their arrival with a curt "Commander" and "Lieutenant", then took his place without further comment. Chakotay and Tom glanced at each other and shrugged, then moved forward to take their own seats.
With the pre-flight checks finally done, Tom took the shuttle out and away from Voyager. It took two hours to get to the edge of the glowing nebula, and the flight stayed businesslike all the way. There was no conversation except for the necessary transfer of data, but Tom didn't mind that because although the atmosphere was cool, it was at least bearable.
He glanced down at the controls in front of him, then stared in awe at the sight visible through the viewport. A seemingly endless cloud of gas and dust swirled unceasingly before them. It shimmered and changed colour almost constantly, mesmerising all three occupants of the shuttle with its beauty.
It reminded Tom of something that he'd seen before, but he couldn't quite remember what. As he sat puzzling over it, Chakotay's 'voice' came to him.
// This is what we saw in the observation lounge yesterday, Tom. //
/ Of course! I knew I recognised it from somewhere. D'you suppose Azai meant for us to come out here? /
// It would seem to be quite a coincidence if he didn't, but I don't think we'll know for certain until we locate the beacon. //
Tom turned around to look at his lover and nodded his agreement. They held each other's gaze for a few seconds before a small snort from Harry caused them to turn away.
"Have you managed to obtain any clearer readings from the planet yet, Ensign?" Chakotay asked as he returned his attention to his own station.
"No, Sir. There seems to be an unknown element in the dust particles that's causing the nebula to act like a mirror at times. It's allowing some of our scans to penetrate it, but others are just being reflected back."
"Can you add anything to that with regard to navigation, Lieutenant?" Chakotay asked as he turned to Tom.
"Yes, Commander, there seems to be an almost clear path indicated by the navigational sensors and I believe I can take us through safely."
"Very well, Lieutenant Paris, take us through."
"Aye, Sir," Tom acknowledged, and adjusted their course accordingly.
Under Tom's control, the small ship edged forward until it was surrounded by the colourful mass of gas and dust. He guided the shuttle with absolute precision along the path dictated by the sensors, his eyes never once leaving the instrument panel in front of him.
It took several hours before they reached the other side of the nebula, by which time the concentration needed for navigating it had left Tom almost exhausted. He sighed with relief when he saw their goal and leaned back in his chair, smiling.
"Good job, Lieutenant," Chakotay congratulated him as they took up orbit around the small planet. "Take a rest now while Ensign Kim tries to locate the source of the beacon."
"Thanks, Commander, I could do with a break," Tom answered gratefully. "Call me when you want me to take the shuttle down," he added. He rose and walked to the rear of the craft, then pulled down one of the folding beds from the wall and got comfortable.
Chakotay watched him settle down to sleep, then turned his attention to Harry. "Anything showing up on scans now, Mr.Kim?" he questioned.
"Yes, Sir. The planet *is* M-class and it's uninhabited. The beacon is transmitting from a location in the northern hemisphere but the area surrounding it isn't particularly hospitable. It's a fairly mountainous area, and it doesn't look as though we'll be able to land very close to the signal."
"Okay," Chakotay said, nodding. "Well at least we have more idea now of what we're up against, and we'll leave the decision of where to land to Tom; he's the expert in these matters. Let's use the next hour or so to gather as much information as we can, then I'll wake Tom and he can set us down."
"Aye, Sir," Harry responded, and the two men got to work.
An hour and a half later and Tom was bringing the shuttle down to land on a small plateau. Chakotay had already contacted Voyager and informed Janeway of the results of their scans. They had indicated that once the shuttle had entered the planet's atmosphere, they would be unable to maintain communications.
Chakotay also advised the Captain of their plans to continue their journey on foot, and agreed with her decision that they should carry a distress beacon with them set to transmit its message at the same frequency as the beacon they were seeking. If they got into difficulties, then at least the signal should reach Voyager and alert them, even if their colleagues wouldn't know exactly what the problem was.
The shuttle landed gently in the centre of the only flat area of ground that was suitable for the feat, and that was as close to their ultimate destination as possible. After collecting the supplies they would need, the three men left the small craft and surveyed their surroundings.
The beacon was located somewhere high in the mountains in front of them, and Chakotay guessed that they would have at least a full day's walk before they reached it.
The sun was quite low in the sky and although all three of them were tired from the shuttle trip, Chakotay decided that they would hike for a couple of hours before they made camp for the night.
They picked up their gear and, with the Commander leading the way, set off towards the source of the signal.
After they'd left the level area, their path took them steadily higher where the ground was rough and strewn with rocks. There was very little protection here from the cold wind, and it chilled them as the sun's already weak warmth diminished with every passing minute.
As they continued upwards, Tom pulled up the collar of the thick coat that he wore and gazed at the two men walking ahead of him.
Chakotay was picking his way carefully, seeking out the best route for them all. He rubbed at his arms every now and again, and Tom knew that he was feeling the cold.
Harry followed behind the Commander, his eyes firmly fixed on the path the older man was taking. Apart from acknowledging orders, or replying to questions, Harry had stayed silent, and Tom was at a loss to know how to proceed. He wondered if the Ensign would remain uncommunicative for the rest of the mission.
Tom sighed, and looked up at the sky. Clouds were beginning to blot out the last of the sun's rays and a light rain was falling. They would have to stop soon, and Tom could see Chakotay looking around for somewhere suitable to pitch their tent.
As they walked on, the rain began to come down heavier and the wind blew it into their faces, making it difficult for them to see where they were going. Tom peered ahead and saw Chakotay gesturing towards a small flat area in front of a group of low-growing bushes.
He made his way there, then helped the others as they battled the elements to erect their tent. They finished their task just as the heavens unleashed an even heavier torrent of rain, and they dived into the tent's welcome shelter.
As soon as the entrance was sealed, they pulled off their wet clothes and spread them out at the back of the tent. Tom noticed that Chakotay was shivering and moved to sit next to him. He handed the older man a thin blanket and helped him as he pulled it around his shoulders.
"I'll get your dry things out of your pack," he said, and began to rummage around for Chakotay's clothes.
"Thanks, Tom," Chakotay replied gratefully. "I don't know what I'd do without you to take care of me."
"Freeze to death probably," Tom remarked lightly as he tossed a dry shirt to his lover. "This is the second time now that I've had to do something like this for you."
Chakotay was about to reply when a loud sigh from Harry stopped him. He turned to look at the Ensign and frowned at him.
"Is there a problem?" he asked calmly.
"No, I'm just tired," Harry said abruptly. "Think I'll get some sleep." And he quickly climbed inside his sleeping bag and turned to face away from the older man.
Chakotay shook his head and turned back to Tom. His lover's normally bright eyes were now dull, and Chakotay could see the pain there that Harry's actions had caused. He reached out to wrap his arms around the younger man and pulled him close, sending a wave of love along their link as he did.
Tom sighed and rested his chin on Chakotay's shoulder. He closed his eyes as his lover caressed his back and threaded gentle fingers through his hair. Chakotay's mind touched his own and he heard his lover whispering assurances to him.
// I love you, Tom., and I don't care what anyone else thinks. You're mine and I'm not going to give you up because of someone else's prejudice. //
/ I know that, Cha, and I feel the same way. I'd like Harry to understand how we feel too, but if he can't, then it's his loss not ours. I told you I don't need anyone else but you and I meant it. It's just that, after all our years of friendship it makes me sad that Harry can't accept my right to love whoever I choose. /
// I understand that, Tom, but we're not going to change anything right now. Let's get to sleep and see what tomorrow brings, okay? //
"Okay," Tom whispered, and they snuggled down into their sleeping bags as the rain continued to fall heavily on the roof of the small tent.