EMPATHOGEN
by E. L. Zimmerman

CHAPTER SIX

Engineering was replete with plenty of performance alcoves, any one of which was perfect for Ishanti's purpose. Stepping past the warp core, she approached Geiger, Fynsal, and Narek, the trio already gathered, anticipating her arrival. 'Lucky for us,' the Zell realized, B'Elanna Torres - now comfortably dressed in Starfleet Class III maintenance-utility fatigues - had abandoned the Main Core Command Console in favor of crawling around a Jefferies tube. A Level II Diagnostic had produced surprising results: several power invertors were curiously out of alignment. Ishanti, smiling, trusted that a couple of harmlessly sabotaged invertors would keep the efficiency-hungry half-Klingon well out of earshot long enough for the conspirators to conclude their business, fearless of being discovered.

"We're on schedule," she told the others. "Rintella is as good a home as we could ask for in this damned quadrant. The Rintellans have even extended wishes of goodwill to the crew." Cautiously, she stopped and glanced near the mouth of the Jefferies tube. B'Elanna's feet moved around, as did the Engineer, intent on tweaking the invertors to maximum efficiency. "I'll issue fake orders, using Harry Kim's authorization codes, to send more personnel planetside. That'll ensure, when we take the bridge, we'll encounter little resistance."

She turned back to her group. "All we'll have to do then ... is destroy Voyager."

"What about Harry?" Geiger asked.

"What 'about' Harry?" Ishanti countered.

Geiger considered his partners before concluding, "Is he with us? Or is he playing us for fools? He serves at Ops, Ishanti. He's on the bridge routinely." Crossing his arms, he added, "I find it hard to believe that he'd turn against the command crew so easily."

Smiling, Ishanti pointing at her colleague. "You worry about serving your role and let me worry about Harry Kim." Shrugging, she checked the Jefferies tube again. B'Elanna's boots still dangled around the edge of the opening. "Trust me. Harry's with us. He might not know it yet, but he's with us."

"We need a member of command, Ishanti," Narek spoke up. "Without one, this entire campaign will fail. We'll all end up in the brig, charged with mutiny. I don't know about the rest of you, but simmering angrily for seventy years behind a defensive forcefield has absolutely no appeal to me whatsoever."

Suddenly, the doors to Engineering whisked open, and Tom Paris entered.

"It's all about the dream, people," Ishanti told them, and, instinctively, she reached out with her mind. Desperately, she wanted ...

No.

Desperately, she needed so badly to 'touch' another's mind. It was the telepathic way of the Zell, and it was what she desired to feel complete. She needed the assurance that there was one of her kind amongst her mutinous friends. She needed the calming 'mindprint,' as her people called it, to find peace.

But, sadly, she found herself ... and her mind ... alone.

"Remember the dream," she said in a hushed tone as Tom Paris approached the group.

"What dream are we talking about, gang?" he asked.

They had been discovered.

Quickly, Fynshal, Narek, and Geiger stood at attention.

After several moments of mounting tension, Ishanti broke into a raucous laughter.

"Team," she said, wiping the tears from her eyes, "you wanted a member of the command crew?" Nodding in the lieutenant's direction, she offered, "Say hello to our member of command."

"What the -?!"

Angered to a feverish pulse, B'Elanna Torres felt a clamp on her ankles.

"Who's the hell ... who's out there?!" she shouted, making her anger clear to whomever was pulling the prank.

Suddenly, the clamp became a hoist.

The half-Klingon yelped as she found herself pulled clumsily down the Jefferies tube. Contorting, so she'd land on her feet, she slid through the opening and fell toward the deckplates. Flailing, she fumbled with her inversion stabilizer, but it spun loosely in the air and hit the ground. Two hands firmly clasped under her armpits, steadying her so that she wouldn't follow suit with the Engineering tool.

Infuriated, releasing all of her ire in one fuming sigh, she stared up into the smiling face of ...

... Tom Paris.

Demanding, she barked, "What the hell are you doing?!"

"Getting your attention," came his coy answer.

"I was working in there!" she protested.

Persistant, he kept on smiling.

'You just keep on smiling that same, damn, smug, condescending Paris smile that I'd give anything to slap off your damn, smug, condescending boyish face,' B'Elanna thought. In that moment, she couldn't tell whether his perennial expression enraged or enraptured her.

'Enraptured?'

B'Elanna shook her head violently.

'What am I thinking?'

"What's the matter?" he asked.

Pointing, driving her finger into his chest, she replied passionately, "None of your damn business! Now ..."

She unexpectedly realized she was struggling for words.

"Now answer my question!" she concluded. "What the hell are you doing? And you'd better have one good answer," she warned, narrowing her eyes at him.

Still smiling, he let her go, easing her back into the wall.

"Relax, B'Elanna," he tried.

"Relax?" she asked, incredulous. "You yank me out of a Jefferies tube while I'm in the middle of -"

"B'Elanna," he interrupted, leaning forward slightly. "Relax! This is supposed to be shore leave."

Suddenly, she recognized how close he was standing to her, and she smelled his sweet breath in the air. His breathing, near to her, warm and moist on her face, sent a shudder up her spine ... but, thanks to Klingon DNA, B'Elanna wasn't sure whether or not she was ultimately agitated or ...

Aroused?

"We're not on shore leave, Paris," she challenged, struggling to muster an even sterner sense of irritation in her voice, but why was it, as of late, increasingly so hard for her to be angry with Tom Paris? She pointed toward the floor. "Those crewmembers you shuttled down to the planet's surface are on shore leave, you headcase! In case you hadn't noticed, you and I are still aboard Voyager, serving our tour of duty!"

To his credit, Tom Paris kept on smiling.

With forced anger, she spat, "Must you always have THAT expression on your face?!"

His eyes locked on hers, Paris leaned yet closer. Instinctively, B'Elanna inhaled, for reasons unknown, anticipating that he was going to kiss her, that the ship's lieutenant was going to brush his thin, soft mouth against her full, red lips ...

... but he stopped just short of contact.

Again, she felt his breath on her face.

B'Elanna's heart skipped a beat.

"Okay," he said, discarding the smile, straightening his brow, and focusing intently on her deep eyes. "Okay, B'Elanna, you win. My mistake. Here I was coming down to be the nice guy, to ask you to join me, when our time to head down to Rintella comes."

Fighting a sense of ... attraction ... she shot back, "For what? To become nothing more than one of those famous Paris conquests?"

"Well," he flirted openly, "at least they're famous."

"No thanks," she declined. "I've had lower efficiency ratings I'd rather have my name attached to."

Surrendering, he backed away from her, granted her all of the space she could've wanted ...

... or did she?

"You're right, B'Elanna," he agreed, clearly irritated with her at this point. "You and I are not on shore leave. We're on duty. I should be on the bridge. I don't need to be down here, reaping your insults, even though down here is where I'd rather be."

Challenging, she pushed off the wall, stepping up to her colleague. "And what's that supposed to mean?"

"You're an engineer," he spat, whirling around. He marched in the direction of the main Engineering entryway. "With your efficiency ratings, I'm sure you can figure it out. Isn't that what you're good at?"

The doors hissed open, and he disappeared.

Battling her own emotions, B'Elanna stared at the closed doors. Was it her imagination, or was her heart racing? Reaching up, she touched a hand to the ridges of her forehead and found them laced with the slightest trace of sweat. 'It's Engineering,' she told herself. 'It's always hot in here.'

Focusing on the nothingness of the door panes, she sought out a mental sense of peace, a sense of calm. She tried to wipe all thoughts of the argumentative, skirt-chasing, hotshot pilot from her mind.

Instead, all she found were simple recollections on the sweet scent of Tom Paris's breath.

"Now that I think of it," she said aloud to an empty Engineering Bay, "he does look better WITH the smile."

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