Paris found Kim in his quarters, having asked the computer to locate the young operations officer when Janeway had finally ordered him off the bridge a few minutes earlier after overrunning the end of his duty shift by nearly two hours. Despite the jovial atmosphere that reigned throughout the starship, Paris was acutely aware of just how precarious their situation was if they were discovered by the Cardassians.
A lone Cardassian ship found many light-years into Federation space would be met with a suitably robust response by Starfleet, and while long-term imprisonment would be unlikely, the Cardassian vessel would certainly be impounded and investigated before its crew was eventually returned home.
But a wayward Starfleet vessel discovered inside Cardassian space would be dealt with in a far more forceful manner, by a race for whom torture was still an acceptable means of obtaining information and a show trial in a one of their kangaroo courts was performed only once the sentence had already been decided.
Paris knew that the Cardassian Ministry of Justice would waste no time seizing Voyager and pronouncing its crew of Starfleet officers spies.
If they were intercepted by a Cardassian vessel, despite Janeway's undoubted skills as a diplomat, Voyager would need to make a run for it, and Paris knew that he was the best man to have at the helm if that happened.
Nonetheless long-range sensors had detected no vessels in the immediate vicinity, and after being told to get some rest but knowing that such a thing was impossible under the circumstances, Paris had decided to seek out his closest friend on Voyager.
The door to Kim's quarters opened with a hiss, and Paris stepped inside, surveying the darkened room.
Kim was seated near the viewport, rapidly entering text into a small datapadd.
"The whole ship is celebrating and you're tucked away in your quarters?" Paris said as the door closed behind him. "Even by your standards that's pretty lame, Harry."
Kim glanced up from the padd. "I'm writing letters to everyone back home," he explained. "Even once we reach Federation space we'll still be weeks away from Earth, too far for real-time communication. So as soon we're out of danger I'm sending these messages to Earth. One for Libby. One for my parents. One for a few of my close friends. Just to let them know I'm alive and well."
Paris smiled. He hadn't considered that after five months Voyager would have been declared officially lost in the Badlands and her crew classified as having been killed in action. Funerals would have no doubt taken place, with grief-stricken family members mourning the loss of their loved ones. He pondered how the friends and relatives of those killed when Voyager had been transported to the Delta Quadrant would be elated when they received word that the ship had returned, only to have their grief return all the more strongly when they realised that their loved ones weren't among those coming home.
How would his own parents and sisters react when he walked in through the door of the family home on Earth months after being declared lost on the mission to the Badlands? Absently he wondered what his funeral had been like.
"I think I'll wait," Paris said, dropping into a comfy chair. "Give them all a surprise."
"Aren't you just on a temporary assignment here from that penal colony?" Kim asked, only half-joking.
"I know Starfleet, Harry," he said confidently. "After everything that's happened they won't send me back there. I only had six months left on my sentence when Captain Janeway approached me to help track down Chakotay and five months of that can be written off with me being on Voyager."
Kim continued entering text into his datapadd. "Are you sure?" he asked. "What if the first transmission from Starfleet orders us to lock you in the brig until we reach Earth?"
Paris chuckled. "Then I'll have to steal a shuttle and make a daring escape," he said with mock-seriousness.
"Now that I'd like to see," Kim admitted.
"You might get to see about fifty Maquis do it for real," Paris said.
"What do you mean?" Kim asked.
"Think about it, Harry," Paris said. "I was captured on my first mission for the Maquis. I'm small fry compared to the majority of the others onboard Voyager. People like Chakotay are wanted men who the Federation considers traitors and terrorists, using their Starfleet training against the Cardassians. Starfleet is a pretty forgiving organisation, but they'll still want these Maquis brought to justice for their crimes."
"After everything that's happened?" Kim asked.
"It's only been five months, Harry," Paris told him. "I don't think that's long enough for everyone to just shake hands and go their separate ways, especially when some of those people are going to go back to destabilising relations between the Federation and one of its most powerful neighbours."
"I hadn't looked at it like that," Kim said.
"All I'm saying is that perhaps you should say your goodbyes before we reach the Demilitarised Zone," Paris said. "Because when we do there'll be a lot of people with itchy feet wanting to jump ship." He pushed himself to his feet. "Put that padd down and come and have a drink with me, Harry. I'm not taking no for an answer."
Kim paused, considering the offer before placing the padd on the table. "Just one," he said.
"Of course," Paris said with a grin, though privately he had other ideas.
Janeway strode onto the bridge of the starship when Chakotay called her, having been immersed in a report detailing minor structural deformations that had been discovered resulting from Voyager being trajected across the galaxy.
"We've got a problem," Chakotay said ominously, already standing at the tactical console with Tuvok.
"Go on," Janeway urged, knowing from his tone that the matter was serious.
"It would appear that we are being followed," Tuvok stated matter of factly.
"Have you detected a ship?" Janeway demanded.
"Not precisely," Tuvok said. "However I have observed a sensor-ghost that I initially subscribed to being the result of the damage done to Voyager's sensor systems when we trajected."
"When Tuvok brought it to my attention I had Lieutenant Paris adjust our course slightly for a few minutes," Chakotay continued tersely. "Mr. Tuvok's sensor ghost vanished, but returned when Voyager came back onto her initial heading."
"Indicating that whoever is following us maintained their course while we adjusted ours," Janeway concluded, her tactician's brain already recalculating the situation in light of the new information. "If this ghost was a result of our damaged sensors it would remain in place whatever course changes were made."
"It has to be a Cardassian ship," Chakotay said.
"If so it raises two questions," Janeway said. "Why follow us nearer and nearer Federation space when they could no doubt have intercepted and engaged us before now? And even more worryingly, how do they know our sensors are degraded enough that we haven't detected them following us?"
"What are you saying?" Chakotay asked.
"That ship knows exactly where to position itself in order to escape detection," Janeway told him. "Or at least not make itself obvious. I can't believe they could have gained such accurate information from a long-range scan of Voyager."
"You think someone tipped them off?" he said.
Janeway nodded. "Tuvok, check the communications system for any indication that a message has been transmitted from Voyager without our knowledge."
Tuvok immediately went to work. "This may take some time. As per your instructions I restricted access to the communications system. If a transmission has been sent to the Cardassians the person sending it would have needed to bypass my security lockouts. A person with such technical skill would likely remove any trace of their efforts."
"Check it anyway," Janeway said, moving to stand closer to Chakotay and lowering her voice. "Why would anyone onboard Voyager want to reveal our presence here to the Cardassians? We have a crew of Starfleet and Maquis who have so much to lose if we're confronted by a Cardassian warship."
Chakotay's face was a mask of concern. "I don't know. But we still have about six hours before we reach the safety of the Demilitarized Zone. We could send a distress signal to any Starfleet ships in the vicinity asking for immediate assistance."
"Any Starfleet ship that responds would have to cross into Cardassian space to help us," she said slowly, considering the proposal. "We have no way of knowing what sort of an incident that could trigger. We have to remember that we're the ones in the wrong here, not the Cardassians."
"Captain," Tuvok said. "I believe I have found something. A short transmission sent on what records indicate is a Cardassian military frequency. Judging by my relative ease in tracing it I would surmise that the person responsible was in a rush and had little time to cover their tracks."
"And that transmission gave the Cardassians our position and instructions on how to remain concealed?" Janeway asked.
"It would appear so," Tuvok confirmed.
Janeway tapped her combadge. "Bridge to Torres. Can you give me any more speed, B'Elanna? Our situation here has taken a turn for the worst."
"I'm afraid not, captain," Torres responded. "Just maintaining warp five is putting more strain on the warp core than I'd like. To be honest I was considering asking if we could reduce speed to warp four."
"Not possible," Janeway told her curtly, turning to Tuvok. "What are our chances of outfighting a Cardassian warship in our current condition?"
Tuvok looked at her grimly. "Slim."
In engineering, B'Elanna Torres stared up at the swirling colours of the warp core. She'd been awake for nearly thirty hours, twenty of those spent nursing the irreparably damaged matter-antimatter reactor powering Voyager's flight through Cardassian space.
"What was all that about?" Seska asked casually, startling Torres a little.
"I'm not sure," Torres admitted, glancing up at the woman whose urging had played no small part in her decision to employ the Sikarian trajector to transport Voyager home.
"Are we in some kind of trouble?" Seska asked, looking agitated. As a Bajoran, Torres knew that Seska, more than even the other Maquis onboard, would suffer terribly at the hands of the Cardassians if Voyager was intercepted.
Torres shrugged. "You know as much as I do," she said. "The captain wants more speed. Which isn't going to happen until Starfleet gives Voyager a full refit, with a new warp core top of the list of replacement parts."
"I don't think that's going to happen any time soon," Seska said.
Torres felt the cool tip of a phaser press against the back of her skull. "Seska!" she hissed. "What are you doing!?"
"Shut down the engines, B'Elanna," Seska instructed her.
Torres froze for a moment, her fatigued brain struggling to comprehend what was happening. "Why?" she asked hoarsely.
"Because if you don't," Seska said sweetly, "I'm going to blow your head clean off your shoulders and do it myself."
Torres felt her hand trembling as she reached for the control console, tapping the appropriate sequence of commands into the panel. Moments later the deck shuddered slightly as the intrepid-class starship dropped out of warp.
In the brief seconds between feeling the heat of Seska's discharging phaser and her world going black, Torres pictured Voyager dead in the water.