Tom rummaged through his closet one final time to finish packing
his duffel bag for the Caldek Three survey mission. It pleased him that
Marnie had asked him to come along after all. He enjoyed her company
immensely from the many canteen conversations they shared. In the last
two weeks they forged a respectful friendship, one he hoped could
develop into something more meaningful in the future.
An hour later he rendezvoused with Ensign Fuller and her party just outside the runabout he'd be flying. He whistled in awe and appreciation at the sight of the craft, the Fraser. "Nice wings! I should volunteer for survey missions more often if these are the coaches they're loaning out."
"You wouldn't believe what Dr. Ellis had to do to secure all four of them for this mission," Marnie replied. "Tom, I'd like to introduce you to Ensign Mek, our mineralogist, and Ensign Ianna Pulito, our geophysicist. Mek, Ianna, this is Lieutenant Paris, our pilot and assistant researcher."
"Don't be fooled: that just means I'm in charge of getting everyone's coffee." Tom joked, shaking hands with the Bolian and Haliian officers. "It's good to meet you. Please, call me Tom: all my friends do."
"Now that we're all familiar with each other, what say we get started?" Mek posed. "It looks like everyone else is getting a jump on us." Even as he said so, one of the runabouts sailed past their heads and darted up into the sky. Tom could understand his eager enthusiasm: he himself couldn't wait to get behind the runabout's flight controls.
The three ensigns reviewed their final supply list while Tom ran through the initial flight checklist. By the time they finished the runabout was ready for departure. Ensign Fuller gave Tom the flight plan and with a touch of a few buttons they were on their way to Caldek Three. The runabout lifted off smoothly and silently, and pitched off into a graceful arc as it left the planet's atmosphere. Tom thought it was love, as the controls seemed to respond effortlessly in his hands.
The first length of the trip was quiet and dull for Tom. Marnie spent her time hashing out the more mundane details of the geological survey with the other members of her team. It didn't help his boredom any that he couldn't run the throttle open on the ship and perform a few manoeuvres. While he would have had the time of his life, the three science officers in the conference room wouldn't have appreciated the sudden jarring movements. Maybe they would consent to a few aerobatics after they finished their meeting. He should have brought something to read.
About forty-five minutes later Marnie appeared in the cockpit. "Hi there, handsome. How are you doing up here?"
Tom sighed wearily. "Oh, fine, just fine."
"Oh, how pathetic!" Marnie couldn't help but laugh at his tired expression. "I'm sorry, Tom. We've been so busy plotting grid areas, and you're here bored out of your wits with no one to talk to. You didn't have to stay up here all by yourself, you know."
"Yeah, I know, but what would I have done? Joined you at your briefing?" He smiled wistfully. "Sorry. I 'm just a little crabby because I wanted to take this baby out for a real test drive and I couldn't. I didn't know when you were going to need me and I didn't want to disturb you by asking."
"How sweet of you." She pecked him on the cheek and sat in the co-pilot's seat. "Mek and Ianna are working on their itineraries, but I'm sure that once they're done they won't mind giving you a few minutes. In fact, Ianna was quite excited to find out you were coming with us. I believe she was in one of your classes earlier this year."
"I thought I recognized her," he admitted. He looked over at Ensign Fuller, who was smiling broadly. "You're really looking forward to this mission, aren't you?"
"Yes, I suppose I am." She appeared to hesitate, deciding whether or not to say anything else, but finally gave in. "I think Dr. Ellis is going to recommend me for promotion once this survey is completed. He commented before at how impressed he's been with my work ethic."
"Hey, congratulations!" Tom wanted to give her a hug, but limited himself to squeezing her shoulder. "You'll make a fine lieutenant, Marnie."
She coloured slightly with embarrassment. "He hasn't actually done it yet, Tom." Then she smiled cheerfully and clasped his hand affectionately. "But, thanks."
Tom briefly considered the situation. The signs were definitely there, no doubt about it, but he still had some reservations about taking the next step. He knew he felt strongly for the woman next to him, but would she be worth the risk? He certainly hadn't known her for very long. Perhaps if this survey mission went well he'd ask her to make a deeper commitment to their casual relationship. Further contemplation of the subject halted, though, when Ensigns Mek and Pulito emerged from the rear quarters.
"Hi, you two," Mek said cheerfully. "Anything exciting going on out here?"
"No, not really," Tom answered.
"Any idea when we'll reach Caldek Three?" Ianna questioned the lieutenant.
"About twenty minutes," he responded after checking the flight plan's status. He turned and looked at the Haliian, who responded with a friendly smile. Knowing the most likely reason why she smiled didn't cheer him up any. "Unless you guys wouldn't mind a short delay while I practise a few manoeuvres."
"I-I-I don't know," the Bolian hedged. "We do have a lot of work ahead of us."
Ensign Pulito latched on to Mek's forearm. "Oh, come on, Mek!" she pleaded. "What will ten or fifteen minutes hurt? I've been in his classes - Lieutenant Paris is probably the best flight instructor on the base! It'll be fun!"
Mek clearly didn't like being put on the spot. He crumbled like a house of cards. "Oh, all right!" he sighed. "But no more than fifteen minutes. I'll hold you to that."
Tom's mood uplifted considerably. It seemed he would still get a small amount of enjoyment out of this trip, even if things weren't exactly going smoothly. He scanned the outlying region of space and fortunately found an asteroid field several minutes away. "You have my word as a Starfleet officer, Mek. I'll have you on Caldek Three before you know it." He entered a series of commands into his console. "Everyone, take a seat and hold tight. The ride is about to begin." With a touch of a button the runabout Fraser leapt into warp.
"What are you doing?" Mek cried out frantically. "You're not supposed to go to warp inside a planetary system!"
"Relax, Mek. At impulse speed it would take us about twenty-five minutes to reach this asteroid field. At warp we'll be there in a few seconds." Tom held his gaze upon the navigation console, silently counting down. "Disengaging warp engines, now."
The first thing that registered in his mind was the strangled cry of the Bolian ensign. As the ship dropped out of warp, an enormous fragment of rock loomed right in front of them and was closing fast.
On to Chapter 6...
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