Romancing the Stone: Stage I
Looking for story notes? You'll find them in Chapter 1.
Darrel W. Beach
Without even blinking Tom fired reverse thrusters, giving him the
spare few seconds he needed to check his instrument panel for the
satellite's gravitational pull and pitch the runabout into a steep
negative elevation. The manoeuvre caught the three passengers
unguarded, tossing them from their seats. Mek again shrieked at their
impending doom and prepared himself for oblivion.
It never came. When he finally opened his eyes he could hardly
believe what he saw. Lt. Paris had somehow managed to harness the
asteroid's gravitational field and the craft's momentum to establish an
orbit around the rock - upside-down. The man had only seconds to
determine the correct orbital distance of the asteroid and calculate the
proper angle and thrust to achieve a satellite orbit. A skilled pilot,
indeed! He either had to be an absolute flying genius or the luckiest
idiot to ever sit behind a helm.
Tom caught Mek's disbelieving expression. Indeed, all three of
them appeared to be in differing stages of shock. "Not bad, huh?"
"Incredible," Pulito gasped, caught somewhere between awe and
"I'll reserve judgement until we reach Caldek Three, Lieutenant,"
the Bolian shakily remarked as he picked himself up off the floor. "If
we make it there in one piece, that is."
"That was...I've never experienced anything like that before,"
Ensign Fuller panted once her heart rate returned to normal.
Tom grinned with perverse pleasure. "You haven't seen the half of
it yet," he said. He executed a smooth pitch-and-roll to right the
craft as it crested the asteroid, then engaged the engines, steering the
ship straight into the field.
Over the next several minutes Tom piloted through the rocky debris
with such finesse that it seemed like experiencing a flight simulation
on a holodeck. No matter how close the asteroids came to coming into
contact with the runabout's hull, Tom would dip or weave in time to
prevent a collision. Mek even began to relax as Tom spun and twisted
the vessel around and between the behemoth boulders, so much so that
even he forgot about monitoring the time.
Of all people, Ensign Pulito finally remembered the mission they
were supposed to be on. "Hey, how long have we been out here?"
Marnie checked the ship's chronometer. "Oh, no! It's been over
The sudden outburst distracted Tom for a moment. "What?" He
involuntarily checked the chronometer himself. In the few seconds it
took to confirm the information, a small chunk of icy rock rolled into
the starboard nacelle. Fortunately it struck only a glancing blow, but
the jolt took the crew by surprise.
Tom's surprise, though, quickly turned into anger. So many tough
manoeuvres, avoiding all of those asteroids, only to be blind-sided the
moment his eyes left the navigation console. "Dammit!" Immediately he
laid in a course out of the asteroid field. "Marnie, scan the hull and
see how much damage we sustained," he ordered, a distinct note of
frustration in his command.
"Looks like we took a bump on our starboard nacelle," she
reported. "Major surface abrasion on the casing, a few microfractures. Nothing serious, though."
"Can we still go to warp?" Mek asked anxiously. "If we miss our
first check-in we'll be in big trouble with Dr. Ellis."
Tom checked his instrument panel and made a few computations. "Well, the stress on the nacelle won't be too severe if we stay at Warp
1. It'll take us a few more minutes to reach Caldek Three, but I
wouldn't want to chance going any faster." That put Mek at ease, but
Tom was still mad at himself. He shouldn't have taken his eyes off the
Steering the Fraser to a safe distance away from the asteroid
field, Tom punched the ship into warp without incident. The ride back
to the planet was noticeably subdued, however, while Tom kept one eye
fixed on the stress indicator for the damaged nacelle. His sour mood
was chiefly responsible for the silence, filling the cabin with an
Marnie finally decided to put and end to it. She shared a look with Ianna that indicated she wanted a private conversation with the
lieutenant. Ensign Pulito looked at Mek and thought for a moment how
she could force him to leave with her. "Mek, would you mind if we take
another look at those sector maps? I have an idea that might improve
our chances of finding significant data."
Mek grimaced. "I thought we already made a decision on that." With a nod of her head, Ianna discreetly pointed out that Marnie wanted
to be alone with Tom for a moment. "Of course, if there's a possibility
of increasing the effectiveness of our survey, what would it hurt to
keep an open mind?" The two ensigns beat a hasty retreat to the rear
Once they were beyond earshot, Tom broke the silence. "So, now
that you've gotten them to leave, what did you want to talk about?"
Marnie smirked. "Guess I can't get anything past you, can I?" She took on a more serious demeanour when Tom didn't reply. "Look, Tom,
you shouldn't blame yourself for letting that rock hit the nacelle. Things like that happen, even to the best of pilots."
"Not to me, they don't. It wouldn't even have
touched us if I hadn't stopped to look at the time."
"Tom, if you want someone to blame, then blame me. If I hadn't
overreacted I probably wouldn't have distracted you." She took his hand
and intertwined her fingers with his. "Don't let this eat you up
inside, Tom. If you hold yourself responsible for every little random
phenomenon that comes along, then your career as a pilot is as good as
finished. You'll be so busy second-guessing yourself that something
will happen and lives will be lost because of it."
Tom watched his console as the long-range sensors picked up Caldek
Three. For a few moments Marnie wondered if he had listened to her at
all, but when he dropped the ship out of warp he turned to face her. "It's admirable that you would try to take the front for my
carelessness, but we both know that it's my responsibility. I take a
lot of pride in my abilities as a pilot, so forgive me if I don't
dismiss our little accident quite so easily. For what it's worth,
though, you raise a valid point. I'll have to learn to deal with the
unexpected, and learn not to take it so personally when things don't
unfold exactly the way I expect. You're a good friend, Marnie."
Ensign Fuller cast an uneasy look at him and bit her tongue. He
sounded sincere, but it seemed as though he capitulated to her reproach
a little too quickly. In the few weeks they had known each other he had
been quite up front with his feelings, as far as she knew. However, she
also knew him well enough now to realize that he had an ego. Tom prided
himself on being the master of his own destiny. He wore his reputation
like a uniform, the same as his Starfleet issue, and went to great
lengths to keep it in immaculate condition. To him, the incident with
the asteroid was a nagging little thread along one of the seams. He
craved pulling it off but feared causing a larger rent to take its
place, yet he still couldn't simply find the patience to sit down and
mend it properly. She wanted to help him resolve this problem now, but
in his current state of mind she didn't know whether or not to push the
matter. The real problem for her was trust: could she trust that he was
being honest with her? Finally she made a choice: she'd give him his
chance to work it out on his own - for now. She allowed Tom an
opportunity to validate her faith in him, but she would be ready to
provide a voice of reason and support if he asked.
A small indicator flashed on Tom's console. "Approaching
exosphere of Caldek Three, switching to thrusters for atmospheric entry. Holding velocity steady at 300 kph." According to Ensign Fuller's
mission log, their landing zone was located on the far side of the
planet. To save time, Tom descended the runabout on a course against
the planet's rotation, a tactic not unnoticed by his co-pilot.
"Tom, isn't it standard procedure to travel in direction with
planetary rotation to allow for a safe speed of entry?" she posed
"Just giving us a few extra minutes this way," he replied. He
noticed her worried expression. "Relax, I've done this at least a dozen
times before." In flight simulations.
"Have you ever done it without the aid of sensors?" she rebutted. "Caldek Three is giving off so much ionic and ferrometric interference
that we're literally flying blind. Maybe it would be a good idea to
Tom already knew that fact the moment the runabout had entered the
ionosphere. The instrument panels were going haywire. "Marnie, don't
worry about it! A good pilot doesn't rely on sensors alone. As long as
I can see out the window we'll be fine."
It certainly looked that way: their present exterior view
resembled an unobscured picture of tranquillity. The light refracting
off the atmosphere's particulate matter blessed this planet with an
enchanting lilac-coloured sky. With the sun positioned directly behind
them, it stretched out endlessly, intercepted at the horizon by a heavy
blanket of cotton-like clouds. Off in the distance Tom could just
discriminate the peaks of mountains breaking through the cover, marking
the coastline of the south-east continent, their destination.
The Fraser slipped effortlessly into the troposphere, its speed
held constant by the man at the controls. Visibility was momentarily
impaired, but before long the runabout burst into the clear, rapidly
closing upon the range of craggy mountains. Tom kept his usual cool and
confidence on the approach; Marnie looked ready to crawl out of her
skin. "Tom, I really think you should slow down."
"Suggestion duly noted," he replied flippantly. He at least
managed to keep his attention in front of him this time. With the
mountains this close, any distraction could be fatal. He did not slow
down, however. The craft roared past the first of the many mountains in
front of them and continued to descend. Tom found it a challenge,
relying on his own line of sight to steer through the range, but he
always excelled in the face of a challenge.
Marnie thought he had completely lost his mind. There he sat, as
composed as a Vulcan, rocking the runabout from left to right and back
again as they rocketed by the massive rock outcroppings, sometimes only
metres away from striking them. "Tom, are you trying to kill us all? Slow down!" She yelped with fright as they whizzed precariously close
past another mountain. "I think you're letting your pride blind your
No confidence in me whatsoever. Her whining was really starting
to get on his nerves. This time he refrained from replying. He just
kept going until they encountered the last line of mountains. Tom then
swung the runabout up alongside the one remaining rock face and nosed
the craft down, hugging the slope closely. The Fraser tore down the
mountainside like a rocket-powered toboggan. Tom noted with interest
the lack of vegetation as they raced downhill. There existed nothing in
the way of trees or bushes despite the abundant source of water not more
than fifty miles away. Not even weeds could find a place to flourish in
this area. The terrain remained a constant steel blue colour. That
could have been the most likely reason why it all happened.
The slope gradually levelled out, until at last they reached the
base of the mountain. In spite of Ensign Fuller's protestations,
nothing had happened. He afforded himself a smug grin of triumph and
looked at her out of the corner of his eye. "See? I told you there was
nothing to worry about. In another minute we'll reach the designated
"The runabout continued on its mad dash along the valley floor,
taking no time at all to escape the shadow of the mountain," Tom
continued strenuously. He could feel his throat constricting with
tension. "The terrain ahead of us appeared smooth and unblemished, so I
kept the Fraser at a low cruising altitude. It turned out to be a
"Five hundred metres from the landing site, a sharp rock protruded
from the ground by less than a metre. It lay directly in front of the
setting sun, so the shadow it cast couldn't readily be seen. We might
have avoided it, had we been travelling at half the speed. As it was,
though, there wasn't enough time to react."
Tom coughed hoarsely to clear the rasp in his throat. "Uh, excuse me for a minute. Throat's a little dry." He had to stop: the pressure on both his
psyche and his larynx had reached critical levels. He sat down in his
chair and took a draught from his glass to soothe his jangled nerves. The juice was cold and tart, similar to the memories he had yet to
Harry picked up on his friend's discomfort, almost empathically. "Are you all right, Tom?"
"Yeah, Harry. I'll be fine." Tom wiped the perspiration off his
face with his hand, then smiled mutely, fortunate to have such
considerate friends present. He had known it would be hard churning up
the painful memories, but that expectation still provided little relief
- particularly in the presence of a skeptic. He wondered what Leena
thought about his explanation thus far. Her neutral expression hadn't
changed much over the last twenty-five minutes. Of course, much of
everything he had said up to this point was just a precursor to the real
story. He would have to reserve judgement until she had heard every
B'Elanna decided to break the uneasy silence at the table. "While
we're stopped here for the moment, Tom, would you mind if I asked you a
Tom thought about it for a second. He didn't know if he was quite
ready to continue with the story yet. Perhaps it would help if he
fielded a few questions first. "Shoot."
"When Ensign Fuller asked you to slow down, why didn't you? I
mean, were you trying to prove something or did you just turn off your
By the way she asked, clearly B'Elanna intended the question to be
a good-humoured barb at Tom's masculine ego, but he reacted to it
seriously. "I...I don't know," he answered solemnly. He restlessly
brushed a hand through sandy hair and attempted to keep a level voice. "Maybe it was a little of both. I was still kinda mad about getting
sideswiped and...and, I really wanted to show Marnie that I was someone
different. Special." He looked up and fixed a hard stare at his two
friends. Leena clearly saw the earnest shine in his azure eyes. "I
know I've told you guys how good a pilot I am. You've also seen first
hand some of the things I can do, but...but that's only a fraction of
what I can do, the tip of the proverbial iceberg. I've done things with
shuttles that seem simple to me but most pilots won't even attempt.
"I know, it sounds like I'm bragging, but it's the honest-to-God
truth! It's been like that ever since I was a kid: I don't know why, but
I've always had this knack for flying. It came so easily to me, I had
to find ways to make it interesting. I discovered that I could excel
even under the most difficult situations, and I enjoyed the element of
danger, so I went out of my way to put myself in those situations
whenever I could. I - I'm not like that much anymore." He choked on
his emotion for a second before recovering. "I mean...well, it's
different when we're under attack or something, but I don't go out
looking for trouble anymore. I was awfully careless back then."
B'Elanna looked like she was sorry she'd asked the question at
all. Harry didn't look all that well, either. Tom's soliloquy hung in
the air for several minutes like a morning fog, the chill silence in the
room burning off slowly.
Leena sat there, stunned. Tom's last outburst came at her from
out of the blue, jarring loose all the impressions previously set in her
mind. From the many stories circulated by the other Starfleet crew she
had thought him a selfish, egotistical womanizer. Indeed, only a few
minutes ago he had confirmed those reports with absolute certainty. Now, however, she began to see another side to him, one passionate and
forthright. This man, so cocky and full of himself, was now choking on
his own tears. She did not recognize him as the same person from those
The revelation bothered her. She didn't want to see this side of
Tom Paris because it would validate everything he had accused of her. For heaven's sake, the man was a convicted felon and a traitor! She
didn't want to feel compassion for a traitor! It had to be a trick of
some sort, an act put on for her benefit...something.
After several minutes of silence, Harry decided to test the
waters. "Tom, do you think you can continue?"
Tom jumped a bit as if startled out of a daydream. He sucked in
one large breath and released it slowly, a classic technique for calming
one's self. "Yeah, I think so. Where did I leave off?"
"You were just about to tell us how the accident occurred," he
"Right, right. The accident." Tom took in and released another
breath and resumed.
On to Chapter 7...
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