Romancing the Stone: Stage IV


Darrel W. Beach

Looking for story notes?  You'll find them in Chapter 1.


     Tom stifled a yawn while walking to the nearest turbolift.  Another restless night with barely enough sleep.  He was in danger of being late for his shift again, but he didn't care all that much if it really happened or not.  The mission was not on his mind: he could still see Leena bid him farewell and disappear through the tavern doors every time he closed his eyes.  That was almost a week ago, but the memory wouldn't leave him.
     He had to move on, for the sake of the mission.  He reminded himself that it was necessary, but it brought no comfort.  The yawn finally escaped as he stopped in front of the turbolift doors.
     Tuvok happened to be the sole occupant in the car that arrived.  His rehabilitation from the mind meld had apparently concluded several days ago, but the captain had just reassigned him to active duty yesterday.  He certainly didn't look the worse for wear.
     The doors closed and the lift started its journey toward the bridge.  Tuvok broke the silence.  "The captain informed me of the progress in your mission.  It appears you are doing exceptionally well."
     Tom stared at the bulkhead in front of him.  "Hooray for me.  The suspicious looks, the undisguised hostility; it almost feels like the first time I walked through the docking port.  Except for a few diehards, I'd say the general feeling of hate has returned."  He looked at Tuvok more directly.  "Leena even left me, although I'm sure you knew that already."
     Tuvok didn't so much as bat an eye.  "No, I did not.  I am sorry for your loss.  It must have been difficult for you."
     Tom snorted.  "Yeah, right.  You've wanted to hear that ever since we started dating.  She's your protege; it killed you to see her get close to a guy like me."
     He wanted to see Tuvok get uncomfortable with the accusation.  He was disappointed.  "I admit that at first I did not approve of her decision, but I have since reconsidered.  For all of your foibles, Mr. Paris, you gave her a happiness she has not experienced for some time and restored her to a more functionally effective and interactive role on this ship.  I may be incapable of expressing emotions but that does not make me ignorant of them."
     Tom couldn't find a response.  Tuvok had surprised him, and hearing that the Vulcan actually supported their relationship made him depressed and angry.  This damnable mission had ruined everything.
     Tuvok was a step onto the bridge before Tom even noticed that the turbolift had stopped.

     Tom felt the tension on the bridge creep into his shoulder blades.  Almost everyone's attention was focused on the bits and pieces of scrap floating across the main viewer; Harry and Tuvok studied the readouts on their respective consoles.  Tom checked the navigational instruments and adjusted their course to steer clear of the space junk.  "There's not much left of whatever it was.  From the amount of debris I'd guess it was a small ship no bigger than a shuttle craft."
     "I'm not reading any organic material in the debris field," Harry reported.  "It must have been an unmanned vessel, possibly a probe."
     Behind Tom, Janeway looked on from the captain's seat.  "Any idea what happened to it?"
     Tuvok's voice was even.  "The high residual energy signature indicates repeated weapons fire."
     "Captain, the wreckage is composed primarily of durotanium polyalloy."
     Tom heard the surprise in the captain's voice in response to Harry's last piece of data.  "Durotanium?"
     "I haven't seen many weapons that could do that kind of damage to a durotanium hull," Chakotay commented.
     While the captain doled out orders to recover some wreckage for analysis, Tom was similarly impressed by Harry's report.  Whoever had the firepower capable of this destruction was a formidable and potentially dangerous entity.  If they did chance upon the attacker, Tom hoped they could establish friendly relations from the start.  He had no desire to find out how Voyager would fare in a fight.
     The captain pressed a button and spoke into the arm of her chair.  "Bridge to Lieutenant Torres, we are transporting some fragments of durotanium from a destroyed craft to Engineering.  We need you to determine the type of weapon used to destroy it.  Make it your top priority."
     Understood, Captain.  I'll put a team on it right away.

     Tom stayed at his post for an extra ten minutes past his shift, but finally he had to get up and move.  Engineering still had yet to report any findings and Tom didn't have much tolerance for waiting.  He ceded the conn to his replacement and ventured to Deck 2.  Perhaps a full stomach would take his mind off things.
     In the literal blink of an eye he stopped worrying about the debris analysis and started worrying about another problem walking toward him.  He saw her first and he froze.  Leena had barely afforded him a single word or glance since their fallout.  Although he deemed it necessary to sever ties with Leena, every slight left Tom more wounded.  His instinct told him to turn around and slip into a recess to avoid detection, but it was already too late.  He'd been noticed.  His chest tightened as Leena's brusque professional demeanour surfaced.
     Tom didn't know quite what to say, if there was indeed anything he could say.  He had not the time to consider the matter anyway.  Her pace had not slowed and she was almost past him.  "Hi, Leena."
     Her stare never wavered as their paths crossed.  He turned back for chance that she might stop, but with every step it became more painfully clear that she wouldn't.  Tom was but without substance to her.
     The weight of depression fell heavily upon his shoulders.  He turned at the next corner and sought the nearest turbolift, his appetite quelled by Leena's silent rebuff.  The mess hall would be too full of people.  Though he craved the comfort of companionship Tom wished no more than to be left alone with his misery.
     He engaged the security lock to his quarters and shuffled into the lavatory.  The stress of the last few hours began to manifest into a headache.  The personal medkit would have an analgesic to suppress the throbbing pressure slowly mounting in his temples.
     All senior officers: be advised that a meeting has been scheduled in the main conference room at 1930 hours.  Your attendance is required to discuss Lieutenant Torres' analysis of the probe fragments.  Chakotay, out.
     Tom sighed with relief and injected the hypospray into the side of his neck.  That would be enough time for the analgesic to kick in.  He went to the bedroom and gingerly lay down on the mattress.  "Computer, set a meeting reminder for 1830 hours, standard alarm parameters."  That would give him enough time to rouse and prepare for the meeting.  The analgesic also contained a mild sedative; a short rest would help to calm him down.  As sleep began to overtake him, he idly wondered when he would wake up from this nightmare of assignments.

     Lmm-tmmmn prrrs hzzm-tmmn m-tnn mn-nss.
     Barely aware of the sound tickling his ears, Tom stirred from a deep sleep.  He rolled over, eyes closed and semi-conscious, listening for the source of the noise.  The room was quiet save for the sound of his own breathing.  Slumber lured him back.
     Lieutenant Paris has a meeting in five minutes.
     He yawned and stretched.  This time he knew he heard the computer's synthetic voice.  He leaned up against the edge of the mattress, still groggy from the sedative.  He stretched again, trying to shake off the last vestiges of sleep.  The headache was completely gone, for which he was grateful.  He'd have one less problem to worry about at the meeting....
     The rush of adrenaline completely roused Tom.
     Somehow anticipating the question, the computer made the announcement.  Lieutenant Paris has a meeting in three minutes.
     "Damn it," he muttered.  The sedative had worked too well.  If he hurried he might still make the meeting on time.  He made a sprint for the door.  A second too late he remembered that the security lock was still active.  Tom fell to the floor with a grunt of pain.
     "Ow!  Son of a bitch!"  He picked himself up and rubbed the sore spot where his pride was wounded.  Hobbling to the control panel Tom disengaged the security lock.  He looked down at his rumpled tunic and cursed again.  He'd be late enough already without changing his uniform.  He hastened to the conference room as quickly as possible.
     "...the Alpha Quadrant."
     Tom felt all eyes upon him as he entered.  Even B'Elanna, who was already giving her report, turned her head around.  He held up his hands apologetically as he sidestepped his way to a vacant chair.  "Sorry."
     He caught a glimpse of Chakotay's face when he sat down.  Oh, yes, Tom was going to get a lecture when this was over.  He put the thought aside and tried to focus on the discussion.  Something about a Cardassian weapon from the Alpha Quadrant?  The adrenaline rush was wearing off and his eyes got heavy again.  He struggled to keep up.
     "We nicknamed it Dreadnought: it's a self-guided tactical missile carrying a charge of a thousand kilos of matter and another thousand of anti-matter."
     The numbers didn't compute fast enough in Tom's head, but the conclusion would have been no less chilling than Tuvok's pronouncement.  "Enough to destroy a small moon."  All fatigue fled from Tom's body.
     "Now add to that one of the most sophisticated computers systems I've ever seen," B'Elanna said.  "They made this missile adaptable, evasive, armed with its own defensive weaponry; in other words, unstoppable."
     "So how did you stop it?" Neelix asked.
     Chakotay answered.  "We didn't.  It got through all our defences.  It worked like it was supposed to, except for one minor detail: it didn't go off."
     "Leave it to the Cardassians to build such an incredibly advanced tactical weapon and then arm the warhead with an old kinetic detonator."  B'Elanna's voice seemed to carry a note of disgust.
     "The missile skipped off into the atmosphere and quietly went into orbit," Chakotay said.
     "I got inside it and reprogrammed the computer."  B'Elanna chuckled.  "Hell, I didn't just reprogram it, I changed its identity.  I made it forget about being Cardassian; now it was working for the Maquis."
     Tom looked at the engineer with an even greater respect.  It must have taken her days to circumvent the missile's security and then install the new operating system.
     "We gave it a new mission, to destroy the Cardassian fuel depot on Aschelan V," Chakotay continued, "but it never made it out of the Badlands.  We thought it had been destroyed in one of the plasma storms."
     The captain, quiet until now, cut right to the chase.  She asked B'Elanna if the missile could be located.
     "Dreadnought masks its warp trail with a randomized EM field, but I can modify our navigational sensors to cut through that."
     "And what are we going to do with it once we find it?" Tom asked.  It was bad enough playing hide and seek with an intelligent tool of mass destruction, he didn't much like the idea of changing the game to phaser tag.
     "I get back inside it.  I know all its security codes, I installed them myself."
     Which meant B'Elanna would be able to shut it down and they could safely disarm the warhead.  The captain nodded.  "Lieutenant Paris can assist you with the navigational sensors.  Keep me informed.  Dismissed."
     Tom fell into step behind B'Elanna, but Chakotay cut him off before he could exit the room.  "Lieutenant?"
     From the corner of his eye Tom noticed that the captain had stopped and was watching the exchange.  She probably wanted to be nearby in case Tom decided to start an incident.  At the moment he wasn't sure if he would.
     "I expect everyone to show up for meetings on time and properly dressed."
     Tom opened his mouth to explain the honest reason for his tardiness.  Then he stopped.  He grinned at the irony.  The last time Tom planned to violate the dress code Chakotay had showed up at his quarters to provide private counsel and effectively pre-empted the attempt.  This time was an honest and unfortunate accident and the commander was giving him shit for it.  The universe has a strange way of balancing things out.
     He decided that it wasn't yet time to make a scene.  "Yes, sir," he said, a touch defiantly.  Then he sidestepped Chakotay and let the commander question Tom's increasingly rebellious disposition.

     Tom checked the latest results of the navigational sensors.  "There's still a lot of distortion in the upper frequencies."  A couple of feet away, B'Elanna tapped in some commands.  His console beeped agreeably as the readouts changed.  "Better.  Now let's try filtering out the ion radiation."
     He waited a few moments but the figures didn't change.  He looked over his shoulder.  The engineer appeared to stare blankly at her console.  "B'Elanna?"
     She startled at the mention of her name, and punched the bulkhead.  He walked over to make the new modification.  "You must be really worried about catching this thing."
     Her eyes fixed upon her tricorder.  Passion bled from her voice.  "Chakotay wasn't telling the whole truth.  We didn't send Dreadnought on a mission against the Cardassians.  I was the one who sent it."
     Tom nodded.  Her frustration was beginning to make sense.  She felt responsible.
     "Without asking him."
     Ah.  It was more than feeling responsible.  Maybe there was a little regret thrown in.  "You were afraid he'd say no."
     She nodded hesitantly.  Sighing, she lowered her tricorder and looked up at him.  "After I did it he pulled me aside and I was ready to defend myself.  I was so sure that I had anticipated everything that could possibly go wrong.  I even programmed it to warn Federation ships to stay out of its way in my own voice."
     "Your voice?"
     B'Elanna smiled.  "Listening to that Cardassian computer's voice was driving me crazy."
     Tom laughed.  "I don't blame you."
     "Anyway, Chakotay looked at me - I didn't know him very well yet - and all he said, in that damn soft voice of his, was that I'd hurt him, that he thought he'd earned my trust and loyalty."  Her voice became softer, more fragile.  "I was so glad when it disappeared into the Badlands.  I remember thinking, 'Thank God, it's over.'  But it's not.  And if anything happens here because of Dreadnought, it's my fault, no one else's."
     The last time Tom saw B'Elanna look so vulnerable was in the Vidiian mining compound.  They couldn't afford to have her doubting herself at such a critical time.  "You took a risk.  You were thinking like a Maquis.  That was a whole different life."
     She laughed ruefully.  "Tell me about it."
     She needed a distraction.  "You know, I've been surprised at how well you've been able to fit in here.  A little envious, too."  He stepped away to look at the sensor readings, but he'd caught her attention.
     "Tom, what's been going on with you lately?"
     "Going on?  How?"
     "People are starting to talk."
     "Are they?"  He turned around.  "People like who, Chakotay?"
     "No, I mean people like me.  Like today: look at yourself."  Tom followed her pointing hand to his wrinkled tunic.  "And coming to a briefing late?  And is it true that you got into a fight with Lieutenant Rollins?"
     Tom laughed.  He'd wondered when someone would bring that up; the stories had been circulating for days.  "The lieutenant was unhappy that my conn report wasn't punctuated properly according to Starfleet protocol."  His arms crossed over his chest.  "I didn't like his attitude."
     B'Elanna ignored his bluster.  "Was he right about your conn report?"
     "We're in the Delta Quadrant, nowhere near Starfleet.  What diff-"  He stopped himself.  He was arguing the pointlessness of adhering to protocol with a former Maquis loyalist, one whom hadn't seen much value in it at the start of their tour.  She had accepted it, though.  Anything he came up with wouldn't hold water with her.  "Yeah, he was right.  I'm the one who's been wrong, wrong about a lot of things."  He walked back to his original workstation, paying no attention to B'Elanna's scrutiny.  "Why don't we try running a multiphasic sweep?"

     Warning: self-destruct sequence has been initiated.  Warp core overload in eleven minutes.
     Tom's jaw clenched at the computer's repeated message, a reminder of how badly their mission was proceeding.  The only successful part was finding Dreadnought; since then the missile's artificial intelligence had thwarted their every attempt at disarming it.  Worse, Dreadnought was convinced that it was still in the Alpha Quadrant and had located Aschelan V - dire news to the people of the Rakosan home world.  Worse still, B'Elanna was on board the missile, cut off from all contact with Voyager.  They couldn't even beam her out because of Dreadnought's dampening field.
     So it came to pass that Captain Janeway was in full pursuit of Dreadnought, intent on saving a planet-full of innocents with the sacrifice of her own ship.  Most of the crew were already evacuated; only the people on the bridge remained.  Tom had set aside his 'bad boy' persona for the last hour or so, since the time Dreadnought had fooled B'Elanna into thinking that it had been shut down.  Too many lives were at stake at the moment, and despite whatever else might be said about him Tom wasn't about to be known as dispassionate.
     "Captain, I've broken through the interference," Harry said with hope rising.  "I'm not sure how, we have communications.  Checking our transporter signal...I have a lock on her."
     The captain fairly sprinted across the bridge to Ops.  "Voyager to Torres."
     Yes, Captain?  B'Elanna sounded tired, overexerted.
     "I need to get you out of there," the captain said urgently.  "We're abandoning Voyager.  I'm going to overload the warp core in the missile's flight path."
     I may be able to detonate the warhead from here by breaching the containment field.  Tom could hear B'Elanna struggle for oxygen.
     "Can you get access to the core?" the captain asked.
     I'm already in it.  The sound of a phaser added to the background.  I'm using my phaser to burn through the magnetic constrictor casing now.  She was breathing hard now, audible to all on the bridge including the captain.
     "Are you all right, B'Elanna?"
     Fine.  The air's just a little thin in here.
     "Keep me advised.  Janeway, out."  The sound of B'Elanna's phaser and her laboured breathing disappeared.  "Mr. Kim, transfer control to the conn and report to your escape pod."
     "That's a direct order to all of you," she said, cutting off Harry's protest.  "Mr. Paris, I'm relieving you."
     Tom felt her presence over his shoulder, reluctant to give up his post.  It didn't feel right to bail out on her, not after all she had done for him.  She could still use a good pilot; the helm controls were not quite up to full repair yet.
     "Now," she demanded.  Apparently her patience was running thin.
     Tom bit his tongue and let her take possession of his throne.  "The starboard thrusters are a little sluggish, ease into them."
     She settled in, not looking much out of place at the helm of her own ship.  "Understood."
     Tom started for the turbolift but didn't make it farther than a step.  He couldn't let that be the last thing he said to her.  Captain Kathryn Janeway had given him back a purpose and meaning to his life.  "Captain?"
     She looked up expectantly, her face taut with stress.
     "Thanks for everything."
     The lines in her face smoothed out.  She nodded, short but poignant.
     Satisfied, Tom executed her order and joined Harry and Ensign Ashmore in the nearest turbolift, the last team to leave the bridge.  Ashmore did not hide her dislike of his presence.
     Warning: self-destruct sequence has been initiated.  Warp core overload in seven minutes.
     The trio sprinted for the escape pods.  Tom noticed that Tuvok had lingered on the bridge and wondered if the Vulcan was also making a bid to remain on board.  If the captain had any sense she'd kick him off the ship as well.  The last time Tom had checked only three people including him knew the details concerning his covert mission, and the other two were still on the bridge of a starship that was ready to self-destruct.
     Off his shoulder, Harry matched him stride for stride.  The young ensign still had not succumbed to the mistrust that many on the ship had readily accepted.  At this point it was about the only motivation Tom had left to endure his assignment.  As long as Harry kept faith in his friend, Tom could work on rebuilding his trust with the others.
     They reached the access corridor, the broken seal of an airlock hatch giving evidence of the earlier team's evacuation.  Tom stopped at the next adjacent hatch and entered his clearance code.  The airlock released with a mechanical clatch and lowered to the bulkhead floor to serve as a ramped entrance to the pod.  "After you, Ensign," he addressed Ashmore, flourishing a gesture through the airlock.  Ashmore glared at him but said not a word as she climbed the ramp.  Harry followed in her wake and Tom brought up the rear.
     Warning: self-destruct sequence has been initiated.  Warp core overload in five minutes.
     Few words were spoken while they strapped in.  Harry, having assumed the control centre, put in the necessary command sequences.  Magnetic seals fell quickly into place and in a sudden burst of compressed gases the pod was jarred free of Voyager.  Tom let out a tense breath once Harry got the turbulence under control.  From his vantage point he was able to see Voyager diminish into a sliver of white almost masked by the enormous blue-green disc that was the Rakosan planet.
     His pulse quickened.  Of course he felt concern for the well-being of the Rakosans, but Tom also worried about B'Elanna, still struggling for oxygen in a battle of wills against Dreadnought.  He worried whether Tuvok had found another escape pod or stayed behind with the captain.  He worried whether or not the captain would stop the missile in time, and if the price of success would involve the supreme sacrifice.  Tom hoped for the best but his optimism ticked away with each second that passed.
     He looked over at Ensign Ashmore and also worried about his own situation as she forced her gaze in any direction but his.  There were over 150 other people that felt the way she did, all for a hopeless cause.  Tom would no longer need to bother continuing his assignment with Voyager gone.  He would have to brief Chakotay, though, as dictated by the modified chain of command.  It probably wouldn't be well received given the amount of antagonism Tom had heaped upon him.
     A chilling though occurred to him: what if Chakotay didn't believe him?  The notion wasn't far fetched.  Without Tuvok and the captain to back up his claims Tom had only his word to offer, and he'd certainly fed the first officer enough stories over the last four weeks to make him skeptical of anything that came out of the pilot's mouth.
     A yellow-white light blossomed and waned in front of the blue disc.  The appearance of Rakosa remained unblemished.  It was a bittersweet moment for Tom; two million people had been saved, but three had been lost and more than likely the crusade to return home had perished with them.  He turned away from the view port, stricken with despair.
     He wondered if the Rakosan space corp would consider hiring him as a flight instructor.
     "Tell me I'm not seeing things," Harry said suddenly.
     Tom pulled his head up, seeing the two ensigns staring wide eyed out the port.  Shifting his gaze, he saw and understood.
     "I see it too," an awed Ashmore answered.
     "Voyager," Tom said.  An incredulous laugh choked its way out.  "B'Elanna did it; she breached Dreadnought's core."
     The comm system crackled to life.  This is Captain Janeway to all escape pods.  I'm pleased to report that Lieutenant Torres successfully destroyed Dreadnought before it could detonate.  We were able to beam her back aboard the ship and she is recovering in Sickbay.  Lieutenant Tuvok and I are now on our way back to retrieve the escape pods.  Everyone, just sit tight and relax.  You'll be home soon.
     Shouts and cheers emerged on the comm line, joined in chorus by the din inside the pod as Harry and Ashmore celebrated.  Tom let out a whoop of his own, allowing the moment to soak in.  Once the tractor beam had them it would be back to business.  As relieved as he was to see Voyager, he was all too aware that this moment of camaraderie was fleeting.  Just as Ashmore's smile faltered when her eyes met his.

On to Chapter 7...

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