Romancing the Stone: Stage I

"Breaking Ground"

Darrel W. Beach

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


     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 euphoria.
     "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 twenty-five minutes!"
     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 navigation panel.
     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 uncomfortable atmosphere.
     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 quarters.
     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 uncertainly.
     "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 reduce velocity."
     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 judgement!"
     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 co-ordinates."

     "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 costly mistake.
     "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 divulge.
     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 last detail.
     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 question?"
     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 brain?"

     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 stories.
     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 answered.
     "Right, right.  The accident."  Tom took in and released another breath and resumed.

On to Chapter 7...

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