Romancing the Stone: Stage I

"Breaking Ground"

Darrel W. Beach

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


     The runabout cruised along the valley floor, hugging the undulating terrain.  Tom sat and gloated in silence as he counted off the seconds remaining before they reached the landing site, at ease with his success in showing up Ensign Fuller.  'Distracted' indeed: if anything, that lapse of concentration in the asteroid field only helped focus his attention for the flight through the mountains.
     Flying through the mountains proved to be a great challenge. It made him appreciate those extra hours of holodeck time he spent practising non-computer aided flying.  His academy classmates laughed at him for wasting time better spent on studying astrophysics, as the practical application of dead reckoning was relatively minute.  Today, though, he would get the last laugh.  With the high levels of interference the sensors' range was minimal; even this close to the planet's surface they were only marginally effective past fifty metres.  With the runabout traversing over eighty-three metres a second, he may as well have been flying blind.
     Tom glanced briefly at Ensign Fuller's map and their current position.  "Landing co-ordinates 750 metres and closing," Tom reported, preparing for final approach.  His eyes then darted over to the navigation controls as his fingers danced across the interface.  He didn't even have time to look up when the telemetry grid went hot.
     It took no time at all, but to Tom it seemed like hours.  There in front of the ship stood a ragged sheet of rock.  It discordantly pierced the smooth ground, an unsightly aberration disrupting the calm waves of the terrain.  Its presence took Tom completely by surprise.  The outcropping seemed to have appeared from out of nowhere, cleverly shrouded by surrounding plateaux and cliffs like a sniper manning a deadly vigil.
     Instinctively Tom slammed his hand down on the attitude controls in an effort to pull the craft up, as if the computer could translate the urgency of the blow into a faster response.  Unfortunately, the LCARS interface was not designed for that type of input.
     The Fraser did start to lift.  The nose of the craft only just cleared the obstacle, but the starboard nacelle did not have sufficient clearance to avoid one of the stone's rough edges.  The rock cut a groove into the nacelle housing at the point of contact, then punctured its way through as it reached the structurally weakened area.  The casing breached, the rock continued to tear a hole in the duranium alloy for another thirty-six millimetres.  At that point the inertial stress ripped the rest of the housing from the nacelle.
     Inside the cabin, Tom clutched desperately at the panel in front of him as the turbulence threatened to throw him from his seat.  Caught unawares, Marnie screamed as she crashed to the floor.  She landed roughly, hitting her head and her elbow on the deck plate.  "Shit!" Tom yelled, stabbing frantically at the controls in an effort to keep the runabout aloft.  The controls, however, did not co-operate.  The ship banked left from the impact and dove for the ground.  The port side bounced hard off the rock, tilting the craft back to starboard where the exposed nacelle lay.  The speed and force of the impact demolished the components made vulnerable by the bare portion of the nacelle.  Even worse, one of the plasma conduits, rather than being shredded open by the contact with the surface, was pinched off.  The plasma, with nowhere to go, backed up the conduit until the pressure forced a rupture.  It couldn't have ruptured in a worse place.

     Mek slumped in his seat at the conference table, unhappy with the course of events that had befallen their mission thus far.  Already they were over half an hour behind schedule, and now they were at the whims of a temperamental pilot.  He imagined the lieutenant would somehow manage to screw up their survey as well, that's how smoothly things were going.
     He disliked Tom Paris, simple as that.  Ever since that first stunt in the asteroid field, he knew the pilot would be trouble.  Tom both commanded and demanded attention.  The lieutenant knew the people in his company regarded him as a virtuoso, and he wouldn't be satisfied until everyone else acknowledged him for it as well.  That made him dangerous, unbelievably talented or not.
     "Mek, lighten up," scolded Ianna.  "Lieutenant Paris knows what he's doing."
     "Are you sure of that?" he shot back.  "Didn't you notice how the runabout was rocking like a see-saw just a few minutes ago?  If you ask me, I think he's slipped a screw or something."
     Ensign Pulito frowned.  "I'm sure there's a completely rational explanation for that.  Really, Mek; you worry too much.  He'll make sure we land safely: that's his job."
     The Bolian started a reply but was cut off by the sound of an explosion, accompanied by what felt like a sudden earthquake.  Pulito fell to her knees.  "Shit!" Mek cried as he pitched backward with his chair.  Then the tremors subsided.
     Mek managed to roll to his knees.  "What the -" he started before the runabout lurched again.  Something was terribly wrong: he could hear the shrieking of metal, feel the deck plates buckling underneath him.  I knew he'd find a way to screw up this mission.  It was Mek's last thought before the wall panel in front of him burst open with a shower of blue-white flame.

     We're all going to die, Tom thought the moment he heard the plasma conduit in the aft chamber explode.  I've killed us.  God, what a stupid thing to do.  The helm grew increasingly unresponsive as systems failed.  Tom desperately tried shutting down the antimatter reactor and re-routing controls through backups, anything that would keep the ship from blowing up.  He also worked on re-obtaining command of thrusters.  The last thing he wanted was to hit the ground nose first: if the runabout flipped over now there wouldn't be anything left of them for identification.
     Somehow, miraculously, he kept the Fraser from somersaulting on the next touchdown.  The runabout bounced again, this time more level and not as damaging, but the impact still threatened to shake Tom's bones apart.  He ground his teeth and wondered how Marnie was faring through this.  All he'd heard was her scream and the thud of a body hitting the floor ever since they struck the outcropping.  However, he couldn't take his eyes off his panel to check.  "Marnie, you all right?" he shouted, looking for confirmation of her condition.  He heard no reply over the din of the emergency klaxons and grinding metal.  Tom surmised she fared no better than he.
     Indeed, Ensign Fuller fared worse.  Semi-conscious from the blow to her head, Marnie couldn't protect herself from the severe jostling of the cabin.  Each bump took its toll on her prone form, tossing it against the bulkheads, the deck plates, back and forth.  The buffeting resulted in numerous broken bones and severe contusions.  She might have survived to live a tortured existence, had it not been for the final collision.
     This time he saw it coming: with failing emergency power and a dead console before him, Tom had no other option but to sit and stare out the viewport.  Approaching rapidly, an embankment lay before them.  Friction slowed the Fraser's velocity as it threshed and skated along the hard surface.  Even so, the deceleration of the stop would be quite abrupt.  Tom assumed the standard crash position and closed his eyes.  It would be a miracle if he lived through this.  Sorry I didn't give you the chance to present me those captain's pips like we planned, Dad.  Looks like I really messed up my career.  Then everything went black.

     Tom stopped momentarily and tried forcing a large breath of air into his lungs.  His chest felt tight, aching in response to the intake of oxygen, and his eyes began tearing up reflexively.  He stemmed the impulse to blink hard and proceeded.  "The Fraser slammed into the embankment at twelve metres per second.  The nose seemed to retract into itself, crushing everything inside for a full three metres.  The rear of the craft vaulted upward, almost flipping over completely.  I lurched forward from the momentum, and despite my precautions I struck my head against the navigation panel.  Tragically, the momentum also picked up Ensign Fuller and hurled her against the forward viewport."  Gradually Tom's voice warbled and his face contorted as he forced out the next few words.  "She, uh...her head was pulverized against the transparent aluminum.  She...never had a chance." "My god," Harry murmured, his face ashen from hearing the grisly description.  B'Elanna sat there in shock.  Now didn't seem like the right time to ask how a piece of rock could have inflicted that much damage to a duranium hull.
     Leena felt more courageous, however.  While Tom painted an emotionally evocative picture, it shocked and appalled her that he had managed to perjure the entire incident.  She trembled, partly in grief for the deceased officers but mostly in fury.  She felt the sting of emotion tickling the back of her throat.  She swallowed it, though, determined to present an invulnerable figure to her nemesis.  "Lieutenant, forgive my bluntness here, but what on earth possessed you to lie about this?  Frankly, I'm surprised you even got away with it.  Didn't the investigators recover the sensor logs?"
     Tom cleared his throat.  "They tried.  Most of the data banks were wiped out, either crushed by the collision or fried by power surges.  They couldn't find anything incriminating enough to justify a court martial."
     "That still doesn't explain why you committed perjury," she challenged.
     "Well, that can be explained, Leena, if not excused," he defended.  "I suffered a concussion when my head hit the control panel.  I wasn't thinking at all clearly when I regained consciousness.  All I could remember was throwing away my career."

     The world slowly came back into focus.  Tom clutched his temple and grimaced; this was the worst hangover he'd ever experienced in his life.  His head ached and spun, creating a sense of vertigo that made him both sick and dizzy.  His mouth felt dry and his tongue felt like it had swelled to twice its size.  He didn't know where he was or how long he had been passed out.  Then he noticed he was touching something sticky on his temple.  He lowered his hand to take a look.  Blood.  Definitely not a hangover.  The pounding in his head must be a concussion then.
     Details of what happened languidly returned to him as his dizziness receded: Caldek Three, the survey mission, the runabout Fraser, the rock, the crash.  He survived the crash.  His father would be proud.  He looked up, squinting with pain, to the viewport.  Something had hit it hard; cracks radiated from an impact point.  It also left a wet mess behind it, streaking down the pane.  Tom followed it to where Ensign Fuller's broken body lay slumped over the console.  He felt the gorge rise in his throat: he didn't need to check for a pulse to realize that she was dead.  Oh.  That won't look good on my record, will it?  He swallowed uncomfortably to force the sick back into his stomach.
     Tom stewed there for a minute, wondering how he could fix this.  The circumstances of the accident were becoming clearer, and they increasingly threatened to curtail his Starfleet career.  His dad would not be happy.  Then he remembered Ensigns Mek and Pulito.  Fear gripped him: if either one of them had also survived his career would be finished!  He pulled himself up and hobbled his way to the aft section.
     His spirits lifted when he found the two ensigns in the conference room, charred and blistered.  He wouldn't have to worry about their incriminating disclosures.  Their deaths would have been quick, if not painless.  Looking at the blast hole in the wall, Tom remembered the explosion he'd heard and inspected the damage more thoroughly.  The ruptured plasma conduit gave him an idea, one that could probably exonerate him of any misdeed, but he would have to check the state of the computer banks.  Hopefully they would be irretrievable.
     Going back to the cockpit, Tom scuffled about the floor removing access panels.  The signs were encouraging.  Those he found were now nothing more than scrap material, a smoking mass of twisted metal and melted polymers.  He should have no trouble convincing his rescuers of a mechanical failure, and the thought eased his sense of nausea.  He climbed back into the pilot's seat and decided to take a nap.
     His nap didn't last too long.  Before he knew it people were clambering into the cockpit.  A medic stopped at his side and began looking for a pulse, but stopped when Tom groaned.  "Sir, he's conscious," he reported to someone behind him, and a shadow appeared over Tom.  He turned to look at its owner, Dr. Ellis.
     "My god, what happened here?" he asked.
     "I'm not sure," Tom replied, his voice fuzzy.  "All I recall is assuming a vectored approach to our landing site, then an explosion.  After that the controls started failing, and we flew into a rock.  I couldn't turn out of the way.  It felt like it hit the starboard side.  We bounced around for a bit, then slid into an embankment.  I don't remember anything after that."  His brow creased.  "The others, are they all right?"
     Dr. Ellis looked at him sadly.  "I'm sorry, Lieutenant.  You appear to be the only survivor."
     "Sir," the medic interrupted.  "The lieutenant appears to have sustained a concussion and a couple of cracked ribs.  He'll need to be transported to the medical facility back on Caldek Prime."
     "Considering what happened here, he's lucky that's all he's got.  At least we've got a lead to investigate here."  The doctor then addressed Tom.  "I look forward to reading your report, Lieutenant.  I want every detail of your flight from Caldek Prime."  He turned to look at what used to be Ensign Fuller, sorrow glistening in his eyes.
     "Yes, sir," he answered as he was escorted from the cockpit to the runabout Kolyma, though it was doubtful Dr. Ellis had heard him.
     "Here," stated the medic, pressing a hypospray into the side of his neck.  "This should relieve the headaches while we take off.  You might get a little sleepy, but that's normal."
     The throbbing in his head dissipated, and Tom felt like he could think clearly again.  "Thanks, doc.  I feel human again."  As they settled in for take-off, Tom acquired a data padd and began writing up a phony report of the accident.

On to Chapter 8...

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