Romancing the Stone: Stage I

"Breaking Ground"

Darrel W. Beach

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


     Tom awoke to find himself in a small room sprawled on a bed.  He had no idea how long he had been out.  "Quite a sedative," he remarked to himself.  He righted himself rather gingerly in search of a mirror.  The only one in plain sight hung over the dressing table at the far side of the room.  He flinched as he swung his legs over the side of the bed and pushed himself to his feet.  Despite all their breakthrough medical technology, they had yet to come up with a way to heal broken bones without the complimentary tenderness.  At least his head no longer ached.  Tom looked at his image in the mirror's reflective surface, running a hand through his hair across the temple.  The cut had been mended efficiently, but the regenerated nerves in his skin still tingled.
     An orderly entered the room on rounds, brightening considerably upon spotting Tom up and about.  "Good morning, sir!  How are we feeling?"
     "Uh, fine, thanks for asking."  He stood there, befuddled.
     The orderly smiled.  "Good!  I'll inform Dr. Ellis that you're awake."
     Tom just smiled at her as she turned and left the room.  He had absolutely no idea what to say or do.  He had fallen asleep on the Kolyma shortly after writing his disquisition of the shuttle accident. His eyes bugged.  "The padd!"  He searched the room with a glance, looking to spot the data padd resting on one of the end tables or the bureau.  He couldn't locate it.  He then actively searched for it, rifling through drawers and such.  "No...oh, has to be here somewhere...this can't be happening, not now!"
     "Lose something, Lieutenant?" the geologist queried curiously.
     Tom jumped to attention so hard he almost threw himself to the floor and winced as his ribs protested to the jarring manoeuvre.  Preoccupied with the search, Tom had failed to notice Dr. Ellis' arrival.  "Dr. Ellis!  I was just...that is, I -"  How on could earth could he explain that the padd was missing or misplaced and that he had no idea where to find it?
     "Could it have been this, I wonder?" he posed, holding up a padd previously concealed behind his back, and grunted in amusement.  "Sorry for startling you like that.  Nurse Young delivered your report to me yesterday.  How are you feeling, Lieutenant?"
     Tom didn't know whether to feel relief for finding the padd or indignation of having been scared out of his wits.  He exhaled the breath he had been holding.  "A little sore around the middle, sir, but nothing I can't handle."
     Ellis grinned and patted him on the shoulder.  "Good, good."  He shifted the padd into his field of vision, his crooked grin fading in the presence of more serious material.  "I take it this statement is final?" he asked sombrely.
     Tom felt a ragged stone lodge in his throat and did his best not to let it show.  "Uh, something wrong with it, sir?"
     The older man appeared to roll a comment around in his mouth as he inspected the padd's information, his lips bunching and tightening into odd expressions, before he finally spoke.  "Hm, no.  Your report seems to be quite thorough.  I only wish we could have retrieved something from the runabout's computer.  The crew in the maintenance bay are jumping like bullfrogs to find a more recent flight plan and maintenance report for the Fraser.  The only thing they have so far is a maintenance checklist from four months ago, and they insist there wasn't anything wrong with the runabout.  I'd feel a whole lot better if we had more information to corroborate your testimony."  He looked back up at Tom.  "If you wouldn't mind, Lieutenant, I'd like you to come to my office.  I want to put the proper authorization on your report before I send it to Admiral Karr - he'll be presiding over the hearing, by the way."
     Tom could feel butterflies in his stomach.  It could simply be a case of hunger, but he supposed there was a little more to it.  Putting a seal of confirmation on a bogus report probably had that kind of effect on a person.  "Okay.  I'll just put on my uniform, sir.  If you'll excuse me."
     The doctor smiled.  "Of course."  He unobtrusively slipped out of the room.  Tom made a quick change of clothes and joined the older man in the hallway.
     Walking down the quiet hallway, Tom brooded sullenly about the unfolding events.  Naturally, Starfleet would conduct a formal hearing into the matter, even just for the sake of formality.  After a few minutes he grew uneasy with the silence.  "They couldn't find anything salvageable at all?" he idly asked.
     "Nothing," the doctor frowned.  An old, tired sigh escaped him, and suddenly he aged fifteen years.  "Such a tragedy, losing those three.  Mek and Ianna Pulito showed real promise in terrestrial earth sciences.  I was even going to recommend that Ensign Pulito be assigned to the Cartier when they commission it next year.  And Ensign Fuller - well, Marnie.  She had a bright career ahead of her.  One of the best assistants I've ever had the pleasure to employ."
     The first little flicker of guilt began to burn in the base of Tom's skull, although he didn't fully recognize it just yet.  "Yes, she was certainly a special person all right, and she'll be dearly missed.  They all will, sir."  Thankfully, they finally reached Dr. Ellis' office.
     It only took a few short moments for Tom to commit the act, with Ellis' temporary assistant serving as witness.  The notion of perjury already disconcerted him, but with an impartial observer involved Tom felt like a cornered animal, trapped and unable to defend himself.
     Without delay, Dr. Ellis opened a communications channel to Admiral Karr.  Apparently, the admiral had taken passage on the U.S.S. Valiant for the purpose of attending a conference on Altima II.  Being in the vicinity of the Caldek system, the higher-ups at Starfleet Headquarters deemed it affordable to divert the admiral to Caldek Prime.  Dr. Ellis' display terminal flickered to life, centred on the peppery haired profile of Admiral Karr.  "Ah, hello again, Dr. Ellis.  Do you have that report for me yet?" he asked brusquely.
     He's nothing if not direct, Tom speculated.  "Indeed I do, Admiral," the doctor replied.  "That's actually the reason why I contacted you."  He transmitted the document across the channel.  "In fact, I also have the officer who wrote the report with me, Lieutenant Thomas Paris."
     "Let me see him," the admiral ordered.  Tom's courage fell into the pit of his stomach as Dr. Ellis swivelled the display to face him.  "You certify the veracity of this report, Lieutenant?"
     "Yes, sir," he responded automatically.  If he paused to think about what he was doing, he would have stumbled.
     Admiral Karr nodded crisply.  "Good.  That should speed things up considerably.  I don't plan on being late for that conference."
     "Admiral, just how long are you planning to stop here for?" the doctor inquired, swinging the screen back into his visual field.
     "No longer than I have to, doctor," he answered curtly.  "If you want an approximate figure, no more than twelve hours."
     Ellis looked about as shocked as Tom himself felt.  "That's certainly isn't very long, Admiral.  When were you planning to convene the hearing?"
     "Well, the Valiant is due to reach orbit of Caldek Prime in about an hour," he stated, pausing to check the chronometer.  "We should commence the proceedings fifteen minutes after that, unless there's some valid reason why we shouldn't.  Can either of you provide such a reason?"
     Tom exchanged looks with the geology professor.  "I suppose not," Ellis said at last.
     Admiral Karr almost allowed a hint of a smile to appear.  "Excellent.  I'll contact you when the Valiant establishes orbit.  Admiral Karr, out."  The channel closed just as abruptly.
     Tom searched for the archaic expression that described how he felt at that moment.  Oh, yes, now I remember.  'Railroaded'.  If there was a positive to this, however, at least the ordeal would be over quickly.

     'Quick' was an understatement, an inadequate descriptor for the proceedings.  Admiral Karr walked into the conference room and took the centre seat of the head table.  "Before we start, I want to inform you all that I've read all the reports pertaining to this investigation, so there's no need to give me verbatim descriptions a second time.  In the sake of keeping this short, simply present a summary of your statements.  I'm sure we'll all be happier to get this over with as soon as possible."
     Tom looked at Admiral Karr blankly and blinked.  Man, I knew that admirals tried to keep the red tape down to a minimum whenever they could, but this guy is something else.  That conference must really be important to him.
     The hearing couldn't have lasted more than twenty minutes in full.  The rushed proceedings clearly miffed chief maintenance engineer, but even given the proper amount of time he wouldn't have been any happier.  His staff failed to locate any flight plans or repair schedules recent enough to invalidate Tom's claim that a faulty plasma conduit had been the primary cause of the runabout crash.  Tom felt as though he was participating in a kangaroo court rather than an official inquest.
     "Lieutenant Paris, it is my decision that this accident occurred through circumstances beyond your control, and therefore you will not be subject to penalty," decreed Admiral Karr.  "A note of this incident will be added to your service record, in which I will submit that you receive commendation for outstanding performance in the course of duty.  This hearing is adjourned."
     By the time the admiral's verdict had finally registered, Tom found himself in an empty conference room.  He had done it.  He had just gotten away with crashing a runabout.  And he was going to be decorated for it as well.  He could hardly believe it.  Tom traced a memory back to the runabout just after the crash, recalling the sorry state of the computer systems.  That was the only thing that had saved him.  Without the sensor logs or the flight plans, there was no reason to question what had happened.  He wouldn't have given one to a million odds that anything like that would ever occur again.
     It still bothered him that he had just lied to an admiral of Starfleet before an official inquest.  He thought he could handle it, though, put it behind him.  After all, his career, his reputation was on the line.  To anyone else that would sound like an incredibly selfish reason to commit perjury, but the Paris family prized their tradition of distinctive service in Starfleet.  His ancestral lineage carried seven generations of decorated and dedicated officers.  The way Tom saw it, his place in that order seemed only a natural progression.  His father also saw it that way - his only son, following in the footsteps of many Paris men and women who bore the Starfleet emblem with pride and honour.  This was not a trivial matter.
     Ultimately Tom decided to suppress the issue, hoping that somehow the problem would go away as long as he didn't dwell upon it.  For a while, it appeared to work; he began to feel more like his old self as he charmed his way around a few attractive single women in the cafeteria at supper.  Unfortunately, the problem resurfaced later that evening.  As Tom prepared to turn the bed down for the night a display terminal alerted him to an incoming transmission.  The worry-lined face of Admiral Owen Paris greeted him.
     "Dad?" a surprised lieutenant responded.  Since his graduation from the academy, Tom seldom communicated with his father.  Admiral Paris' position at Starfleet headquarters demanded a great amount of his time and resources.  If anyone from his family called him, it was almost always his mother.
     "Thomas," greeted the admiral.  "I called as soon as I could when I found out.  How are you, son?"
     Tom puffed some air through pursed lips.  Understandably, his father would be the first one to hear about the accident, working at Starfleet headquarters.  "Fine, Dad.  A little shaken, but fine.  How's Mom taking it?"
     "I haven't called her yet, Tom.  I wanted to check with you first and see that you were doing all right.  You know how she worries about you and your sisters."
     Tom smiled fondly and snorted a laugh.  "Yeah, I do.  Well, you can tell her not to worry.  I was lucky enough to walk away with a few cracked ribs and a bump on the head."  The smile died.  "Wish I could say the same for the other three, though."
     The admiral noticed the twinge of regret.  "I know, Tom," he commiserated.  "It's tough losing people under your watch.  It's happened to me, too, many times.  Let me tell you, son, it doesn't get any easier, but you have to work through it.  A crew must be alert and focused at a moment's notice, or things can go wrong.  Now I'm not saying you should ignore your grief, son.  The best officers aren't the ones who bottle up their emotions.  You have to prioritize.  Put your grief into the context of your career.  Mourn for them on your own terms, and in your own time; you can't put your life on hold while you mourn for theirs.  There are going to be times when you and your shipmates will be faced with a crisis, and people will die.  It is those times when you'll be depended on, and you can't afford to be distracted."
     Tom grimaced.  His father meant to console him with those words, but they instead served to remind Tom of how his inattentiveness led to the crash.  "I guess so.  It's just, well, I feel guilty about the whole thing."
     "Guilty?" puzzled Admiral Paris.
     "I, uh," Tom writhed under his skin.  He desperately wanted to confide in his father, tell him about Admiral Karr and the ruling and the commendation he would most likely receive.  Somehow it didn't feel like the right time.  "You know, being the only survivor.  How fair is that to the other three people in the runabout?  I mean, I was the one flying it.  I was responsible for the crash."
     The admiral frowned, clearly upset by what his son told him.  "I will not sit here and listen to you question what happened.  How you can hold yourself responsible for a malfunction beyond your control is beyond me.  The Thomas Eugene Paris I raised wouldn't cower behind self pity and doubt.  He always recognized the limits of his abilities, drew a distinction between what he could handle and what he couldn't."
     The admiral's expression softened at Tom's look of turmoil.  "I know, son.  I wasn't there, but according to your report there was no way you could have averted the conduit explosion that killed those two ensigns.  Nor could you have prevented Ensign Fuller's fatal injuries in the crash; the moment she fell out of her chair her chances of survival were severely diminished.  I'm certain that all three of them wouldn't want you to punish yourself for something that was out of yours hands."
     Tom's insides withered.  "But, Dad, I -"
     "No 'buts', son," his father interrupted gruffly.  "I don't want to hear any more excuses.  I taught you better than that."
     Tom sighed, exasperated.  He couldn't confess now even if he wanted to.  To his father, the conversation had ended.  "Yes, sir."
     "That's my boy."  Admiral Paris softened his expression.  "Now you take it easy, son: your mother and I will want you in the best of health for your homecoming party when you return to Earth," he added with a cheerful wink.
     Tom felt as hollow as the smile on his face.  "Sounds great, Dad.  I'll see you then."
     "Good night, son."  The subspace link winked out of existence, leaving the monocrystal display as dark as Tom's spirits.  His decision to uphold a false testimony seemed much less clear-cut now.  How ironic that his feelings of doubt should surface after talking to his father, considering the admiral was one of the main reasons why he'd done it in the first place.  Preserving his service record and the legacy of his family name had once seemed the most important goal in his life.  To protect that goal at the cost of his moral integrity - Tom didn't know if he could live with that.
     Tom felt a hot, tickling itch spreading from the back of his neck.  He scratched it, but with little relief.  Perhaps he had developed a rash of some kind, although he had little idea how.  Physically and emotionally spent, Tom retired for the night.

On to Chapter 9...

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