Romancing the Stone: Stage I

"Breaking Ground"

Darrel W. Beach

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


     Tom fought panic as the runabout continued on its rocky descent.  He chewed his lip and flayed his fingers across the attitude controls.  The vessel resisted, bucking even harder against the turbulent atmosphere.  Tom couldn't understand why he couldn't manage the craft; the alarm klaxons warned him of trouble, but he couldn't get a clear reading from the controls.  Without warning, a console near the co-pilot's chair blew apart, throwing a shower of sparks and polyduranide across the cabin.  The pilot shielded his face from the flying debris and redoubled his efforts to keep the ship aloft.
     "Tom, do something!" Ianna shrieked from the aft cockpit.  "We're going to crash!"
     Tom slammed a fist on the panel in front of him.  "I'm trying!  The controls aren't responding."  Now smouldering, the co-pilot's console emitted an acrid, noxious smoke.
     "You and your stupid flying stunts!" an irate Mek bellowed.  "I knew you'd get us all killed.  This is all your fault, Paris!"
     Tom sputtered and choked on the polluted air as more consoles erupted with sparks and flame.  "No!  It was an accident, honest!  There was no way to avoid it in time."
     "That's a lie, and you know it," the Bolian charged.  "We wouldn't be in this mess if not for your selfishness.  We would never have been late for our rendezvous, and you wouldn't have been in such a rush to ground the ship."  The heat and fire swelled with the growing anger in the ensign's voice.  "You just had to show off one last time because you couldn't bear the thought of being seen as fallible."
     Tom's eyes watered, though not necessarily from the smoke.  "N-no...that's not true...not true...."
     "You would sit there and lie, even to yourself?"  Tom gagged, at last hearing the voice of Ensign Fuller.  It sounded marshy, wet - not the rich, clear timbre he'd fallen in love with.  "Is your career that important to you, that you'd deny responsibility for the lives you destroyed?  Why, Tom...why?  I thought I meant something to you."
     "I...didn't mean to, Marnie," Tom whimpered, his eyes stinging with tears.  "I swear, I never meant for it to happen."
     "Thanks, but you're a little late for apologies," Mek spat.  "It doesn't change the fact that we're dead, and that you're to blame.  You're an egoist: everyone you meet has to know how perfect you are.  Well, I've got news for you, Lieutenant: no one is perfect.  The more you deny your frailties, the more they can hurt you."  Mek pulled Tom from his seat and spun him around.  "See what happens when you disavow responsibility?"
     Tom recoiled in terror as he finally looked upon his passengers.  The three corpses he had left in the Fraser confronted him with the fire of life burning anew in their eyes.  His blood froze at the sight of Marnie's shattered frame.  A pair of eyes, bright green and filled with haunting agony, returned his stare from a face smashed beyond repair.  He tried to back away, but Mek's charred, blistered hand inexplicably held firm to his shoulder, the burnt flesh grotesquely crackling and crisping from Tom's resistance.
     "Say good night, Lieutenant," the Bolian jeered.  "Your time has just run out."
     Tom suddenly realized what Mek meant.  With no one at the controls, the runabout was plummeting nose-first toward the surface.  Tom twisted around and looked out the viewport in time to witness the runabout's impact with the ground -

     - and woke up with a start.  The last remaining images of the nightmare echoed in his mind, his heart pounding so hard he thought it would burst.
     He knew what the dream was telling him.  His conscience was overburdened with guilt, and retaliated in the only way it knew how.  Tom would never find solace unless he honoured the memories of Mek, Ianna and Marnie by confessing.  He reached for the comm line to the head desk.  "Nurse.  Nurse!" he barked.  "This is Lieutenant Paris.  Tell Dr. Ellis I need to talk to him right away."  Tom checked the chronometer.  "And see if you can get a hold of Admiral Karr on the U.S.S. Valiant, too.  Tell them it's urgent."

     Tom stopped and took a drink of his fruit juice.  The room was a dead calm, the three guests intensely focused on his saga.  Despite his emotional fatigue he had to stifle a grin.  He never thought the story of his defamation would generate so much interest.
     B'Elanna, characteristically impatient, finally broke the tense silence.  "Well, what happened?"
     Tom brushed away the perspiration from his forehead with a cloth napkin.  "Well, naturally Dr. Ellis and Admiral Karr were somewhat surprised when I admitted what happened.  To tell the truth, I think the doctor almost had a heart attack when I told him.
     "The admiral made a pretty quick ruling.  'For submitting a false report into an official investigation, disregarding proper safety protocols in the operation of a Starfleet flight craft, reckless endangerment of Starfleet personnel, committing perjury and three counts of manslaughter,' my position at the Caldek Training Centre was immediately terminated and I would be placed into a detention cell until the Valiant returned from the Altima conference.  I would then be transferred to Starbase 25 for arraignment.  Five days after Admiral Karr announced my sentence I was stripped of my rank and disgracefully discharged from service."
     Tired of wringing it in his hands, Tom tossed the napkin onto the table.  He smiled wistfully.  "In one week my life had gone from being on the rise to being completely destroyed.  What's more, I not only ruined my career but three others that hardly had a chance to go anywhere.  For months I kept going back to that day, when Marnie confided in me of her anticipated promotion, and beat myself up for taking that away from her.  I still don't think I've completely forgiven myself for that.
     "Then there was my dad.  My court-martial crushed his faith in me.  He was convinced that I had intentionally deceived him, too cowardly to face him.  As I'm sure I've mentioned, family pride means a lot to my father.  I shamed him by putting pride before duty and honesty.  I violated a sacred family trust, and for that I no longer deserved the Paris name.  I'd no longer be welcome to set foot in his home again.  That was the last time he ever spoke to me."
     "Tom, I'm sorry for you," Ensign Kim consoled.  "It must have been awful having to go through all that without the support of your family."
     "I managed.  It took me about six months before I even tried to make amends with my family, though.  I was mad at my father for being so unreasonable and for turning his back on me.  I was mad at Starfleet for taking away everything I had worked so hard to obtain.  I was even mad at myself for getting stuck in that situation in the first place.  Then I realized that he was right, I was a failure.  I didn't deserve his respect.  I had a chance to tell him and I folded.  I was just too hurt by his lack of support at the time to see it."
     "Tom, you're not being fair to yourself," the chief engineer admonished.  "Your father never gave you an opportunity to tell him what really happened.  You say he's a proud man, but it seems to me that your accomplishments meant more to him than your character.  He's not proud, Tom - he's prideful."

     By now Leena had become oblivious to the conversation.  Indeed, since hearing of Admiral Karr's sloppy handling of the inquest she had virtually tuned out.  The revelation that a Starfleet admiral would demonstrate such disregard for protocol appalled her.  Lt. Paris would likely have received a similar sentence anyway - he had still behaved deplorably and caused the deaths of three Starfleet officers - but she couldn't say for sure.  The lieutenant had been pressured into submitting a false document and subsequent false testimony because Admiral Karr couldn't be bothered to give the matter the proper attention.  Given the proper time, he might have had a chance to rescind the report before official proceedings occurred - if Tom Paris had as much conscience as he'd led them to believe.  She still couldn't ignore the possibility that he was merely spinning tales, attempting to pull the wool over her eyes, but this option seemed more and more unlikely as the evening wore on.  The fact that he had turned himself in even after he had gotten away with his atrocities suggested that he wasn't an entirely despicable person.
     Had she misjudged the navigator?  This notion struck a blow to her belief system.  She had condemned Tom Paris based on official records, only to discover that the records were not honestly manufactured by due process.  She had thought Starfleet to be a noble institution, a stabilizing force for the United Federation of Planets.  How could she maintain this faith when even the most influential members could be capable of serving their own personal agendas?  How could she ever trust her own judgements anymore?  She still didn't trust Tom Paris because of his allegiance with the Maquis, but his motives now seemed less devious, a by-product of situational factors rather than personality.  Leena returned her attention to the discussion; the matter confused her too much to try to deal with it at the moment.

     Tom smiled, a flash of his usually confident, merry self returning.  "Trust me, I've put it all behind me now.  I've learned that what's happened in the past is out of my hands, so I might as well live for today."
     A glint of humour appeared in B'Elanna's eyes as a grin pulled at the corner of her lips.  "Well, that certainly accounts for a lot, doesn't it?"
     Tom's smile grew wider.  "You bet it does.  Voyager has been the best thing ever to happen to me.  I have a new life, a lot of great friends, and a new respect for myself as a valuable contributing member of the captain's crew.  Right now I couldn't be happier."
     All three jumped at the dichotic sound of glass striking metal. Leena fumbled a bit trying to set her drink on the table.  Agitation blotted the skin on her face and hands.  "I have to go," she said bluntly, pushing herself away from the dining surface.  "Excuse me."  She retreated from Tom's quarters before anyone could say a thing.      "Huh."  Tom fingered his glass, continuing to stare at the entrance long after the doors had closed.  "How do you like that?  Didn't even stay long enough to thank me for breakfast."
     "Probably because she doesn't share your current outlook on life," Torres remarked.  "Not that I blame her; for a long while I wasn't too thrilled with being so far from home.  You think she would have adapted by now, though."
     "Well, whatever the reason, I'd say my plans are working.  She was pretty white there for the last bit there.  Maybe she realized I'm not all bad after all."
     "Maybe," the Klingon acquiesced.  "Then again, maybe she ate a bad asparagus and was too frightened by the thought of using the disaster area you call a bathroom."  Tom gave her a hurt look.
     "Tom, there's still one thing bothering me," Harry pondered, diverting the topic of conversation.  "If you listed in your report 'mechanical failure' as the cause of the crash, why did you tell me it was pilot error back when we first met?"
     The lieutenant laughed.  "I told you the truth back then, Harry.  It was pilot error."  He flashed a waggish grin.  "I made the mistake of not listening to Marnie's advice.  If I hadn't been so concerned over the damage that meteorite did to my self-esteem the accident would never have happened.  But like I said, there's no point in living in a world of 'what-if's.  To quote an archaic, if crude saying, 'Shit happens.'  Whatever happens, you just keep going; if you look back, you're liable to trip over your feet."  He sucked in a huge breath, refreshed and exhilarated.  "You know guys, I'm actually feeling better.  I'm glad I decided to do this, and I'm glad you guys were here to lend a hand."
     "Hey, anything for a friend in need," Harry quipped, giving the pilot a friendly slap on the shoulder.  "And thanks for sharing this with us Tom.  It's not often people, even friends, open themselves to others the way you did this evening."
     "Stop it, will ya, Harry?  You'll make a guy blush."  Tom glanced at the chronometer once more.  "And while we're still on the subject of sharing, would you be a pal and return Neelix's dinner cart to the mess hall for me?  I have to report for duty in ten minutes, and you know how my guest of honour feels about tardiness."
     "Sure thing, Tom" Harry chuckled, passing his soiled dished to the lieutenant.  "But you'll owe me for this."
     "Yeah, yeah, whatever.  Just help me load up the cart."

     There was no mistaking it now: there was something amiss with Calloway.  She was deliberately changing their work assignments to avoid him.  He thought it strange last night when she had him make rounds on Decks 7 and 8 by himself, even though her explanation that patrolling two different decks at once to make more efficient use of time sounded reasonable.  He found out the hard way a new reason why security teams always deployed in pairs: making rounds alone was incredibly tedious and boring.
     The second night mimicked the first, much to Tom's growing irritation.  He arrived at the office to find his schedule prepared on a padd and his so-called partner absent, a convenient and obviously premeditated method of avoiding confrontation.  He finally clued in what Leena was up to.  Tom paced down a corridor on Deck 5, tricorder in hand, searching for any and all signs of trouble and thinking about the motives for her current behaviour.  By lunchtime he determined to get the answer from the lieutenant herself.
     "Lieutenant, we need to talk," he announced as he put his tray opposite hers.
     Calloway dropped her head into her palm in defeat.  "I knew you'd be coming sooner or later."
     "Good.  Then you should also be anticipating the question I'm going to ask."
     She didn't move.  "I think I have a fairly good idea.  You're wondering why I'm distancing myself from you."
     Tom nodded.  "Sounds like a good place to start."
     She looked up, but not at her partner in conversation.  "I can't tell you - at least, not yet.  You must understand, it's very difficult for me to talk to you right now.  What you said the other night really upset me.  I need some time to sort a few things out."
     Tom frowned.  Her response didn't exactly surprise him; naturally she would try stalling for time.  However, he could relate to the turmoil she claimed to be experiencing, having been through traumatic events of his own.  "All right, look: I'll back off for a couple of days, but I want a guarantee that you'll tell me what's going on before my two weeks of night duty are up."
     "A reasonable request," she replied, still speaking to the bulkhead.
     He picked up his tray and took a step from the table, then stopped.  Tom cast another look in her direction.  "And no more solo assignments.  I don't care if you have to pair me with someone else, but I refuse to do any more security sweeps without a partner.  The solitude is driving me nuts."
     She finally afforded him a miserable glance.  "I don't know if I can do that.  Lieutenant Tuvok left very specific instructions, and he checks the duty rosters every day."  She held Tom's gaze for a few moments, but the intensity of his glare gradually wore her down.  "But...I'll see what I can do."
     The pilot nodded stiffly.  "Thank you."  He turned and walked to the table located on the other side of the mess hall, a triumphant smile gradually solving his features.

On to Chapter 10...

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