Romancing the Stone: Stage III


Darrel W. Beach

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


     "Come on, Tommy, hurry up!  The game's gonna start in twenty minutes."
     "Hang on a sec.  I can't find my lucky hat."
     "Like that's really gonna make a difference.  All the good seats are gonna be taken!  Just forget it."
     "No way.  I've worn my lucky hat for every game the Starfleet team has played and they haven't lost yet...."

     "Kathryn Janeway.  I served with your father on the Al-Batani.  I wonder if we could go somewhere and talk?"
     "About what?"
     "About a job we'd like you to do for us...."

     "Ladies and gentlemen, I now present Starfleet Academy's graduating class of 2365...."

     "Excuse me, I'm looking for a man by the name of Tom Paris.  Do you know where I could find him?"
     "Maybe.  Who wants to know?"
     "I'm looking for a pilot to go on a supply run and I hear he's the best one around this sector."
     "Won't argue with you there, but he's not taking any more freighter jobs.  The pay stinks and the work is uninspiring."
     "He hasn't heard the flight plan yet."
     "Why should that make any difference?"
     "Because the supplies we need are on Kesmarit."
     "Kesmarit?  Isn't that in the Demilitarized Zone?"
     "That's why we need a pilot like Tom Paris."
     "You're one of the Maquis, aren't you?"
     "What would you do if I was?  Inform the Federation authorities?"
     "The Federation and I aren't exactly on amicable terms.  I'm Tom Paris."
     "I suspected as much.  So, what do you have to say about my offer, Mr. Paris?"
     "I'd say I have a bar tab that needs taking care of.  And, please, call me Tom."

     "I knew that when I first set eyes on you that I would never be with another woman for the rest of my life."
     "I bet you say that to all the girls, Tom."
     "Well, yeah, but I really mean it this time...."

     "If we get this core back, I'm going to bed and sleep right through until tomorrow.  I mean...I just want to get this day over with."
     "Look at it this way: how much worse could it get?  Having to dump the warp core has to be the low point of any day...."

     Standing on the ledge of a steep cliff, Tom watched impassively while the distant horizon blossomed into a frighteningly beautiful haze of golds and reds.  It was a new type of dawn: the dawn of global annihilation.  What method used to create such a cataclysm he didn't know, but he was mysteriously not afraid.  Some voice from within told him not to worry, for as the life of this world extinguished around him, his existence was already determined.  He calmly accepted it.  He recalled the faded remnants of his final moments in Sickbay, slipping into a dark unconsciousness from which he would never escape.
     An immense cloud, blood-crimson, rolled inexorably toward the cliff.  By his calculations it would engulf him in less than a minute.  He did not try to run or find cover.  He welcomed it with open arms.  It could not hurt him; life could not be taken from those that did not possess it.  Closer and closer it came, travelling at a mind-boggling rate of speed.  With the seconds ticking down Tom closed his eyes in anticipation and waited for the cloud to swallow him whole.
     It slammed into him with the force of a freight ship, lifting him over five meters off the ground.  The sensation of pain was exquisite; the toxic elements of his new surroundings corroded his organs from inside and outside simultaneously.  He would have screamed if he still had a windpipe.  His conscious mind, still intact as the poisoned gas seeped its way into his cranium, chastised him for his foolish assumption.  It was clear now, his soul had been judged by the Almighty, and sentenced to eternal damnation.  This was his passage into Hell.  Then all his perceptions voided.
     Tom opened his eyes, or at least he imagined he did.  He was lying down again, but a sheet of cloth was draped over him, right over his head.  He wasn't sure whether he was dead or alive, or at some point in between.  If he was truly dead, then this defied all the stories he'd heard about the afterlife.  Then again, he'd never been truly dead before.  The stories were just philosophical conjecture about an intangible entity; who knew what really happened?
     As he lay there debating with himself, Tom started to become aware of sensations.  In his chest he could feel his heart beating an unusual, irregular pattern.  Every inch of his skin crawled.  His hair itched.  His lungs began to ache, and it was then that he realized he wasn't breathing.  Panicked, he desperately drew air through his mouth until he was virtually hyperventilating.  His breaths were shallow and rapid, barely adequate to supply the oxygen his body craved.  Little by little, though, the burning in his lungs subsided.
     It was then that someone drew away the sheet covering him.
     The EMH stared at him with undisguised bafflement.  "You're alive!"  That settled one argument, at least.  More troubling, though, was the question that took its place.  By the Doctor's surprised reaction Tom guessed that he wasn't supposed to be alive now.
     He scratched his head, in part due to the new mystery but mainly because the itching was really starting to irritate him.  His hand came back with a handful of hair.  Tom's eyes grew wide.  "Wha - what's happening?" he said his thought aloud.
     The Doctor responded by activating the bioscanner on Tom's bed and moving to a nearby display to study the findings.  "All of your internal organs are functioning again."  Tom saw the hologram's posture tense.  "In fact, you seem to have an extra one."
     Tom's brow creased.  "What?"
     The Doctor moved to one side, allowing Tom to see first-hand his physiological aberration.  "You have two hearts."

     Leena turned off the monitor on her desk and rubbed her eyes.  They felt raw and tired, more likely caused by her crying than from eyestrain.  She had been tempted to excuse herself from work, reluctant to let her co-workers see her in this condition, but her overriding sense of duty interfered.  Fortunately no one asked questions about her appearance.  Julie likely knew what had happened and understood enough to give her space.  The others were probably still too intimidated to pry into her personal life.  That made it all a little easier to cope with Tom's passing.
     Her communicator pin chirped to life.  "Kes to Lieutenant Calloway."
     Leena tensed involuntarily.  Last night's visit was still fresh in her mind.  Kes had been right about the shock and the bottled emotions.  Now Leena had the uncomfortable notion that the Ocampa was invading her private thoughts.  Everyone knew that Kes was developing mental abilities similar to Lt. Tuvok's.  She did not have Lt. Tuvok's discipline or restraint, though.  Who was to say that she wasn't eavesdropping on the thoughts of everyone on the ship while she learned to hone her powers?  It was a silly notion, really; Kes seemed too considerate a person to commit such a violation, but Leena was hesitant to strike up another conversation for fear of making herself more vulnerable.  Unfortunately she couldn't ignore the hail.  "Calloway here."
     "Lieutenant, could you come to the Doctor's office for a few minutes, please?"
     Leena's hair stood on end.  The only thing she wanted to do less than speak to Kes was to go back to Sickbay.  It was too soon.  Her edginess bled into her voice.  "I'm not sure if I can."
     "Please, Lieutenant, you have to come.  Something's happened to Tom."  Leena's breath stopped even as Kes said, "He's alive again."

     The turbolift doors barely finished opening when Leena bolted into the corridor.  What Kes claimed was unfathomable.  She had seen Tom and heard the Doctor's diagnosis.  The Doctor must have malfunctioned or something.  How could the cellular degradation suddenly reverse itself?  She was determined to get his explanation for why he had falsely declared Tom dead.  So determined was she, in fact, that she nearly walked into the Sickbay entrance when the doors did not open.
     "What the -"  She pressed the manual door release, but nothing happened.  "Computer, open the doors to Sickbay," she ordered indignantly.
     "Access denied.  Sickbay doors are sealed according to quarantine protocol."
     "Quarantine?"  Her jaws clenched.  If this was a joke, she wasn't laughing.  "How am I supposed to see the Doctor?"
     "Crew members seeking medical attention should report to Holodeck 2 until quarantine is lifted."  The computer was actually prepared for the query, but it misinterpreted the context.
     Leena fumed for a few moments before she thought of something. She slapped her communicator pin.  "Sickbay, this is Lieutenant Calloway.  Would somebody please explain to me why I would be paged to come here when the whole room is under quarantine?"
     The Doctor's irritated voice replied.  "My office has an alternate access approximately nine metres to your right, Lieutenant.  I'll open the door for you."
     Walking an extra nine metres down the hallway, she was satisfied when the door opened automatically.  The Doctor stood in the mouth of the entrance, just off to the side.  "You could have at least told me about the security locks before I ran up here."
     "You're welcome," the Doctor answered sarcastically.  "I thought it best under the circumstances to shield Mr. Paris from unexpected visitors, and vice versa.  He's a little sensitive about his appearance right now, and any patients to come in would no doubt be uncomfortable with his appearance as well."
     "Why?  What's going on?  And what did Kes mean when she said that Tom is alive again?  People just don't come back to life, you know."
     "I'm a doctor, of course I know," he snapped back.  He paused, then sighed.  "I realize this must be a very difficult time for you right now, Lieutenant.  The information Kes provided is accurate; Mr. Paris was clinically dead for several hours.  His autonomic system, his internal organs, his brain wave activity - all were completely inactive.  Then all at once they were functioning again."
     "How is that possible?"
     "I wish I had an answer for you.  His DNA appears to be mutating, but how that accounts for his spontaneous reanimation, I have no idea."
     "Mutating?  You can fix that, can't you?"
     "I'm trying, but to be honest, unless I can determine a pattern to the mutations it will be very difficult to correct."
     Leena looked at the door to the examining area.  "Let me see him."
     The Doctor grimaced.  "I would advise against that.  Mr. Paris has been behaving oddly since his reawakening."
     Leena resolutely grabbed the Doctor by the scruff of his uniform, much to his surprise.  "Please, I have to see him!  I don't care what he looks like or what he does; I'm not turning my back on him.  He needs me."
     The Doctor adjusted his matrix to slip out of Leena's grasp, but her rough handling still left him a bit flustered.  "Very well, but don't say I didn't warn you."  He led her through the doorway.  Kes was standing guard over a diagnostic centre nearby, looking older than she should have.  Leena worried about what was robbing the Ocampa of her sprightly demeanour.  "Mr. Paris, you have a visitor."  The Doctor casually stepped aside, allowing Leena a glimpse of Tom.  She couldn't help but gasp at his unexpected appearance.
     Tom's eyes widened in panic when he saw her, and he vainly attempted to conceal his blemished features with a pair of gnarled hands.  "Don't look at me!"
     "Oh, Tom," she choked out.  Most of his hair had fallen out; a few wispy patches stuck out from his crown at odd angles.  She looked down at the floor.  "I'm sorry.  I'm so sorry.  I never should have pushed you to take part in that transwarp project."
     Tom was quiet for a moment, but when he spoke his voice was calm.  "You've got nothing to feel guilty about.  I would have flown the shuttle anyway.  I got what I deserved."
     Her head snapped back up, and he flinched at the movement.  "What? What makes you think you deserve this?"
     "Because I've been nothing more than a nuisance to everyone I've ever known.  All I've ever done - all I ever will do - is cause trouble and grief.  Bottom line: I put my needs above everything else.  You made me realize that."
     For a second Leena thought to step forward and reach out for Tom, but remembered the force field surrounding the surgical bay.  She felt frustrated by the inability to physically console him.  "You like to push the envelope, to openly question the rules of life.  Sometimes you go too far, but that doesn't mean you're a nuisance."
     Tom laughed at her.  "Why do you care?  I thought you'd be happy that you wouldn't have to put up with me anymore."
     "I care," she said, the words sticking in her throat.  "I care because I've fallen in love with you."
     His hands fell to his sides, but he did not turn around.  His face looked flushed and oily.  "You're joking, right?"
     She shook her head.  "It's no joke, Tom.  I tried for so long to deny it because, frankly, you scare the hell out of me.  I was afraid to tell you how I really felt because I didn't know for sure whether you really care for me or if it's just part of some routine you use to charm women.  Only after Kes told me you died did I realize what a fool I'd been.  You've taken time to talk to me and learn about my past.  You've tried to share in my hobbies and interests.  You've shown me respect even when our opinions clash.  Most of all, you've willingly shared some of your most private secrets with me.  You've been so open, and I kept you at arm's length.  I'm the one who's been a coward."
     She could see his smile, and a weight lifted off her shoulders.  Now that she had finally admitted her feelings it didn't seem like such a bad thing.  Then she heard that cynical laugh again.  "You almost had me for a second," he replied.  "I've got to hand it to you, you really know how to make a speech.  I almost believed every word you said."
     The words stabbed through her heart.  "I'm telling you the truth, Tom.  Why can't you believe that?"
     "Why?"  He finally turned around and glared at her with one good eye.  A trembling hand reached up and clawed off a handful of hair and skin, making her flinch.  The Doctor was immediately at his side to treat the self-inflicted wound and Tom tried to push him away.  "This is why.  I'm turning into a freak.  The rest of my life is going to be spent behind force fields."
     She shook her head sadly.  "There's more to a relationship than physical closeness, Tom.  It's about the sharing of lives.  We've each given parts of our past to each other that no one else has ever seen."  She gently placed her hand against the electromagnetic field.  It hummed softly from the contact, tickling the surface of her palm.  "You can't get much more intimate than that."
     For a brief moment his eyes seemed to glaze over.  He shut them and shook his head, and when he opened them they were again clear.  "It would never work.  We're both aware of how much we were attracted to each other physically.  That's gone now; I'm probably never leaving this room again.  You're better off without me, anyway; I'll only end up hurting you."
     "Don't do this, Tom.  I can help you get through this."
     "Stop patronizing me!  I don't need your help, and I don't need you!"  He moved threateningly towards her and would have smacked into the isolation field if the Doctor hadn't been there to restrain him.  Instead he turned her back on her again, dismissing her presence.  "Just go away, and don't come back."
     She wanted to say something, to beg reconsideration, but she realized it would be pointless.  Sick or not, Tom was still acting as stubborn as ever.  If he wanted to cope with his condition by himself, then that's how it would be.  As much as she wanted to stay, Leena turned around and left the way she had come in.  Let him wallow in self pity until he decided that wasn't the best way.  He would come around eventually, and she would be prepared to be there for him.  She wasn't about to give up on him this time.

     "Sorry I'm late."
     "That's okay, Mr.Paris, we don't need you.  Mr. Grimes has taken your place at Conn."
     "But it's my shift."
     "Not today it isn't."
     "What, because I was ten minutes late?"
     "That's right."
     "Don't look at me, Mr. Paris.  Commander Chakotay has complete discretion in this matter."

     "Lieutenant Thomas Eugene Paris, you are guilty of insubordination, unauthorized use of a space craft, reckless endangerment, and conduct unbecoming an officer.  Do you have anything to say?"
     "Riga needed my help."
     "In doing so you disobeyed my direct orders."
     "Yes, ma'am."
     "You violated the protocols that govern this ship."
     "Yes, ma'am."
     "You nearly started an armed conflict with the Moneans, and frankly you're lucky to be standing here right now.  I would have destroyed your shuttle if necessary."
     "Yes, ma'am"

     "So, when should I report back for duty?"
     "When you decide to start taking your job seriously, we'll discuss it, but right now you're dismissed."
     "Get your hands off me!"
     "Mr. Tuvok."
     "Yes, Captain?"
     "Please escort Mr. Paris to the brig."

     "Riga's people weren't going to listen; they were going to ignore our warnings."
     "You don't know that."
     "Riga knew, and I was the only one who could help them."
     "I understand your passion, but passion alone doesn't give you the right to take matters into your own hands."

     "With all due respect, sir, I know all about you.  I know about how you killed those three officers in that shuttle crash.  I know how you attempted to cover up your mistakes by denying the truth.  I know that you got expelled from Starfleet because of your treachery.  And I know that you were apprehended as a member of the Maquis and sentenced to prison.
     "Now I want to make myself perfectly clear: I may have to work with you, but it doesn't change the fact that you are a loathsome individual."

     "Owen, you're being too hard on him.  He's still just a child."
     "That's the real problem: you coddle him too much.  I am not raising him to be a mama's boy.  He's going to find out that life hands you some hard lessons, and I'd prefer he learns that now before he grows up to be some day-dreaming screw up."

     "Until now you've been a fine officer; your service on this ship has been exemplary.  I really believed you were past this kind of conduct."
     "I've never been one for playing by the rules.  It's doesn't mean that serving under your command hasn't changed me, for the better.  At least this time I broke the rules for a reason, for something I believed in."
     "I admire your principles, Tom, but I can't ignore what you've done.  I hereby reduce you to the rank of Ensign, and I sentence you to thirty days solitary confinement.  Take Ensign Paris to the brig."

     "Lieutenant Thomas Eugene Paris, as Starfleet's judge advocate general for this sector I find you guilty of the following charges: 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.  Effective immediately your Starfleet commission is revoked, and you are hereby dishonourably discharged from service.  That is my ruling.  You are dismissed, civilian."

     He found that if he lay very, very still the crippling pain that worked on his limbs and torso actually subsided a little.  Not that he really cared anymore.  He understood that great achievements often required sacrifices.  No pain, no gain.
     It's all so clear now.  I've been given a gift.  A repayment for all the times I've been dumped on in my life.  Just wish I didn't feel like I'm being turned inside out.  God, it hurts!
     And the Doctor won't listen.  What do computers know, anyway? All he wants is to find a way to stop this.  But he won't.  He can't.  I'm already too far beyond their understanding.

     A conversation began in the Doctor's office.  Tom could not hear it clearly, but he knew the topic; what else would the Doctor be discussing?  Probably griping over his own impotency to 'cure' me. After several minutes the voices got louder and easier to comprehend. They were coming out to stare at him, to ridicule his grotesqueness.
     "...erratic, unpredictable; there are moments of lucidity interspersed with almost deranged behaviour," he heard the Doctor say.
     "I'll keep it in mind," he heard the captain say.
     Captain Janeway, to whom he owed this torturous, hideous, most glorious transformation.  So now she had come to offer empty promises.
     Ignoring the excruciating pain of movement, he sat up and turned to face his guest.  "Pretty disgusting, huh?"
     She stared at him without even a trace of remorse.  "You've looked better."  Tom quietly laughed at the reply; how could anyone expect anything but blunt honesty from the captain?  "How do you feel?"
     "Like a lab experiment gone wrong."
     "Well, we're trying to put that experiment right.  The Doctor is working on a way to restore your DNA to its original -"
     "Why?" Tom said impatiently.  He wasn't interested in hearing the same words over and over again.
     Janeway stopped, unsure if she had heard him correctly.  "Excuse me?"
     "Why?  What I'm becoming will probably be better that who I was."
     "Lieutenant, you know that's not true."
     "Oh, yes it is."  He folded his arms across his chest.  "Admit it, part of you will be glad to see me gone.  I'm the Maquis traitor who sits on your bridge and insults your uniform, remember?"
     "We're all concerned about you, Tom.  We're here to help you."
     He swallowed her expression of concern like vinegar.  He couldn't believe how transparent her lie was.  "No, you're not.  You're trying to take this away from me."
     She feigned ignorance.  "Take what away from you?"
     "What I'm becoming.  How do you know this isn't good for me?  How do you know this isn't the best thing that's ever happened to me?"
     "That's a possibility...and then again it could kill you.  We need to find out what's going on."
     He stared at her with contempt.  "You're lying.  Just like him," he nodded at the Doctor.  "Just like everyone around here, always lying.  Always telling me that I'm doing a good job, that you're glad I'm on the ship.  But none of that's true."  The anger suddenly exploded from him.  "Why can't you just say it?  You're jealous that I broke the transwarp barrier and now you're hoping I'll die!"
     She did not back down from his accusation.  Anger penetrated her unwavering glare.  "You're right, Doctor, I don't think there's anything I can do here."  She turned to leave.
     What am I saying?  Tom was instantly to his feet.  "Wait, Captain!  I'm sorry.  Please come back."  She stopped and faced him again.  "I know you're doing what you can.  It's just...I'm scared.  I didn't mean to lash out at you."
     "What you're going through would scare any of us, but you've got to hang on, Tom.  We're doing everything we can to help you."
     "I know you are."  His face twisted with disgust.  Show the slightest hint of helplessness and everyone thinks there's a chance.  Pathetic.  It would so easy to wrap my hands around her neck and squeeze the life out of her.  "And I know you'll fail."  Tom lunged at her.  He would have succeeded in carrying out his impulse, except for one detail.  He was thrown backward as his body came into contact with the force field surrounding the surgical bay.
     He staggered back to the bed, leaning against it to support his wobbling legs.  He chuckled.  "You know, I used to look up to you.  But now you seem so small, so insignificant.  You don't even know what -" his throat constricted, cutting his rant short.  Tom began to choke.  He reached inside his mouth to remove the blockage.  After a few attempts he pulled out the offending object: his tongue.
     Tom looked up and smiled at Janeway's horrified expression.  A giddy feeling surfaced within him.  He waved the slippery piece of muscle in the air triumphantly, mocking them all for even daring to suppose that they could prevent this divine intervention.  "Hew see?  I'm whinning."

On to Chapter 11...

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