Romancing the Stone: Stage III


Darrel W. Beach

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


     "He kidnapped the captain?"  Leena felt fortunate that she was already sitting when Harry had shown up at the security office to update her on the situation.
     He nodded grimly.  "He hijacked the Cochrane and crossed the threshold again.  There's no telling where they are."
     "Oh, my god," she groaned.  She pitched forward, resting her head against folded arms with a hard thump.  "This is all my fault."
     "You shouldn't blame yourself for this, Leena.  You couldn't have known this would happen."
     "I'm the reason we're in this situation in the first place.  If I hadn't been so stubborn and told Tom how I really felt instead of fighting with him he wouldn't have been so determined to make that threshold project a success."
     Harry did not respond immediately, and she felt justified for feeling guilty.  "I'll admit," he said finally, "Tom was a big reason for the project's rapid success, but even without his help we would have come up with the solution eventually.  He would have been first in line to man the test flight anyway.  I know Tom; he'd never pass up the opportunity to do something no other pilot has ever done before.  You can't hold yourself responsible for an inevitable outcome."
     Leena lifted her head up high enough to give Harry a mocking glare.  "So you're saying Captain Janeway's abduction was inevitable, too?"
     "Uh," he stammered, momentarily flustered.  "I didn't mean that exactly.  The captain was in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Tom could have taken anyone who happened to be in his way."
     "You'll excuse me if I don't find much reassurance in that, Harry."  Leena's head sunk back down again.
     "Leena," he started.  He sighed.  "Okay, fine.  Blame yourself, if that makes you feel better.  Just don't be surprised when you notice that you're the only person here who is."
     She heard him get up, but she didn't bother seeing him out.  "So who cares what he thinks?" she said to herself.  "This is all my fault.  For the first time in years I finally let someone into my heart and what happens?  I blindside the guy into taking part in a research project that turns him into a mutant and he ends up abducting the captain.  There's justice."
     It felt like history was once again repeating itself.  The deaths of Wilton, Raon and June, the seemingly endless succession of bad relationships with men as a young woman, her parents' divorce: every close relationship she'd ever had in her life ultimately fell apart.  Leena silently cursed the Fates for condemning her to a life of perpetual torment.  Not only had she lost a friend this time, she had also lost Captain Janeway, probably the one person she most respected and admired on the ship.
     "You look like you could use a friend right about now."  Leena looked up and into the face of Commander Chakotay.  She half-heartedly corrected her posture.  "Mind if I sit down?"
     "You're commanding officer now; you can do whatever you want," she said flatly.
     The commander frowned and sat down.  "Do I have to worry about whether or not you'll follow my orders again?"
     Leena shook her head.  "No, Commander.  Since our last discussion I've come to trust your loyalty to the captain.  I was prepared to accept you as captain in the event something happened to her.  I just... I didn't really expect it to happen, though."
     "I don't think anyone expected it.  I certainly didn't.  But keep up hope: we'll find the captain and Lieutenant Paris and return them to normal."
     Leena knit her brows, nonplussed.  "'Them'?  You think the captain will mutate, too?"
     "The Doctor figured out what's happening to Tom and what will probably happen to the captain," he said.  "The changes in Tom's physiology and body chemistry are consistent with the natural evolution of man.  For some reason, the Warp 10 flight accelerated the process.  The captain will likely experience the same effects."
     "And the Doctor says he can reverse it?  How?"
     Chakotay nodded.  "He's sure that his original treatment will restore them to their normal, unevolved states."
     For a moment Leena smiled at the hopeful news, then the solemnness returned.  "Still, it's easier said than done.  We don't even know where they are.  Where do we even begin looking?"
     "I'm continuing a course to the Alpha Quadrant," the commander said.  "We'll scan every system we come across, all the way home if necessary."
     "But what if they've gone a different way?  Our sensor range isn't infinite; we could pass by them and not even realize it."
     "I know, but we just don't have the resources to conduct a full search.  Besides, my first priority is to get this crew home safely.  The captain would want it that way."  The commander got up and started away, but stopped as he passed her.  He placed his hand on her shoulder.  "Stay positive, Lieutenant.  We'll find them."

     Staying optimistic proved to be no easier with Chakotay's assurances.  Voyager fairly cruised through space without interruption.  Hours seemed to stretch infinitely into days.  Leena's thoughts gravitated toward Tom more frequently as the time passed.  She watched people carry on with their work with an added degree of tension and sullenness, and noted with regret how much more relaxed everyone would be if Tom were around to point out that life was not meant to be taken so seriously.  She imagined hearing him talking and laughing with someone down a hallway or amid the gaggles of crewmen in the mess hall.  On a rare occasion she even thought she saw him, but it turned out to be someone else entirely.  She tried immersing herself in work to occupy her mind but only succeeded in losing sleep, realizing that she had fallen back into the same trap from which Tom had recently freed her.
     "I've been having those nightmares again," she said to Julie as they jogged along a worn forest trail, one of Leena's exercise simulations this time.  "Only now I'm working the tactical station when Tom and the captain get pulled into a quantum singularity.  The tractor beam wouldn't come on line."
     "You really have to get over this, Leena," Julie replied.  "None of it was your fault.  Sure, you had a fight with Tom about his past.  So what?  Would it have changed anything that happened?"
     "Well, Harry did say that they probably would have figured out the problems with the transwarp engine whether Tom was helping or not.  That's not the point."
     "Really?  Tom - a very skilled pilot - gets the opportunity to make aviation history, would do just about anything to take that opportunity, and you say it has no relevance in determining whether or not you should feel bad?"
     "You don't understand," Leena said, frustrated.  She broke her stride slowly into a walk.  Julie followed suit.  "Tom was terrified of going back to the Alpha Quadrant.  He was afraid of losing everything that Voyager had given him: freedom, love, respect, and a sense of belonging.  I confronted him.  I openly challenged his character without knowing the full extent of who he was.  I practically dared him to take part in that project."  She reached out to lean against a nearby tree trunk.  Even taking the run into account, her pulse was quite high.  It was no surprise, though.  It was difficult to relax with her thoughts always focused on Tom.
     Julie turned to her, arms akimbo.  "Tom deserved to be confronted sooner or later.  He was acting like a spoiled child.  You did what you thought you had to do to improve your relationship.  I probably would have done the same thing in your shoes.  If you think about it, you really don't feel that guilty for yelling at him.  Think back.  Do you remember what the fight was about?"
     Leena took a moment to recall the argument.  "Yes.  I accused him of being a stubborn, self-centered coward.  But that was before he told me about...."  She paused.  She had almost betrayed Tom's secret about his time spent in New Zealand.  "About his life back in the Alpha Quadrant."
     "It doesn't matter what happened to him before.  Were you right when you yelled at him?  Was he being a stubborn, self-centered coward?"
     "Well, yeah."
     "And if you hadn't confronted him about it, would the fight never have occurred at all?"
     Leena fired a frustrated look at her friend.  "Julie...."
     Julie huffed impatiently.  "Just answer the question, Leena.  You've known Tom up close and personal for almost two months, you ought to have a good idea of his general personality.  Can you honestly tell me that you two wouldn't have it out at some point in time?"
     Leena tried looking everywhere, but couldn't avoid Julie's steely gaze.  "Probably not."
     "So then what are you so worked up about?"
     Leena frowned.  "I don't know."
     Julie walked up beside her.  "Look, you have every reason to feel miserable, but you can't let it eat you up inside.  Some things are just meant to happen, no matter how much we might wish otherwise.  The best thing anyone can do is move on and try to make the most of the situation."
     "I don't know...maybe you're right," she said doubtfully.  "Tom said he would've flown the shuttle regardless.  Maybe I'm getting worked up over nothing."
     "That's the spirit," Julie said, slapping Leena's arm in encouragement.  "Come on, let's finish this circuit.  Maybe you'd like to drop by my place later for dinner?"
     "Sounds great," Leena said as they continued down the path.
     Something still picked Leena's brain.  Julie's attempt at persuasion did little to ease her conscience.  Instead it seemed to point out the inconsequence of her role in everything that had happened.  For good or bad, Tom was Tom.  She couldn't have changed his mind any more than she could have altered the Universal Constant.
     That stark truth stimulated her like a splash of cold water.  The issue wasn't about the fight.  All throughout this ordeal, she realized, she had been left out of the decision-making process, even when the decisions were hers to make.  "Meaningless..." she mumbled.  Her feet came to a sudden halt.
     "What?"  Julie looked across her shoulder and skidded to a stop. She looked a bit surprised to see her friend just standing in the middle of the path.
     "That's what's been bothering me."  Leena closed the distance between them in a few strides.  "The last time I talked to Tom he basically said that our relationship would never be anything more than a visceral attraction.  It seemed as if he was convinced that we wouldn't be able to establish anything meaningful together."
     "And until he disappeared you thought you'd have the chance to prove him wrong, right?"
     She shook her head.  "I'm not that naive, Julie.  For all I know he could be exactly right.  Either way, though, I don't want to be dismissed out of hand.  My opinions are just as valuable as anyone else's.  Tom tried to make a choice about our relationship that I should have had an equal say in, and now that's he's gone I feel cheated.  Unless we can find him, I'll always be second-guessing how we might have turned out."
     Julie opened her mouth to say something, but Harry Kim's voice interrupted her.  "Ops to Calloway."
     Leena's gaze shifted skyward.  "Calloway here.  What's up, Ensign?"
     "Our long range sensors picked up a subspace distortion similar to the one created by the Cochrane's transwarp engines in an uninhabited star system about two light years away.  We've scanned the system and found one class-M planet.  The commander's changed course to investigate.  We're due to arrive in orbit approximately 30 hours from now.  Just thought you'd like to know."
     It took her a couple of seconds to realize that she was holding her breath.  "Ah, thank you, Ensign.  Calloway, out."  Leena glanced at Julie.  She wondered if she looked as shocked as her friend.
     The scrutiny brought Julie's composure back.  "Well," she said. "It looks like you'll get your chance to find out after all."

     A warm breeze, stirring up the sultry evening air, wafted through the lush foliage and tickled his skin like a feather.  Twilight was fast approaching and all was right in his unassuming little world.  The food was plentiful.  The jungle was peaceful and hospitable.  He could lie about in the sun all day, drinking in the radiance of the sun overhead, or take a refreshing swim in the cool waters nearby if he chose, while his mate nurtured their children and provided for his family.  The natural order was maintained.  He was content.
     In his mind's eye a hazy image resurfaced.  It was an image with motion and sound, of beings at once both strange and familiar.  He hissed and grunted in discomfort; the images did not make any sense and made his head ache.  The sounds were largely incoherent save for one word, his name, which was frequently repeated.
     Beside him, his mate recognized his cry of discomfort and released her scent to calm him.  His acute sense of smell detected it immediately.  The pictures in his mind rapidly faded, as did the discomfort they caused, as his attention shifted to his companion.  He changed the pigment of his skin to orange to express his affection and gratitude.
     The sky above began filling up with multitudinous shining points of light.  His mate chattered noisily.  He could understand; he too found it a source of great excitement and wonder.  Though he failed to fathom a reason for it, every night the appearing lights felt like the return of a close friend.
     All of a sudden his senses were on alert and he and his mate became quiet.  His instincts felt the approach of something.  No, there was more than one, but he could not discern exactly how many.  He had not encountered many forest dwellers aside from the many varieties of insects and small reptilian creatures.  Whatever approached was much larger.
     His body tensed as panic gripped him.  If he was fortunate the approaching creatures would pass by them unawares.  If not, though, his reaction was uncertain.  His strongest instinct was flight; he had no desire to be wounded or killed by a predator.  However, he had more than his own life to consider.  The nest was nearby.  He knew beyond a doubt that his mate would defend it ferociously, to the point of death if necessary.  His offspring were not a major concern to him, but the thought of losing his mate was disquieting.  They were the only ones of their kind that he knew of.  Protecting his own life would not mean much if she perished, for he could not produce offspring alone.  For the sake of continuing the species, he resolved himself to stay by his mate's side and help defend the nest should the oncomers discover them.
     A thick tangle of leaves and branches parted several feet away.  It seemed a confrontation was due them after all.  His mate hissed threateningly, prepared to fight.  He did his best to assume an aggressive stance also.  He did not, however, get the chance to strike.  A light with the intensity of the sun suddenly shone into his eyes.  He staggered, hopelessly blinded.  He heard the hissing cry of his mate again, expressing surprise and menace.  Then he heard the predator's attack howl, a high-pitched whine, just before he felt its paralyzing sting.  He could only think of death as the attacker's poison quickly overwhelmed him.

On to Chapter 13...

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