Romancing the Stone: Stage III


Darrel W. Beach

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


     Three days had passed without incident.  With the current sector of space seemingly clear of Kazon activity Captain Janeway had taken the opportunity to disengage the warp drive and engage in various scientific endeavours.  Tom was more interested in the work occurring down in Engineering, specifically Harry and B'Elanna's design schematics of the transwarp drive.  Since joining the project team he had become a staunch participant and a vocal supporter.  At times he even surpassed B'Elanna's boisterousness, much to the engineer's surprise.  Unfortunately, he still had a bridge position to man.  He switched shifts where he could, but on the fourth day he unavoidably found himself keeping a lookout for any unexpected arrivals.
     Before the half-day ended, a proximity alarm sounded from the conn.  Tom stopped his inward grumbling and focused on the alert.  "Captain, I'm picking up a weak power source in front of us.  It appears to be originating from an object approximately 1.8 meters in length."
     Janeway diverted her attention from a report.  "Can you get a visual?"
     Tom routed the sensor input to the forward screen.  A little silvery blob appeared, floating lazily across the star field.  At the captain's order he magnified and resolved the picture to show what resembled a human form.  Commander Chakotay looked at the sensor data from his command chair console.  "It's some kind of robot.  It doesn't appear to be functioning, though.  It's intact, but it's taken serious damage."
     "Do the sensors detect any signs of radiation or contaminant leakage?"
     "No, Captain."
      "How odd."  Tom noted the captain's pensive expression.  "How did it end up drifting in the middle of space?"
     Chakotay attempted to answer the question with an unusual solution.  "We could salvage it and try looking at its data banks.  Since the sensors don't read a risk of contamination we could beam it safely on board."
     "An interesting suggestion, Commander."  The captain stood and stared at the floating image.  Plans were clearly hatching.  "What we have here is an opportunity to learn about another culture.  We might even be able to find out the location of its creators and see if they can help us get home."
     "That is a highly speculative line of reasoning, Captain," Tuvok said, trying to dampen her enthusiasm.  "Just because they have the technical ability to produce a robotic entity, one should not automatically infer that they are technically advanced enough to render us assistance."
     "I've considered that, Tuvok, and normally I'd agree with you.  However, the fact that this robot is drifting out here in space leads me to believe that its creators are at least aware of space flight technology, either directly or through contact with a species that does.  Even if they don't have the ability to do it themselves, they could have parts or supplies to supplement our stock.  As soon as it's in range, transport it to Engineering."
     Aye, Captain."
     "Lieutenant Torres, there's been a change of plans.  We've just identified an artificial being of some kind outside the ship.  It is intact but in need of major repair.  We're going to beam it directly to Engineering.  As of right now it will be your top priority to download any information in its data banks."
     "Understood, Captain.  It's coming in now.  I'll get right on it."
     Tom stiffened slightly at the order.  He didn't particularly like the idea of taking B'Elanna's attention away from the transwarp engine, but there was probably nothing he could say or do to convince the captain of that.  Janeway had seen their report on the initial tests at yesterday's briefing.  She was a juggernaut when it came to astrophysical theory, and she had expressed serious doubts about the success of their undertaking, much as Tom had done several days earlier.  In her judgement the transwarp project was a low priority; they were free to develop the engine, so long as nothing more important came up.
     Evidently trying to salvage data from a scrapped robot was more important.

     It was to Tom's grim satisfaction that the captain was, for once, in the wrong.  Her plan had backfired in spectacular form.  Instead of supplying information about the Pralor home world, Automated Unit 3947 had abducted B'Elanna.  I suppose B'Elanna is partially at fault, too, he reflected, considering that she had suggested that she could help repair the others.  It was tough to point fingers, though; no one could have anticipated that a constructed artificial intelligence would behave so irrationally.  Except for Tuvok, Tom noted; the chief security officer expected the worst of every situation.
     The captain's error was no comfort, however.  B'Elanna was now a hostage, tasked to construct more Pralor robots under threat of Voyager's destruction.  Nor was it an idle threat.  The Pralor vessel nearly pounded the ship to pieces, while Voyager only effected a minimal retaliation on their shields.  Only B'Elanna's capitulation to the robots' demands saved the ship from annihilation.  The consequences were less than satisfactory - not to the captain, not to Tuvok or Chakotay or Harry, and certainly not to Tom.  She was too badly needed for the design of the transwarp engine.
     For the time being the captain had ordered Tom to maintain a pursuit course on the Pralor ship, but with damage inflicted to the power distribution systems they couldn't do much more than that.  The only thing left to do was plan a strategy to get B'Elanna back, and the captain had the senior staff called together to do just that.  Tom hoped that someone could come up with anything better than what he was thinking.  The element of surprise would hardly be effective against an amalgam of sentient computers, capable of processing and reacting to any attack in a matter of seconds.  They'd open fire on us the second we made an aggressive move.  Our shields wouldn't hold up, and we wouldn't have the power to get away from them.  We'd be space debris long before we could beam her off their ship.
     Janeway tossed out the first suggestion.  "Is there any way we could boost the range of the transporters to beam B'Elanna out of there without getting too close to the Pralor vessel?"  It was a very cautious idea; Tom surmised that the robots' offensive punch had put the captain on her heels.
     Tuvok had an image of the Pralor ship displayed on the tactical console, rotating on its axes to present a complete view of their defenses.  "Due to the complexity of their defense field and our severe power shortage, it is unlikely that we can modify the transporter to beam Lieutenant Torres out."
     Chakotay looked up from the console to address the assembled group.  "But if we can manoeuvre inside the field..."
     "...our transporters could get the job done," Harry completed the thought, quickly comprehending the commander's idea.  Tom's mind started turning over the suggestion.  They'd have to get awfully close to the Pralor ship.
     Janeway turned to Tom.  "Is that a viable option?"
     There was no way to get that close, not with the Pralor ship likely monitoring their position.  Unless... "For a shuttlecraft, maybe."
     The captain didn't seem too happy with that idea, though.  "They were able to knock out Voyager's shields in a matter of minutes; a shuttle would be more vulnerable."
     "It would be advisable to create a diversion of some sort to take their attention away from the shuttle," Tuvok said.  Tom nearly did a double take; it wasn't often that Tuvok supported one of his ideas.
     Chakotay looked back at Tuvok.  "Attack them again?"
     Janeway shook her head in disagreement.  "I don't want to risk that a second time."
     Tom could understand her hesitation.  She had 150 people to worry about.  What they needed to do was minimize the head count involved. Tom thought of a way to keep it at one.  "I don't need a diversion.  Just give me a chance.  I'll get her out of there."
     "You don't mind if the rest of us give you a little help, do you, Paris?" Chakotay chided.  Paris.  That caught Tom's attention.  While they weren't exactly chums with each other, Tom didn't think Chakotay would get that upset.  Almost as an afterthought did Tom remember that the commander and B'Elanna were close friends.  He was beginning to feel ashamed of his cockiness when he detected a slip in Chakotay's stony glare.  "I'd hate to lose another shuttle."
     A-ha!  He's trying to bait me.  Tom smirked.  He'd almost been suckered.  "Your concern for my welfare is heart-warming."
     Before either one of them could exchange another word, Janeway broke in.  "In another twelve hours our warp engines will be on line.  I'd like to come up with a diversion by then, okay?"  She then gave Tom and Chakotay one extra look.  "Gentlemen?"

     Leena stepped in line for dinner and tried to rub the tension out of her neck muscles.  A lot of things had gone wrong in a short time.  Voyager had been knocked for a loop, several key systems were rendered inoperative by power loss and the chief engineer had been stolen.  It was ironic that B'Elanna Torres, the same person she could have cared less about during the Alsaurian raid, was now the center of her concern.  Since hearing about the chief engineer's wild theory to eclipse the Warp 10 barrier, Leena had been silently pulling for her success.
     "Have a rough day, Lieutenant?"
     Leena half-turned and saw Harry Kim standing behind her.  "Oh, hi, Harry.  Yes.  I'm not exactly used to crawling through Jefferies tubes and fixing power relays.  People my size aren't meant to navigate confined spaces; my legs are too long."
     "Well, we all appreciate the discomfort you're enduring, every one of you.  The more people we can get to help with repairs means less time before we can get the shields and propulsion up to full strength and make a run at the Pralor ship."
     "What?"  She ignored the tray set in front of her to fully face the ensign.  "After what they did to us the first time?"
     Harry shrugged.  "I don't think we have much of a choice.  Voyager will have to create some kind of diversion so Tom can get in close enough and beam B'Elanna off their ship."
     "Oh, I see."  Leena picked up the tray and moved off to find a table, leaving a surprised Harry standing flat-footed in line.
     He hurriedly grabbed a tray of his own and scampered back behind her.  "You guys had a fight, didn't you?  The other night, I mean."  She didn't respond to his question.  She just sat down at an available table.  He sat beside her.  "You know, that would explain a lot now."
     "What do you mean?" Leena asked irritably.
     "When I first told Tom about our transwarp project, he was dead set against it.  Then I got a call from him later that night asking me to come over with everything I had concerning the project.  I'd wondered what caused him to change his mind."
     Leena paused midway through a bite of food.  Tom's participation in the project was a surprising revelation.  She pushed her shock aside quickly, however, and continued eating.  She had a fairly good handle on Tom's change of heart.  He was trying to salve a wounded ego.  "I suppose he was the one to suggest this suicide run, too?"
     "Uh, yeah, as a matter of fact," Harry said.  "You think he's up to something?"
     "Thinking doesn't even enter into it, Harry.  The lieutenant's brain is saturated with testosterone again."  She sniffed tentatively at Neelix's featured entree before putting the fork in her mouth.  "You are right; we did get into an argument the other night during dinner.  It was over the transwarp project, as a matter of fact.  There's a personal reason behind why he didn't want to work on it, but he wouldn't talk to me about it.  He spewed out all this talk about trusting people and he won't even listen to his own advice."
     "Tom's a complicated guy," Harry attempted to rebut.
     "No, he's not.  He's selfish and cowardly, and I told him so.  Now he's beating his chest to prove me wrong."
     They were quiet for a long time.  Leena had almost finished eating before Harry spoke up again.  "You must mean an awful lot to Tom for him to be doing all these things.  I mean, I think I know him pretty well.  He never does anything risky unless it's really important to him."
     "That's exactly my problem with him, Ensign," she said, putting down her fork and dabbing the corners of her mouth with a napkin.  "He'll put on his white hat and jump in the saddle, but not unless there's an offer of reward waiting for him at the end of the trail."
     She carefully draped the soiled napkin over the remnants of her dinner.  Then getting up, she took the tray to the reclamation unit, Harry at her side.  "There's always a personal stake in everything he does.  This threshold project isn't something he's doing because it's something that will benefit the crew.  He's doing it because he wants me back."

On to Chapter 5...

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