Romancing the Stone: Stage III


Darrel W. Beach

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     "You're dead."
     Tom found himself sitting in the middle of the holodeck floor, momentarily dazed by the spectacular experience of a near-Threshold warp core breach.  B'Elanna's observation focused his attention to his right, where the engineer was standing.  Beside her, Harry shook his head in frustration at the simulated console.
     "Damn," he sighed.  "I thought for sure it would work this time."
     "Six attempts and we're no closer to a solution," Harry said acidly.  "What are we missing?"
     "Well, we're not going to find out by griping," B'Elanna answered.  "Download the simulation into a PADD.  We'll compare the results of this test with the others and see if we can isolate the problem."
     "Just like we did the last four tests."  Harry began tapping at the controls regardless.
     "Engineering to Lieutenant Torres."
     B'Elanna almost scowled and slapped her communicator pin.  "Torres here."
     Tom tried to place the voice at the other end as the two engineers conversed over the intercom.  It didn't sound familiar, but the cool, clipped tones were easily recognizable as Vulcan.  Tom had seen him on various occasions but they'd never met.  Tom didn't see much reason to, either; he got enough of his daily Vulcan requirement from putting up with Tuvok.
     "All right, I'm on my way."  Her expression was a combination of fatigue, annoyance and regret.  "Sorry, guys.  I'll have to meet up with you a little later to look at this stuff."
     "That's okay," Harry replied as the she swiftly departed.  "I could use the break anyway.  Unless you still feel like working, Tom?"
     Tom finally pulled himself off the floor.  "A break sounds nice.  How about meeting up later in the mess hall?  Neelix's coffee may not be 100% Columbian but it keeps you awake nonetheless."
     "Sounds like a plan.  I'll see you later."
     A nap sounded like an extremely good idea to Tom as he left Harry to finish downloading.  Their little brainstorming sessions often chewed up a few hours, usually at the expense of time designated for much- needed rest.  Despite his 'go until all hours' reputation, Tom didn't function well with a lack of sleep.
     He stepped into a turbolift and requested to be taken to Deck 4.  His thoughts shifted back to the shuttle simulation.  It was still the same basic problem: the warp nacelle pylons were getting torn from the fuselage near the point of critical velocity.  Unfortunately, a solution so far defied them, and their options dwindled with each subsequent test.  He didn't want to admit it, but it seemed like the project was rapidly approaching its demise.
     "Hey!  I was just looking for you."
     Tom was surprised to see Leena standing in front of him when the turbolift stopped.  After a moment's hesitation he slipped into his usual impertinent persona.  "Then I really missed out, didn't I?  Or did I still manage to sneak in under the wire?"
     She shook her head and playfully slapped him.  "Knock it off.  Your glib sense of humour actually gets annoying after a while, you know."
     "It happens to be one of my most endearing qualities.  So what did you want to see me about?"
     "Well, my shift ran late, and I know you've been working hard on the shuttle project, so I was hoping I could offer you a late dinner.  Interested?"
     So much for taking a nap.  He flashed her an irrepressible grin.  "That depends on where you're hosting."

     There were moments Tom still found himself surprised by Leena's change in personality.  Since their reconciliation she had become less combative, nothing like the woman he'd first lusted after.  Not that he minded the change - Leena seemed determined to give their partnership a real chance - but it felt unnatural somehow, like she was purposely trying to avoid another confrontation.
     Now was a case in point.  "I like what you've done with the place," Tom said as he surveyed the decor of her living quarters.  As he expected, the room was very clean and ordered, but it had a keen sense of style to it as well.  Definitely more 'homey' than his, but then he had never considered bringing many personal effects on what was supposed to have been a short-term observer's assignment.
     "Thank you," she answered while programming the replicator.  "A lot of the furnishings belonged to my parents when we were all still living together.  When I graduated from the Academy and received my first posting my father insisted I take them, so I'd always have a piece of home with me wherever I went.  I never really appreciated his sentiment until we got stuck out here."
     Tom spotted a holo-image sitting nearby and moved in to inspect it.  Now that he noticed, it was the only picture in the whole room.  That struck him as a bit odd.  A lot of people on Voyager had unconsciously made a practice of producing and displaying several images of family and friends, to keep the hope of returning home alive.  It was possible that he was making too much out of nothing, but hardly anything Leena Calloway did was an accident.
     He picked up the picture at looked at it.  It was an older man, presumably Leena's father.  A geologist, she had said.  The guy certainly looked the part of a scientist: tall and lanky, angular features.  There was no question; Leena inherited her good looks from her mother.
     Her mother.  That was the missing component.  Leena had never mentioned her mother until just a moment ago.  Something must have happened her mother.  Tonight would be a good time to ask about it.
     "What are you up to now, Tom?"
     He showed her the picture, both as an explanation and a question.  "This your old man?"
     "Yes, that's my father," she said, swiping the picture from him and setting it back down on the shelf.  She brushed the dust off the frame in a wistful manner.  "I can't imagine what he must be going through right now."
     "And your mother, it must be hard on her, too," Tom ventured.  Leena's head jerked up and her body tensed.  Tom suddenly had misgivings, thinking that he had just literally trampled over her mother's grave.
     Before he could prepare for her verbal onslaught, however, she relaxed again and looked back at the holo-image.  "It's possible, I guess.  I never really thought much about it."
     Tom felt like he had just dodged a stun beam.  He leaned back against the bulkhead.  "You and she don't get along too well, I take it."
     "My mother walked out on my father to continue her Starfleet career when I was very young," she answered dully.  "I thought what she'd done was unforgivable and for a long time I hated her, but I came to understand that it was what she had to do.  She was too much of an explorer to be able to settle down with a family."
     "I'm sorry, Leena.  I shouldn't have brought it up."
     "It's all right; I had to tell you at some point anyway."  She reluctantly returned the picture frame to its standing place.  "We should eat before the food gets cold."
     "Yeah, sure."  Tom followed Leena into the dining room, sullen.  And people wonder why so many Starfleet officers never marry.  Leena's the lucky one, though; her mother knew when to get out.  Tom sat down and looked at the meal on his dinner plate.  His stomach rumbled involuntarily, although he didn't feel much like eating anything.
     "So, how is the transwarp engine project coming along?"
     Tom was thankful that she decided to change subjects, but the new topic wasn't much better than the old one.  "It's not looking good," he sighed.
     "Hit a wall, have you?"
     "Yeah, and at about warp 9.98.  We're already scratching for ideas about how to prevent the pylons from ripping off the shuttle."
     "Well, don't give up, Tom.  If anyone can find the answer, it'll be you three."
     He grimaced at her pat reassurance.  "I wish I could share your optimism.  It's looking almost impossible."
     Leena smirked.  "Then I don't see why you're so worried.  You've developed a real habit of defying impossible situations."

     "Every time we get close to the threshold the subspace torque rips the nacelles off the shuttle."  B'Elanna's voice sounded very tired.  Tom wondered if it could be attributed to the almost constant demand for her presence in Engineering or if she was coming to the same conclusion about the fate of their project.
     "What about a duranium alloy?" Harry suggested, though by the tone of his voice even he was having doubts.  "We could try using it to reinforce...."
     "No," B'Elanna cut him off.  "I thought about that already.  It's too brittle."
     A gloomy, pensive atmosphere surrounded them again.
     "More coffee?"
     Tom's eyes darted up briefly at Neelix and groaned in silence.  Just what we don't need right now.  He must have some built-in radar for detecting depression.  If he starts talking about his grandmother's old sayings again I won't be liable for my actions.
     "You look like a happy bunch," he said as he topped up their mugs.
     Harry - poor, naive Harry - made the mistake of answering, thereby giving the Talaxian full consent to enter into their conference.  "We've hit a wall."
     "Oh."  It was an even bet that Neelix would want to add his two cents now; the Talaxian thought his role as morale officer immediately gave him the qualifications to solve any problem.  "Well, maybe I can help."
     Tom made little effort to hide his sarcasm.  "Great!  Do you know anything about quantum warp theory or multispectral subspace engine design?"
     The sarcasm was completely lost on Neelix.  He actually stopped for a moment to consider if he possessed such knowledge.  "Ah, no," he said at last, "but I'm a quick study."  He appropriated a chair and looked at the trio with unbounded enthusiasm.  "What are we working on?"  Only now did Harry fully grasp his error, and it showed in the slight sag of his shoulders.
     "Do you have anything to eat?" Torres abruptly asked him.  Tom immediately knew her inquiry was just a polite way of telling Neelix that his help wasn't needed.  It wasn't usually like B'Elanna to be so subtle, but Neelix's delicate disposition required a similar approach.
     She probably should have been more direct, however; Neelix was behaving more obtusely than usual.  "Ehh, sure.  There's some Kalevian biscuits somewhere in the kitchen."  He waved a hand dismissively in the general direction of the galley, already engrossing himself with the information on a PADD.
     After a few moments it became clear that the Talaxian had no intention of getting them.  "I guess I'll go find them myself," B'Elanna said, getting up slowly.  She paused beside Harry and patted him mockingly on the shoulder.  "Fill him in."
     Harry seemed to realize how close from the end of the rope he dangled.  He turned to the Talaxian hesitantly.  "Neelix, it would take too long to...."
     Neelix's whiskers began to quiver.  "What, are you saying I'm not smart enough?  I'll have you know I did two years as an engineer's assistant aboard a Trevalian freighter.  I'm well versed in warp theory."
     "Okay, okay, we'll tell you," Tom blurted.  He'd humour Neelix, if only to quiet him.  "We're trying to break the maximum warp barrier."  A wrinkled brow informed him that Neelix didn't understand.
     "Nothing in the universe can go Warp 10," Harry further explained.  "It's a theoretical impossibility.  In principle, if you were to reach Warp 10 you'd be travelling at infinite velocity."
     Neelix bobbed his head.  "Infinite velocity, got it.  So that means...very fast?"
     Tom almost rolled his eyes.  Well versed, my ass.  "It means that you would occupy every point in the universe simultaneously.  In theory you could go any place in the wink of an eye.  Time and distance would have no meaning."
     "If Voyager achieved Warp 10 we could be home in the time it takes to press a button," Harry said.
     Neelix's eyes boggled.  He was almost speechless.  Almost.  "Wow!  And you, you're working on this?"
     Tom picked up another PADD.  "The dilithium we discovered last month remains stable at a much higher warp frequency."
     "The problem is," Harry countered, "every time we simulate crossing the transwarp threshold the nacelles get torn off the ship."
     Neelix's lit up with familiarity.  "I remember, there was a time I lost a warp nacelle going through a dark matter nebula."
     A dark matter nebula?  Tom shook his head.  "This is a very different problem."
     "I realize that.  I'm just using it as an example."  Neelix looked over at Harry.  "As the ship went through the nebula it sent out a dark matter bow wave.  Eventually so much pressure built up it tore the nacelle from its housing.  Now maybe the same thing is happening to you."
     Tom visualized Neelix's explanation despite already dismissing it.  He saw the Talaxian's little craft try to plough its way through the intrastellar quagmire, saw the nebula resist the intrusion into its body, and saw the nacelle get ripped away in a failed battle of momentum versus inertia.  A textbook example, really, but it didn't have anything to do with their problem.  Neelix's damaged nacelle was due to simple Newtonian principles: the greater surface area of the shuttle's fuselage resulted in a greater amount of resistance force applied by the nebula than on the nacelles.
     "No, I don't think so," Harry answered.  "The simulations don't indicate any subspace stress on the nacelles."
     "Wait a minute," Tom suddenly said, immediately earning the pair's attention.  In his meandering thoughts an answer began to resolve.  There was a connection between Neelix's accident and their simulations.  The difference was that their problem was completely opposite.  "What about the shuttle itself?"
     Harry was puzzled.  "What do you mean?"
     "Maybe we've been looking in the wrong place.  What if the nacelles aren't being torn from the ship; what if the ship is being torn from the nacelles?"
     The ensign's eyes went glassy for a second, presumably creating the same mental picture Tom had just reviewed.  When they cleared Tom could see comprehension growing in them.  "The hull of the shuttle is made of tritanium alloy.  At the speeds we're talking about, that alloy could depolarize..."
     "...and create a velocity differential," Tom finished.  "The fuselage would be travelling at a faster rate of speed than the nacelles."
     "That means we just have to set up a depolarization matrix around the fuselage."
     A broad grin split Tom's face, rivalled equally by Harry's.  "That's it!"  The answer made so much sense it was impossible to believe they hadn't seen it before now.  To think, the transwarp engine project was destined for mothballing until Neelix - Neelix! - pointed out the problem with a simple 'nose on your face' perspective.  "Neelix, you're a genius!"  Tom nearly planted a kiss on the Talaxian's mottled cheek, but at the last second realized who he'd be kissing and opted for an excited hug instead.  From the sound of it Neelix was tickled pink by the affectionate gesture anyway.

     "Errrrgh."  Leena rolled over and lethargically wiped the sleep from her eyes.  "Wha...?"
     Thud, thud, thud, thud.
     Her faculties clearing, Leena realized that someone was pounding on her cabin door.  "Computer, lights, 35 percent."  She slipped on her night coat and trudged grumpily to the entrance.  The comm systems had better be down, she thought irritably, because that's the only thing that will keep me from killing whoever's on the other side of that bulkhead.
     As she got closer she discerned the muffled voice yelling at her in the hallway.  "Leena!  Open up already!"  She wrapped her coat a little more tightly around her, then opened the door.  Tom nearly smacked her in the nose as his fist continued to beat on a door that no longer existed.  "Finally!  I thought all security officers were light sleepers."
     "Sorry to disappoint you," Leena growled.  She yanked the pin off Tom's jacket.  "You could have tried using this.  I find it's a lot more effective than trying to punch a hole through the bulkhead."  She flipped it back at him and walked into the den.  Tom followed close behind, fumbling to refasten the badge.
     "Uh, right.  I'm so excited I guess I forgot.  I just had to come tell you.  We did it!"
     Leena stopped abruptly, gasping in shock.  She turned around, eyes wide.  "You crossed the threshold?"
     Tom's smile, already huge, spread wider.  "Yes.  Yes!"
     She tried to shriek excitedly, but her throat constricted; the only thing that came out was a shrill squeak.  She cupped her hands over her mouth, embarrassed by the noise, and then realized that Tom probably didn't care.  The announcement was simply staggering.  Warp 10 - the chance to return home, to resume life practically where it had been left, to see family and old friends once more - was only a hair's breadth away from reality.  Glee overwhelmed her, and she began giggling.  "That's wonderful!"
     Tom spread wide his arms and Leena, without a second thought, leaped into them.  He caught her and spun her in a full circle in merry celebration before setting her down.  They laughed together over the groundbreaking achievement and hugged each other as tightly as possible.  "I knew you could do it, Tom," Leena finally said after a long while.
     "Hey, this might not have happened if it hadn't been for you.  You were my motivation every step of the way."  He smirked.  "Even when I hated your guts."
     The statement was made lightly but it still neutralized Leena's ebullience.  Remnants of Tom's confession returned to her.  His freedom, his passion, and his happiness would all be taken away by the transwarp flight.  She felt awful for feeling so happy.
     Now Tom's smile had disappeared.  He looked at her with sudden concern.  "What's wrong?  Was it something I said?"
     "No, no, it's not your fault.  I was so caught up by what it will mean for me to go home again that I forgot for a moment what it might mean for you."
     For a brief instant she registered the surprise in his features.  Then it was gone, replaced with sincere affection.  "Don't worry about me, Leena.  I'll be fine."
     "You do realize that you could be sent back to the New Zealand penal settlement, don't you?  How can you be happy about that?"
     He stared deep into her eyes.  Leena was hypnotized, feeling as though he was grabbing hold of her soul.  "As long as you're happy, it doesn't matter what happens to me.  I survived New Zealand once, I can do it again."
     Leena felt a lump in her throat, and it took a few moments to clear.  "If it makes any difference, you can count on my support for an appeal when we get back."
     He caressed her cheek with the back of his hand, smiling softly.  "I'd like that."
     Slowly but without hesitation their lips met.  Leena's thoughts lingered on Tom's selfless humanitarianism.  She hadn't detected any insincerity from him when he'd declared his indifference about New Zealand.  Love and passion had reflected in his icy blue stare.  He meant every word.  It had taken their falling out to make her realize how much he cared for her, just as she cared for him.
     The kiss lasted two and a half seconds, just long enough to be significant.  Leena couldn't see but she could tell that her face and neck were flushed with excitement.  Tom regarded her wordlessly for a long moment.  She wondered what thoughts were going through his mind.  "I'd probably better get going.  I have bridge duty in the morning, though I'm not sure if I'll get any sleep tonight."
     "I know how you feel.  After what you just told me I don't know if I can go back to bed, either."
     Tom walked to the door, but stopped when it opened.  "You know something, Leena?  If this really works...I mean, if I can actually fly the Cochrane at Warp 10 in a live test, I may not have to worry about going back to prison.  Hell, I might not have to worry about anything anymore.  Just imagine what kind of respect I'll get for being the first pilot to break the threshold."
     "From your father, you mean?"
     He snorted mirthfully.  "Not exactly what I meant, but yeah, that would be something, too.  Nothing is ever assured with the Admiral.  At the very least I can show him that I'm not a failure."

On to Chapter 8...

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