Romancing the Stone: Stage III


Darrel W. Beach

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


     "I've just spoken to the Doctor, and it's his opinion that we let Ensign Kim make the test flight."
     Tom's self-consciousness about talking to the captain while wearing nothing but a bathrobe was quickly forgotten.  He had been making a few last-minute changes to his flight itinerary before he turned in for the night when she had dropped in, and the idea of conversing with his commanding officer with little more than a tie- string preventing his full exposure was disquieting.  Her announcement had caught him like a sucker punch to the solar plexus, however.  It took him a few moments to collect himself.  "May I ask why?"
     The captain's professional demeanour never wavered.  "He checked over your biometric readings from the shuttle simulations.  He says you have a slight enzymatic imbalance in your cerebellum."
     That meant absolutely nothing to Tom.  "So?"
     "I know it doesn't sound like much, but he can't predict what will happen when you cross the threshold.  He believes there's a small chance that you could suffer a brain hemorrhage under the subspace stress."
     Tom rankled.  "How big a chance?"
     The captain hesitated.  "Two percent."
     Tom stifled a laugh at the ridiculousness of the number.  "Two percent?"  He jumped out his chair and paced a small path in front of the captain.  He wasn't about to allow the captain to coddle this opportunity from him.  "I'll take that chance."
     Her voice was quiet but firm.  "There's no reason to.  Ensign Kim is capable of piloting the shuttle for this mission."
     Tom rolled his eyes toward the ceiling and resumed his pacing.  "Yeah, he's capable."  His anger and his voice increased in volume.  That's not the point."
     "What is the point, Mr. Paris?"
     The point is that you're ruining my life.  He'd never dare say that to the captain, not after the trouble he'd gotten himself into before.  "Well, it's hard to explain, but...this is my flight."
     She cocked her head.  "Your flight?"
     Tom sighed in frustration and thought for a minute how to best to recap the sum of his life.  "When I was a boy my father used to tell me that I was special, that one day I'd do something significant.  My teachers at school, all my friends, everyone used to say, 'Tom Paris is going to do something important when he grows up'."  He laughed bitterly as he thought about how his life had turned out.  Yeah, I did something important, all right.  I sullied a legacy of seven generations.  Hooray for me.  His history spread out before him as one screw up after another, with no recourse for atonement.  That was, until now.  "Obviously that didn't happen."
     "This isn't about personal redemption," the captain lectured.  "We're talking about medical risk.  Your life could be in danger, and we need you."
     He stepped towards her aggressively.  He was on a roll now, and he wasn't about to give up the fight.  "Captain, this is the first time in ten years I feel I have a life to risk."
     She did not immediately respond.  Tom matched stares with her; the captain had a strong will, but this time he wanted to show her that he could be even more determined.  She studied him very hard.  "You're sure about this?"
     So he had won the battle of wills.  All that remained was to sell her on the idea that it was the right thing to do.  "Captain, I've never been so sure about anything.  Please," he implored.  "Please let me make the flight."
     She stood up, stepped in front of him and bore a studious glare right through him.  She had to let him pilot the shuttle, he thought, if there was any justice in the universe.  She just wasn't coming out and saying it.  Her silence frayed his nerves, but he stood solid and returned her stare with equal conviction.
     "Good luck, Lieutenant."  A hint of a smile danced on her lips.  Then she marched out of his quarters.  Tom waited until he heard the doors close before sighing a huge breath of relief.

     Tom walked into the main shuttle bay and saw a wonderful sight.  The Cochrane, its sleek design making it look like it was moving fast even while at a stop, had been manoeuvred onto the primary launch pad.  An assortment of engineers and security personnel were bustling about, preparing the craft for the launch.  Leena was there also, co-ordinating the whole thing.  Tom couldn't decide which was more beautiful, the shuttle or the lieutenant.
     She noticed him come in and smiled.  "So, the big moment's finally arrived.  How are you feeling?"
     "Like my whole life is about to change."  He smiled back.  "I see you couldn't resist being a part of this monumental event."
     "Hey, I'm doing my job, just like everyone else.  If it happens to be supervising personnel in the shuttle bay, well...."  She shrugged.
     "You don't fool me, Calloway.  You pulled strings, didn't you?"
     "And don't tell me you don't appreciate it, either."
     "Believe me, I'm not complaining."  He very much wanted to kiss her, but they were both on duty and in plain sight of at least half a dozen people.  Leena looked much the same way: anxious and helpless.  "Wish me luck, huh?"
     "Good luck, Tom."  She drummed up enough nerve to squeeze his shoulder.  "Try and come back in one piece."
     "Hey, no sweat.  I've already flown this in the simulation.  What could possibly go wrong?"

     "Bridge to Shuttlecraft Cochrane, you're cleared for launch."
     Tom felt butterflies in his stomach.  He hadn't felt this way since his first day manning the conn of the Renegade, his first assignment out of the academy.  On the other hand, he didn't often take part in history-making flights.  Quashing the fluttering sensation, he touched the comm link.  "Aye, Captain.  See you at Warp 10."
     The shuttle darted out from within Voyager's belly and swung around alongside the larger craft.  Without hesitation the shuttle then jumped into warp.  Voyager followed suit a second later.
     Tom checked his instrument panel.  Shields were stable.  Power output was nominal.  Structural integrity, inertial dampening, and depolarization matrix were all on-line.  He was ready.  "Cochrane to Voyager, all systems are nominal.  I'm increasing speed."
     "We'll keep up with you as long as we can."
     He barely heard the captain's remark, his concentration now focused on the velocity indicator as the shuttle began its inexorable climb to the threshold.  "Warp 7."  So far the readings were excellent.  "Warp 8."  The butterflies returned.  He was on his way to becoming the next great legend in the Federation.  "Warp 9."  The depolarization matrix was holding steady, but the real test was yet to come.  Tom mentally crossed his fingers and hoped that he wouldn't have to abort.  He could feel success within his grasp.
     "Torres to Shuttlecraft Cochrane, you're cleared for transwarp velocity."
     Tom felt a rush of adrenaline.  The moment of truth had arrived.  It was all he could to keep the fervour out of his voice.  "Acknowledged.  Engaging transwarp drive in five, four, three, two...."  At the count of zero he activated the drive, and instantly the shuttle jumped forward with an incredible acceleration.  The extra jerk shoved Tom into the back of his pilot's chair.  He experienced a giddy thrill watching the velocity reading soar.  He nearly forgot about the open comm line and reporting his progress.  "Warp 9.7.  9.8.  9.9."
     Tom was amazed.  Even if he had to abort now, he was probably the first pilot to stably fly a shuttlecraft at such extreme velocity.  Still the Cochrane accelerated.  He quickly checked the depolarization matrix.  It held steady.  The fuselage showed no signs of stress fracturing.  Harry's solution worked!  He was going to make it!  "Warp 9.95.  Engine output at maximum.  Velocity...."
     Without warning, all noise seemed to cease.  The whine of the engines muted to a lulling hum.  The shuttle had stopped bucking against the increasing turbulence, which had now completely abated.  However, the absence of every external stimulus did not register to Tom.  His eyes were fixed on a single display.
     "Warp 10."  He could not hide the awe as he read the figure in front of him.  He had just broken the unbreakable limit.  The impossible was no longer so.  He glanced up briefly to peer out the forward view.  The vista was nothing more than a slur of light, though he wasn't sure if it could really be described as light.  It couldn't be described as anything, for that matter.  It was there, and not there.
     Tom shook himself out of his wandering thoughts.  He was still on a mission.  "Transwarp engines are stable," He reported from the conn.  "So are the nacelle pylons.  I'm going to disengage the transwarp drive and...."
     The velocity indicator distorted, but in a way Tom found difficult to describe.  It seem to blur and stretch away from him, the two- dimensional numbers almost taking on a three dimensional property.  As they continued their extrusion Tom discovered that he could see the back of his own head, a thousand times over.  Dizziness overcame him.  He felt a pulling sensation on his eyes, a strange sense of vertigo.  Every slight movement he made was repeated by this unending line of doppelgangers in near synchronicity, imitating the undulating motion of water.  A pain of magnificent proportions ploughed through his head, his brain struggling to process an infinite number of images at once.  He squeezed shut his eyes and forced his breathing back to normal until the initial shock to his system wore off.  The pain reduced to a mild ache.  He was hesitant to open his eyes, though, fearing that the overwhelming discomfort was not just due to his lack of preparedness.
     Slowly, he reopened his eyes and braced himself against the maelstrom.  It was not as bad this time; the duplicates had vanished, replaced by a fuzzy swirling of images.  It was like looking at a billion different holo-images superimposed on each other.  His head began to hurt once more, but not severely.  By some unknown manner of discrimination he could perceive thousands of different places, all unique.  If he concentrated hard enough he could actually discern familiar surroundings.  He found himself on Voyager, scattered through the different levels and sections.  He was standing in the mess hall, in Sickbay, on the bridge, in his quarters, in somebody's closet, in a turbolift car, on the outer hull, in Cargo Bay 2.
     A cool breeze blew through his hair as he watched young and eager cadets head off to their next classes at the Versailles campus.  Someone behind him shouted, but in a voice filled with temper and panic.  He turned around and ducked in time to avoid being hit by disruptor fire.  He immediately sprinted away from the Cardassian soldiers firing at him, while the Maquis fighters shouted orders to each other.  He dove for a nearby outcropping of rocks, performing a standard tuck and roll to avoid injury.  Recovering into a crouch, he looked up and discovered that the outcropping no longer existed, nor the two troops exchanging weapons fire.  In their place stood a field of grain, the tall stalks swaying gently against the breeze.  Across the field a couple of Klingon farmers were busy cultivating, unmindful of any observers.  Rain began to spatter against the back of Tom's neck, and before he knew it he was standing in front of a Ferengi investment office building in the middle of a drizzling rain shower.
     It seemed to continue forever, yet took no time at all.  Tom stepped through countless streets on numerous different worlds, both familiar and utterly alien in appearance.  He walked through the corridors of a Borg cube, completely unnoticed by the thousands of drones he passed.  He witnessed the birth and death of stars in different parts of the galaxy at the same time.  And he encountered species the Federation could not hope to encounter yet for hundreds - even thousands - of years.  It was an accomplishment worthy of his namesake.

     "That's your grandfather seven times removed, Nathan Conrad Paris.  Captain of the USS Columbus," his father said in way of describing the displayed picture.  "He was the first in our family to serve in Starfleet.  He was making first contact with alien civilizations when James Kirk was still training at the academy."
     By the way his father enunciated the name Tom knew it was supposed to mean something important, but he just couldn't decide what that was.  After all, he was only five years old.  "Who's James Kirk?"
     There was that look again: his father often adopted that look when the young boy frustrated him.  "He was one of the great pioneers, a starship captain who knew when to take matters into his own hands.  He helped shape Starfleet into the institution we have today, just like your great-grandpa Nathan."
     "Was his ship fast?"  Tom leaned over to get a better look at some of the other photos in the book.
     His father shifted the boy in his lap.  "Well, as a matter of fact, back in his time Nathan had the fastest ship in the fleet."
     "Wow," Tom gasped in wide-eyed astonishment.  "I bet he could fly across the universe like this: whsssh, whsssh, whssssh!"  He smacked his hand into his father's stout chest as he swung his arm in a rocket-like imitation.
     "Now don't be silly, Thomas.  Warp propulsion two hundred years ago wasn't nearly as refined as it is now.  In fact, even if Nathan pushed his ship past its top speed it still wouldn't be faster than today's normal cruising speed.  It would take your great-grandfather a week to go from Vulcan to Betazed."
     "Daddy, when I grow up I'm going to fly the most fastest ship anyone's ever seen, and it'll only take me three seconds!"
     The Admiral's voice dripped with condescension as he patted the tot's head.  "I'm sure you will, son.  I'm sure you will."

     The memory was startlingly vivid, as if Tom had actually re-lived that moment.  It seemed appropriate to have remembered it, though.  A child's fantasy was now a reality.  He experienced a moment of smug superiority to the admiral, having been put off by the man's humouring of Tom's younger self.  "Looks like you're in for a big surprise, Dad.  Little Tommy finally made good on his word."
     Tom couldn't decide what he wanted to do next.  Then, either by coincidence or unconscious effort, he once again saw Voyager.  More specifically, he saw Leena, a vision of sensual beauty.  His pulse quickened in response.  She appeared quite distraught over something, though.  The scene quickly shifted to the bridge, where people moved about urgently wearing similar expressions of anxiety.  Tom began to comprehend why.
     "I've done three full sensor sweeps," Harry's voice carried an edge of resentment.  "No sign of the shuttle within five parsecs."
     The captain absorbed the announcement grimly as she paced behind her chair.  "Tuvok, could the shuttle be destroyed?"
     "I don't believe so.  Sensors indicate that he did cross the transwarp threshold."
     "If that's true then he could be anywhere in the universe," Harry said.
     "We'll just have to keep searching our small corner," the captain said with finality.
     They were looking for him.  Tom had been oblivious to any passage of time throughout his trek through the infinite.  He could have been out here for days or weeks without realizing it, and it shocked him to think that he had almost selfishly forsaken everyone on that ship.  He felt deeply ashamed and embarrassed.  He immediately deactivated the transwarp drive, determined to return to Voyager and give his report on the mission to the captain.
     With the abrupt, tremendous decrease of stimuli, Tom's body did the only thing it could to protect itself: it shut down.  Tom was far gone into unconsciousness by the time the Cochrane returned to normal space.

     "Wake up, Lieutenant!"
     Tom startled back to consciousness with alacrity.  He had absolutely no idea who or where he was, though.  Stars danced in his field of vision and his heart threatened to burst through his chest.
     "All you all right, Tom?"
     His eyes targeted the owner of the voice, soft and filled with concern, but the question got lost in the tidal wave of adrenaline that had followed his waking.  It took a moment to register that the person, Captain Janeway, had actually addressed him.  "I'm back," he said with quiet awe.
     "We tracked you until you crossed the threshold, then you disappeared from our sensors."  Tom turned back to the voice, now fully remembering Captain Janeway.  "Do you remember what happened?"
     As if he could ever forget such an awesome experience.  "Oh, yeah."  He propped himself up on his elbows.  "I was...I was staring at the velocity indicator.  It said 'Warp 10'.  And then, as I watched it, I suddenly realized that I was watching myself as well.  I could see the outside of the shuttle.  I could see Voyager.  I could see inside Voyager.  I could see the inside of this room.  For a moment I was everywhere.  I mean everywhere, Captain: with the Kazon, back home, with the Klingons, other was all there!  I don't know how else to explain it.  It was like...well, no, it wasn't like anything."
     "Well, I'm glad you had a good time," the Doctor replied dryly.
     The captain, though, was quite a bit more interested.  "How did you get back to Voyager?"
     Tom smiled fondly.  He could still see the activity on the bridge from before.  "I saw that you were looking for me, so I took the new engines off-line and ended up back where I started."  The bright, clear image in his mind began to darken and fade.  No!  To his dismay, every recollection about the trip was disappearing.  The more he tried to focus on a particular moment, the more elusive it was.  "But it's starting to slip away.  It all was so vivid and now..."
     With that outburst the last of his memories vanished.  Tom looked over at B'Elanna numbly.  He couldn't believe it.  The most pointed moment of his life, and he could no longer remember was it was like.  He wanted the memories back.  "I - I'm fine.  How's the shuttle?"
     B'Elanna grinned absurdly at the question.  "You brought it back without a scratch.  The on-board sensors confirmed that you did it.  You made it to Warp 10."
     "Congratulations, Mr. Paris," the captain said.  "You just made the history books."
     Tom was smiling, but more because of the shuttle's condition.  "We should download the shuttle's sensor logs, analyze the telemetry they picked up during the flight before we make another attempt."
     He leaned over to slide off the examination bed but didn't get very far.  The Doctor intercepted him and pushed him back.  "You're not going anywhere, at least not for a few hours.  I have some tests I'd like to run on Your Majesty before I release you back into the realm of ordinary humans."  Janeway and Torres shared an amused glance over the Doctor's aggrandizement.
     Tom thought to protest, but quickly reconsidered.  An argument would gain nothing except a longer delay.  No one had ever had much luck in winning an argument with the emergency medical hologram, especially once he had been given control over his activation command.  If Tom humoured him the Doctor would at least be a little easier to deal with.  "You may proceed," Tom answered with an aristocratic air, resting back on the bed.
     "We'll download the logs," the captain told him.  "I'll let you know what we find."
     Tom smiled back.  "Thank you, Captain."

     The tests were boring, but at least the Doctor was unassuming in his behaviour.  Tom would have to remember to be servile the next time he came in for a physical.  He'd have the Doctor out of his hair in no time.
     Some time later the Doctor finally discharged him.  Tom could barely keep himself from bolting down the hallway to the turbolift.  The captain had yet to call him about the shuttle logs and he was anxious to see what was holding them up.
     He turned at the first junction and collided with a body travelling the opposite direction.  It just happened to be Lieutenant Calloway.  They both ended up on the floor.
     Tom shuffled back to his feet.  "Hey, you all right?"
     "Tom!"  She accepted the offered hand and regained her footing.  She then clamped her arms around him so hard she almost crushed the wind out of his lungs.  "Thank goodness you're okay!  I was so worried.  When they had to tow the shuttle back aboard I didn't know what had happened to you."
     "I'll have to consider getting into more accidents on away missions if this is how you greet me when I recover."
     She released him.  "No one except senior personnel was allowed to visit Sickbay until after the Doctor finished his examination.  I came the second I heard you call the captain in the shuttle bay."
     "I didn't think it would take this long to download a few logs.  I've got to see what's going on."  He resumed his course to the turbolift.
     She grabbed his arm.  "Tom, wait.  We need to talk."
     Tom grimaced.  "Can't it wait?"
     "No, it can't.  You know how I feel about you.  It took me a long time to accept those feelings.  I don't mean offense, but you aren't exactly my idea of a reliable partner."
     "I've been called worse."
     "That night, when I told you that I had developed feelings for you, I was still holding back.  Since that kiss in the turbolift I've been a little more than attracted to you physically."
     Tom stopped dead in his tracks and turned back to face her with an expression of stupefication.  He was astounded not as much by her admission as he was by the manner in which she said it, right in the middle of the corridor where anyone could hear.
     She stepped closer and lowered her voice.  "I couldn't tell you.  You were still angry with me and I didn't want you to think I was trying to curry reconciliation.  More than that, I've always worried that you only think of me as a sexual conquest; I couldn't commit myself when there was a risk that you'd toss me aside once you got what you wanted.  I needed time to figure out whether or not your intentions were truly sincere.
     "When you disappeared I realized what a mistake that was.  In our line of work the threat of death is frequent, especially out here where we have no one to rely on except ourselves.  Time is not a luxury we have to make important decisions, because tomorrow any one of us could be killed."
     Tom could feel the formation of sweat on his upper lip.  This was way more important than anything the captain could have possibly found in the sensor logs.  "Are you saying what I think you're saying?"
     She moved closer.  "Let me put it another way."  To Tom's surprise, she engulfed him with one of the most passionate kisses he had ever experienced.
     Tom's senses reeled.  He couldn't figure out what had come over her.  He'd pegged Leena as conservative, even after she had opened up to him.  Mauling him in a corridor didn't fit her modus operandi.
     He could tell that she was putting everything she had into the kiss.  Her body felt wonderful pressed against his, and the taste of her lips intoxicated him.  Tom couldn't help but feel aroused.
     Something was wrong, though.  He wasn't responding, in spite of all the right conditions.  His enthusiasm waned as soon as he realized what was wrong.
     Leena noticed the change and broke the kiss.  "What's wrong?"
     "I don't understand.  I want to - I mean, I really want to, but...nothing's happening."
     Leena tried to cover her disappointment with a sympathetic smile.  "I wouldn't worry too much about it, Tom.  You're probably still getting over all of the excitement of the flight."
     "I'm sorry, Leena.  Guess I got you all worked up for nothing."
     "You don't have to apologize, Tom.  We'll just try again some other time.  You'll feel like yourself again once you've had a chance to rest."

On to Chapter 9...

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