Romancing the Stone: Stage III


Darrel W. Beach

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


     The Doctor sounded stupefied by his own diagnosis.  "He's definitely having an allergic reaction - to the water in the coffee."
     Tom was helpless to comment on the absurdity of the Doctor's analysis.  He could barely draw enough air through the staggering pain in his stomach.  An agonized scream stole it from him as the liquid ate away like acid at his internal organs.
     At least B'Elanna was there to voice his skepticism.  "He's allergic to water?"
     "I don't know how this is possible, but it appears that his entire biochemistry is changing.  His electrolytes are breaking down, interstitial fluids are congealing...."
     What the hell is happening to me?  It was extremely difficult to think, not only because of the pain he was suffering but also because it felt like the billions of synapses in his brain were ignited.  He couldn't believe there would be anything worse than what he was experiencing right now.
     Then he discovered he couldn't breathe.
     The Doctor hovered over him again with the tricorder.  "The alveoli in his lungs are mutating.  He's no longer processing oxygen."
     B'Elanna sounded almost as scared as he felt.  "What should we do?"
     "Stand back."  The Doctor turned off the bioscanner and quickly left the surgical bay along with B'Elanna.  Tom couldn't understand why they were abandoning him.  Don't leave!
     "Computer, erect an isolation field around the surgical bay."  At the Doctor's request, a force field crackled to life.  "Computer, remove all the air from within the force field and replace it with eighty percent nitrogen and twenty percent acid dichloride."
     Within moments Tom was once again breathing normally, but he felt no comfort.  The Doctor said his internal organs were mutating.  The flight must have affected him somehow, but why hadn't the Doctor discovered anything wrong during his examinations?  If detecting his condition was that elusive, he wasn't too optimistic about his chances.
     Every part of his body suddenly seared with pain.  He screamed.
     "His cellular membranes are deteriorating.  He's dying."  The Doctor sounded distinctly urgent.  "I need to know more about what happened on that shuttle, and I need to know it now."

     Leena charged into Sickbay.  Word of Tom's collapse in the mess hall had spread quickly throughout the ship.  Her recent commitment, still in its formative stages, was already being seriously tested.  "Tom?"  She looked around anxiously.
     He lay prone on the surgical bed.  He looked horrible.  His skin was pasty, his eyes were sunken and yellow, and his hair was plastered to his forehead from sweat.  The Doctor hovered over him almost constantly, injecting him with hyposprays or waving other instruments over his body.  Leena also noticed the Doctor's grim, troubled expression.  She knew about Tom's antagonistic relationship with the hologram.  Tom's condition had to be serious for the Doctor to look so concerned.  "Oh, Tom...."
     Leena felt a hold on her arm.  She was surprised to see that Kes had snuck up on her without being noticed.  "You mustn't disturb the Doctor right now," the little Ocampa said in her contradictory low voice.  "He's in the middle of an intricate procedure."
     "Is he going to be okay?"
     "We're doing all we can for him," Kes answered after pondering a moment.  Her eyes, normally alight with cheer and optimism, were noticeably darker, less confident.
     Leena heard Tom grunt with discomfort.  She looked over and saw him squirming on the table.  "This isn't fair," she said almost to herself.  "He's suffered through so much adversity his whole life.  This was his one great chance to come out ahead, and look what happens."
     "Tom's a survivor.  He'll get through this."
     The buzz of the force field caught Leena's attention.  The Doctor had completed his procedure and was coming to meet his visitor.  "He's stable for the time being, but I don't know how long he'll stay that way.  It's almost like his body is adapting to every treatment I'm performing."
     Leena had not been aware of the isolation field before.  "Why is there a force field around him?"
     "It was necessary to create an atmosphere that he could breathe.  The shuttle flight somehow caused radical changes to the lieutenant's physiological and biochemical structures.  As a result, Lieutenant Paris is no longer capable of breathing an oxygenated atmosphere."
     "Oh, my God."  She looked at Tom, worried.  "You can fix him though, can't you, Doctor?  Return him to normal?"
     "Perhaps, if I could stop the deterioration of his cellular membranes.  Whatever happened to him has also caused his cells to stop converting the fat and proteins in his body."
     Tom had turned his head toward the trio, but still lay flat on the table.  His voice sounded tired, lifeless.  Leena swallowed the lump forming in her throat.  She walked over as close as she could get to him until she felt the tingle of electricity against her skin.  "Hi, Tom."
     "I think I know why I couldn't get it up now."
     Leena smiled apologetically.  "At least your priorities haven't changed."
     "You know what I'm really going to miss?  The way your hair smells.  It kinda reminds me of my mother's.  You must use similar shampoos."
     "You sound like you're never going to see me again.  You're going to be okay, Tom.  The Doctor's working very hard to cure you."
     Tom closed his eyes and turned away.  "No, I'm not getting out of here.  I'm gonna be stuck inside this room for the rest of my life.  I'll never be able to touch you or kiss you or do anything with you to cement our relationship because I don't breathe the same air anymore."
     "I may have been hard to get, Tom, but you'll find I'm even harder to get rid of.  The Doctor will stop what's happening to you and return you to normal.  You'll see."
     "I wish I could believe that, but - ungh."  His body spasmed involuntarily.  Tom looked seriously distressed.  Then the console monitoring his vital signs trilled.  The Doctor appeared immediately at Tom's bedside.
     "I'm sorry, Lieutenant, but visiting hours are over."  He spoke into the console, but Leena assumed he addressed her.
     "No, I can't leave.  He needs to know that I'll always be here for him."
     "Well, now he knows.  I don't need you in here distracting everyone while I'm working."
     The Doctor's brusqueness aggravated her.  She would have tried to pick him up and shake some sense into him if it were possible.  Kes must have seen or sensed her mood, for she was again at Leena's side.  "It's all right, Lieutenant.  Tom's just feeling sorry for himself right now."
     "I know.  I don't want him to have to go through this alone."
     Kes smiled tenderly.  "He won't be, because your heart will still be here with him, along with those of all his other friends."  It sounded like a romantic cliche, but somehow the young woman made it sound more like a simple statement of fact.  "I'll let you know if anything happens."

     Leena unconsciously pushed her spoon around a bowl of stew while she stared out through one of the bay windows in the mess hall.  It had been nearly an hour since she left Sickbay with Kes' dulcimer words soothing her agitated mood, but she still felt discontent.  To see Tom in need of help and be unable of offer any was a moment she did not enjoy or wish to experience again.  She was used to being in control of situations, or at least appearing to have control.  In Sickbay there was nothing to assume except a feeling of helplessness.  Leena was disgusted to think how weak and pathetic she must have appeared.
     A few more people were leaving, thinning out the already sparse attendance of late diners.  Not that it mattered to her.  She hadn't really come to eat and banter with people she barely knew.  She wanted to find a quiet place where she could reflect upon the tumult of her relationship with Tom and wait for Kes to find her.
     "Is the stew not to your liking?  I could fix up something else for you."
     Leena looked up at Neelix's unexpected arrival, and with annoyance looked away again.  She should have expected that Neelix would try poking his nose into her affairs.  "No, thank you.  Guess I'm just not hungry."
     "Ah," he said, nodding comprehension.  He clasped his hands over his stout frame.  "Just as I thought.  There's something bothering you, isn't there?  Do you need someone to talk about it?  I've always found that sharing problems with a friend makes me feel better."
     "I just want to be left alone, Mr. Neelix.  Besides, I hardly know you well enough to call you a friend."
     His whiskers drooped noticeably.  "Oh, I see.  Well, sorry to have bothered you."
     The hurt in his voice prompted Leena to look up just in time to see him shuffle back to the kitchen.  With a pang of guilt she realized how cold she must have sounded.  He was only trying to help, and although she didn't want it she could have been much more civil in declining his offer.  She opened her mouth to apologize but Neelix was already too far away to be discreet.  Leena sighed and stared out into space again, frustrated even further.
     She didn't know how much longer she had sat there when Kes finally appeared.  The Ocampa's voice was brooding.  "Lieutenant Calloway."
     Leena looked up quickly.  Kes' expression confirmed what she had heard.  Her stomach tightened.  "It's not good news, is it?"
     Kes shook her head.  "I'm afraid not."
     "How bad is he?"
     For the longest moment Kes simply stared at her.  Her jaw muscles twitched furiously, and she looked away.  Leena could tell that she was searching for the right words, to deliver as soft an impact as she could.  At that moment Leena knew, even before the Ocampa's eyes met her again.  "I'm very sorry, Leena.  He's gone."
     A hollow feeling enveloped Leena.  She wanted to get angry, to yell and cry over the injustice of losing yet another person whom she let get close to her, but she couldn't.  "I see.  Well, thank you for letting me know."
     Kes' brow furrowed.  "Forgive me, Lieutenant, but you don't seem very upset for a person who's just lost someone close to their heart."
     Leena shook her head.  "I don't...I know.  It's strange.  I can feel the pain and hurt, but I can't...."  She tried to wring the tension out of her hands, and failed.  "There's just too much.  So much has happened in the last few hours, it's like I don't have anything left to feel."
     She sighed and looked up at Kes.  "It doesn't seem right, though, like I'm betraying him."
     "Oh, of course; I should have recognized it sooner.  You're in shock."  Kes sat down beside her.  "You have no reason to feel ashamed, Lieutenant.  It's perfectly normal human behaviour.  Tom has become such a significant part of your life that his death is overwhelming you.  You'll find that once you begin to accept the loss you'll be able to grieve for him.  Just give it time."
     "I...I'll try."  Leena looked at her hands folded on the table.  "I don't know how to thank you for this.  I hardly know you."
     A tiny hand clasped hers.  Leena looked up.  "You don't have to.  Neelix and I are the ones who will never be able to repay the kindness you and others have shown us.  You gave us freedom and an opportunity to share your journey of exploration.  You've made us a part of your community.  I'm not about to take that for granted.  As long as you'll have us I'll do everything I can to help the community."
     Leena regarded Kes with disguised wonder.  She's so accepting of people, even despite her cruel treatment by the Kazon-Ogla.  I could learn a lot from her, and she's only two years old!  A hint of a smile touched her lips.  "I'll have to remember that the next time you need help.  If you'll excuse me, I think I should find my quarters and get some sleep.  I have a few reports I still have to finish for tomorrow's security briefing, and I'll need to get up early."
     Kes frowned slightly, but nodded.  "Of course.  Good night, Lieutenant."

     Sleep did not come easily for Leena that night.  Her mind still hummed with activity; she couldn't stop thinking about Tom and her discussion with Kes.  She had never thought Tom's death would affect her as much as Kes claimed.  As she thought more about it, though, she realized that Tom really had become a major figure in her life.  Even if his intentions were less than altruistic, no one else even cared enough to remove her from her lonely world and get her to interact with people again.  Or perhaps they did; Tom only succeeded because he stood up to her and challenged her beliefs.
     Several hours later she finally succumbed to a restless slumber, but her mind continued to work.  She dreamed that she was back home again at Outpost 115 where her family used to live.  It was a bright and warm spring afternoon; she could smell an inviting mix of waringholly, orange spruce, and fresh water in the mountain air.  She could be nowhere else except Amagar National Park; she recognized it from the one time she had gone on a vacation with both her mother and father.  It had been a wonderful time exploring the natural landscape that her father had helped create.  Crossing streams, picking flowers in the meadows, hiking the mountain trails....  She wiped the sweat off her forehead.  The mid-morning sun was getting warmer and the mountain air was dry.  She would get a good workout today.
     "Hey, Leena!  What's the hold up?"
     She looked around and smiled when she spotted Tom several metres further up the trail.  "Just reliving a few memories, that's all."
     He waved her over.  "Come on, your folks are literally leaving us in the dust."
     "Don't worry about me, Tom.  I know my way around here.  Go on ahead, I'll catch up."
     "Have it your way, but don't be too long.  I'm sure your parents would love to hear some of my stories about you."  He grinned mischievously and disappeared over the crest before Leena could snap off a retort.
     She chuckled to herself.  That had to be what endeared him the most to her; Tom was a mature adult but still possessed the energy and playfulness of a young boy.  It proved invaluable when her mother arrived with her new husband.  What could have been a tense, awkward family reunion had been made significantly more comfortable with his quick humour and laissez-faire attitude.  How could she have ever thought that Tom wouldn't add something positive to her life?
     Not wanting to fall too far behind, Leena jogged up to the crest.  She saw them up ahead about twenty metres or so.  It gave her a warm feeling to see her mother and father talking and laughing with each other, even though she knew they would never get back together.  While the thought of a having a step-father didn't sit well with Leena she respected her mother for finally making a commitment; they had been married for nearly two years, and had been living together for another five.  Her father certainly seemed happy for her, more than what Leena expected.  Although still single himself, he maintained that his life was complete and he could not think to resent his ex-wife for wanting the same.  There was closure for everyone, and life was perfect.
     Then the dream turned suddenly, horribly awry.  The ground began to shake and rumble.  Without warning a thunderous CRACK pealed through the valley.  Leena reflexively clapped her hands over her ringing ears, the pain almost forcing her to her knees.  The ground beneath her, however, buckled and twisted until she fell over.  She cried sharply as her ankle bent at an awkward angle.  "What's happening?" she yelled at no one.
     Somehow, amid the intense pain and deafening rumble of an earthquake she couldn't explain, Leena heard her mother scream.  She looked up and watched in terror as her family disappeared into a gaping maw in the side of the mountain; the fissure had opened up right underneath them.  Tom was nowhere in sight.
     "No!"  Ignoring her twisted ankle, Leena struggled to her feet and raced as quickly as she could to the fissure.  It couldn't end this way, it just couldn't.  She dropped to her hands and knees and crawled the remainder of the distance until she could peek down the newly created chasm.  What she saw almost made her sick with fear.  Tom literally hung off the side of the cliff, desperately clutching on to a narrow outcropping.  The others were gone.  Leena knew that her father and mother could not have survived the fall; she could not even see a bottom to the abyss.  She fought off the tears that threatened to flow from her eyes; there was still a chance to save Tom, and it wouldn't help to have impaired vision.
     Tom looked up and saw her.  "Leena!  Help me!"
     Leena didn't think she would ever hear his voice filled with panic.  She didn't ever want to again.
     The outcropping looked to be only a metre below her, but it wasn't wide enough for a sure foothold.  With one bad ankle she would not risk trying to climb down anyway.  She chided herself for not carrying a survival pack with her; the cord of nylon rope would have been extremely useful.  It would be no simple task to pull him up.
     "Hang on!"  She extended her arm as far as she could stretch, but the tips of her fingers were still several centimetres shy of the outcropping.  "Damn, I can't reach far enough!  Can you try to grab my hand at all?"
     She saw him square his jaw, putting aside panic to concentrate on his rescue.  "I might be able to vault myself up far enough to try, but my arms are getting tired.  If we miss I won't have enough strength left to try again."
     It was risky, but if they didn't try it Tom would eventually tire out.  "Then we won't miss."
     "Okay.  On the count of three I'll pull up, then grab your hand.  Got it?"
     Leena nodded.  "Got it."
     "Okay."  He took a few deep breaths to steady himself, then he flexed his arms to generate as much momentum as he could while he started counting off.  "One...two...three!"
     Time seemed to slow to a quarter.  Tom's knuckles turned white from the increased pressure he added to lift his full weight to a new centre of gravity.  Just before his upward momentum stopped completely he swung out with his right hand.  His fingers splayed open, ready to find Leena's outstretched palm.  Leena tried to extend her arm a few extra centimetres.  His hand was so close....
     His dust-caked hand solidly slapped against hers and she instantly squeezed her fingers closed around it.  Leena was almost ready to celebrate when the law of gravity reasserted itself.  The extra momentum created by Tom's manoeuvre now worked against them.  Leena grimaced as a heavier-than-normal Tom yanked her arm.  Though she gripped him with enough force to break bones, the sweat from their hands forced her hold to slip.
     Tom's eyes widened with alarm when he realized what was happening.  Desperately he tried to grab her hand with his left, but he had waited just a moment too long.  His right slid free of her grasp.  He began to plummet.  Then his hands found the outcropping once more and stopped his decent.
     He looked up at her, and without saying a word Leena knew what he was planning to do.  Her stomach fluttered and her eyes stung with salted tears.  "Tom, no!"
     "I want you to know that I enjoyed every minute I spent with you, even when we didn't get along.  You're a remarkable person, Leena Calloway.  I'll love you always."  With his last words, he let go.
     Leena startled awake, still screaming his name.  For a moment it had seemed real, that she had actually watched Tom fall to his death.  She took a few deep breaths to collect herself.  "It was just a dream," she reminded herself.  "That's all it was.  I didn't watch him die; he's already gone."
     She jumped when a voice intruded her sanctum.  "Security to Lieutenant Calloway.  I just received a report of a disturbance in your quarters.  Do you require assistance?"
     Leena blushed.  How loud had she been?  "Calloway here.  No assistance is necessary.  I, uh, had a bad dream."  She winced at how foolish her explanation sounded.
     She could hear the security officer smiling.  "Understood, Lieutenant.  Sorry to disturb you."
     Leena sighed once the channel closed.  She was fully cognizant of the psychological significance of nightmares; Tom's death was bothering her a whole lot more than she realized.  On a subconscious level she felt responsible for what happened, but why?
     Then it dawned on her: Tom's participation in the transwarp project was initiated by an argument they had had.  She had argued that everything he did was motivated by self-interest.  To prove her wrong Tom decided to join the same project he had scoffed only hours before.  Not only that, but he had been the one to solve the problem that finally allowed them to make the flight.  He'd probably still be alive if she hadn't been so antagonistic.  She felt nauseous, as in her dream, and shivered.  Her skin was cold and clammy despite the comfortably controlled temperature in her quarters.  She touched her forehead and stared at the thin film of perspiration on her hand.
     Uncontrollably, she started sobbing.

On to Chapter 10...

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