Bonnie-Ahh thanks so much! Wow, I love to hear that! I love your idea, too! I don't have any other plans for Carmen as of right now, but I will let that idea stew for awhile, see if it develops into another installment ;-).
"Go," Thomas said, urging the commander to turn around on the narrow bridge. "We can't stay here. And you're blocking my way."
Riker squared his stance, barring Thomas from pushing past him. "I don't give up that easily. And you're standing in my way."
"You want to die down here?" Thomas jabbed a finger towards the broken conduit. "Because that's what will happen if we stay too long. We have to turn around." His defiance faltered, only for a moment, but it was long enough for a surge of tears to redden his eyes. He looked away and cleared his throat, hoping the commander hadn't noticed. "We've done all we can."
Riker blinked, taken aback by the sudden change that had come over the lieutenant. Slowly, his glare softened with sympathy. "This means a lot to you, doesn't it?"
Thomas continued to stare past the commander, saying nothing.
"We got the scientists out safely," Riker reminded him. "Isn't that the most important thing?"
"You got the scientists out safely!" Thomas snapped with an abruptness that surprised them both. "You got the commendations, the promotion…Deanna. I couldn't even get the database."
The bridge continued to rattle. Pebbles shook loose from the cavern ceiling, pelting the walkway and cables. From deep below, another tremor made its way to the surface. Riker straightened his uniform, his mind made up, and pushed past the lieutenant's shoulder.
Thomas gaped after him, his jaw working for several moments before anything would come out. "The station-it's the other way!"
"Then what are you doing?"
As Riker made it to the end of the bridge, he turned to face him with the infuriating hint of a smirk. "I told you-I don't give up that easily."
Thomas huffed out a snarl. "That conduit is leaking ion radiation all over the place! Don't you know what that means?"
"It means we don't have the full twenty-six minutes," the commander retorted. "Now hurry up."
Their climb to the core proved increasingly difficult with every passing minute. Thomas could barely hold on to the ladder, his strength waning, and his lungs burned as though they were on fire inside of his chest.
Riker reached the bottom first. He leaned against the wall, panting heavily, as Thomas followed suit. "You alright?" he asked, noting the way his foot slipped against the bottom rung.
Thomas clung to the ladder, waiting until a shiver had passed through him before taking the final step to solid ground. "Yeah, it's just…"
"I know. I'm starting to feel it, too." Riker dragged a sleeve across his forehead, streaking a line through the dust and sweat. "There's the fever."
"And there's the computer." Thomas nudged his chin towards a half-buried console that stood in a man-made alcove to their right. The screen's soft, blue light glowed and dimmed at intervals.
"It looks unscathed, at least," Riker noted. "Here, hand me your bag."
Gladly, Thomas passed it over. He noticed that the commander's hands were trembling as he rummaged through the pack for a PADD, and when he looked down at his own hands, discovered a similar affliction.
"Help me clear some space," Riker ordered next, and together they dug out the console. In spite of the chills rolling down Thomas' back, beads of sweat gathered across his forehead. He wiped them away with a clammy, still-trembling hand.
After beginning the information transfer, Riker leaned over the edge of the console to wait. His breathing grew ragged and with every breath, he sank a little farther forward. Just as he was about to fall face-first into the screen, Thomas caught him by the shoulder.
"Thanks," Riker muttered, giving his head a vigorous shake.
"Don't mention it," Thomas replied. "...except maybe to Dr. Crusher."
The PADD rang out with three short, sharp beeps. "Speaking of Dr. Crusher," Riker said, stuffing the PADD back into the bag. "It's time we go pay her a visit, now that we've got the database."
"Good. I'm getting pretty tired of these caverns." Thomas shouldered his bag and, spurred on by a newfound sense of hope and relief, ascended the ladder first.
Riker followed closely behind, pulling himself up each rung with a groan of effort. "So uh…" he called out. "Dr. Crusher?"
"What about her?"
"You tell me."
A laugh slipped out between the lieutenant's labored breaths. "I think she's nice, that's all."
"Right," Riker snorted. "I know what that means."
Reaching the top, Thomas hoisted himself onto the landing. He dragged himself out of the way, giving Riker enough room to do the same, before collapsing on the cold, quivering ground.
"Are you...and Dr. Crusher...very close?" he panted.
Riker slumped to the floor beside him. "I'd trust her with my life. But I wouldn't get my hopes up, if I were you."
Thomas flashed him a smirk. "You are me."
Riker paused, his mouth still open as he waited for a retort to form. Thomas laughed, and eventually, Riker gave way to a laugh as well. "Well, you know what I mean."
"Yeah, yeah." Thomas hoisted himself to his feet. He eyed the cables nervously, running his hand along the bridge railing before stepping out. "Are you saying that you and Dr. Crusher...you've never…?"
Riker brushed past him, not looking back as he spoke. "Oh, well...I mean…"
"You did?" Thomas balked. "Is that why she was smiling at me like that?"
"Whoa, whoa, that's not what I said! See, we picked up this Trill mediator once, named Odan, and-"
An enormous crack tore through the cavern as though the planet itself had ripped in two. Instinctively, Thomas flattened himself along the walkway. A shower of debris fell from above, raining around his head. Boulders came galloping down the cavern walls. Thomas tried to shout to the commander, but only a strangled cry would come out.
Suddenly a jolt of pain shot up from his leg, and he discovered a chunk of the cavern ceiling had pinned him to the bridge. Rocks and debris stacked up on top of it, straining the cables and blocking Thomas' view of the commander. A cloud of dust belched out from the bottom of the pile.
"I'm here!" he shouted, gritting his teeth against the throbbing in his leg. The quake died down to a dull roar. "Are you alright?"
"I'm fine, but we have a problem," came Riker's grim reply.
"I know. I can't even see you-"
"The tunnel, I mean. It's blocked."
Thomas felt as though one of the boulders had hit him in the stomach. "It's...blocked?" Gulping, he looked up into the darkness, which suddenly seemed to stretch out for a bleak eternity. It was all that was left. No more hope. No more stars. Just the darkness and the abyss and a small flicker of life that would soon be snuffed out as easily as an ember. A wave of bitter despair washed over him.
"Come on," the commander urged. "Maybe we can clear a way or something. Can you climb over these rocks?"
"Just go," Thomas mumbled. "While you still have strength."
"It would go faster if we both worked at it."
"My leg is pinned. It's all up to you now."
Silence followed his words. Even the rumbling seemed to momentarily fade into the background out of reverence for the lieutenant. The next sound Thomas heard was the sound of rocks rolling away and the grunting of Riker's efforts coming from the other side of the pile.
"What are you doing?" he cried. "I told you to go!"
"And I told you that I don't give up that easily."
"This bridge could break any minute!"
"Then I better get you off of it!"
Thomas slapped the bridge in frustration. "You've got kids, damnit! Good kids, too." He sighed, and as the breath left his chest, he felt suddenly hollowed out. "That little one, Billy...he cares an awful lot about card games. And coloring. And...and those toy animals of his." The pile shifted to one side. A few of the smaller rocks near the top went tumbling into the abyss. "How much do you think he'd care about those things if you don't make it back?"
At first, he wasn't sure if the commander had heard him. His lungs could barely carry his voice anymore, and the pain from his leg was beginning to blur the edges of his thoughts. Then the commander answered. But his words were lost on the lieutenant, floating through the air like a faint and jumbled sound. Thomas felt the darkness seeping into his mind, pulling him away from that wretched planet, away from the Enterprise, and towards that bleak eternity.
Then he heard something else. Something that did not belong. Thomas shook his head, trying to sharpen his senses, trying to come back to that bridge. Had he imagined it?
"Commander? Are you still there?"
"I said I'm not leaving," Riker answered gruffly. "And I also said-"
"Be quiet!" Thomas pulled himself up as much as he could, straining to push through the fog of his mind. "There. Did you hear it?"
Weapon fire. Someone was shooting an energy weapon nearby. A muffled shout and a clatter of rocks accompanied the sound.
"What the devil?"
A small chuckle drifted up from Riker's side. "She felt the bridge break…"
"What are you talking about? The bridge hasn't broken."
"Hang in there, lieutenant!" The pile of debris shuddered as Riker redoubled his efforts. "Help is on the way!"
Carmen buried her face in the crook of her elbow as Data blasted another boulder from the bottom of the pile. Rocks above it cascaded down, fanning out at the base of the small passage they had created. Dust clouded the young woman's lungs, and her chest seized in a coughing fit before she could look up again.
"Can you see them yet?"
"No, but there is almost enough room for you to get through," Worf replied. He worked tirelessly beside the android, hauling away rocks as big as his head with roars of effort. At last, a small hole appeared in the wall of debris. A haze of dust drifted past the opening. Worf helped the young woman up, and, giving her a push, helped her wedge her way through.
Carmen climbed out the other side, squinting as her eyes adjusted to the darkness of the caverns. "Dad!" she shouted. "Thomas! Can you hear me?"
Her heart pounded against her chest like a drum as she waited for the answer. "Over here!" someone called.
Following the voice, she approached the edge of a narrow bridge and saw her father on his knees, trying to pull rocks away from a pile of debris that spanned the breadth of the walkway. A lump lodged in her throat. "Thomas-he's not under there, is he?"
"Just his leg," Riker panted. "Come and help me free him."
Carmen hurried across the bridge, stepping as lightly as she could. She crouched down beside her father and began to help him pull away at the pile. Riker picked up another rock, but as he tried to move it aside, his knees buckled and he collapsed over the walkway.
"Dad!" Carmen cried, turning him over. His skin looked pale and sickly green. Drops of sweat clung to his brow, and his chest heaved with halting, uneven breaths. "What's wrong with you? What happened?"
"Ion...radiation," he managed. "Hurry. We have to...hurry."
Behind them, Data and Worf burst through the debris at last. They stumbled out onto the landing, blinking and peering into the darkness. A surge of relief flooded the fear in Carmen's chest. "He needs help!" she shouted, and looped her arms under her father's to try and drag him to safety.
Worf reached her first. Brushing her aside, he lifted the commander up and around his shoulders. "Lieutenant Riker?" he asked.
"He's trapped on the other side of these rocks," she informed him. "And there's a radiation leak. We have to get to him quickly."
"Take the commander to sickbay," Data ordered the Klingon. "I will retrieve the lieutenant."
Carmen watched as Worf carried her father the rest of the way across the bridge. His arms and legs swung against the Klingon with every step. Please hurry, she silently urged as Worf ducked into the tunnel and they disappeared from sight.
"He is still conscious," came Data's voice. Turning around, she saw the android lift a slab of the cavern ceiling away from the lieutenant's leg. He tossed it into the abyss as though it were a pebble. Thomas groaned through tightly clenched teeth, and Carmen's stomach turned to see a jagged bone protruding from his calf.
Data bent down, picking him up and slinging him over one shoulder. Thomas yelped as his leg jostled against the android's side. "Could you be a little more careful?" he cried. "I've got a broken leg!"
"Do not worry," the android assured him. "Dr. Crusher has had extensive experience in both compound fractures and radiation poisoning. She will assist you in making a full recovery."
At this, Thomas seemed to genuinely brighten. Carmen rolled her eyes, following them off the bridge and into the tunnel. "Say good-bye to this place," she called, picking her way over the wreckage. "It's the last time anyone will see it. Unless you want to come back in ten years, when the next window opens."
"I think I'm ready for a change of scenery," Thomas said, trying to grin at her through another jolt of pain. "And maybe even another round of Halo Fish."
"I knew you'd find a way to come back in shambles," Dr. Crusher said, clicking her tongue reproachfully as she examined the lieutenant's freshly healed leg. "At any rate, that should do it. I'd tell you to stay out of trouble, but why bother."
Thomas grinned from the comfort of his bio bed. "Thank-you, Dr. Crusher. I feel as good as new."
"Call me Beverly," she said, smiling warmly.
The lieutenant's cheeks flushed with color. "Oh, right. Well uh...Beverly...I was wondering if, maybe afterward...maybe you and I could-"
A little boy in a cowboy hat sprinted across sickbay. Thomas barely had time to brace himself before he jumped onto the bio bed, boots and all. "Guess what? You're going to be a sheriff! Just like me! And you can even use my badge and I'll find you a hat-"
Carmen raced after him, her hair still sprinkled with dust. She grabbed hold of his hand and dragged him to the floor. "Give him some space, will you? He's very sick!"
"Not anymore, thanks to-Beverly?" The lieutenant sat up, searching for the doctor's bright red hair and her warm smile. But she was already halfway across the room, to his disappointment, and following another member of her staff.
"Don't even think about it," Carmen warned.
"Think about what?"
Thomas shifted on the bed. "No, no, I wasn't-wait, did he call me Uncle Thomas?"
Billy nodded enthusiastically. Carmen yanked on his hand until he stopped. "Oh yeah, I meant to ask you first. It's just...Thomas didn't seem like enough. Not for someone who's family. I hope it's alright?"
Family. The word resonated between his ears, echoing back to him from a formerly dark and lonesome place. "Yeah, it's...it's fine with me!" Thomas found himself beaming, and the little boy beamed right back at him.
"Is your leg good enough to ride a horse? A sheriff has to ride a horse. Do you even know how to ride a horse? I could show you-"
"For crying out loud!" Carmen nudged her little brother towards the door. "Go find him a hat, will you? I think dad has an extra one laying around somewhere."
"Yeah! That big brown one!" Billy's eyes grew wide and excited. "Do you know where dad keeps it?"
"I think I saw it somewhere in the closet."
"Okay, don't worry! I'll find it!"
He dashed off, one hand over his own hat to keep it from flying away. Carmen laughed smugly to herself. "It's not in the closet. But that'll keep him busy for awhile."
Just as Billy disappeared behind the door, a young man came bursting in. Sheppard scanned the room quickly, his face pinched in worry. "Carmen!" he cried. "I heard something about a tunnel collapsing! Is everything alright? Are you-?"
"I'm fine. We're all fine," she assured. He came to a stop in front of her, searching her face intently. His concern slowly faded to relief upon finding nothing amiss. As a flake of rubble in her hair caught his attention, he reached up to pluck it away.
"Sorry, it's just-there, I got it."
But his hand lingered beside her face, and the lieutenant noticed that she seemed to lean towards it, pressing her cheek against his palm. And then she was leaning toward him, and he was leaning toward her, and the distance between them slowly began to close.
"Oh," Sheppard exclaimed suddenly, noticing Thomas for the first time. His arm snapped back down to his side. "Lieutenant! How uh, how are you doing?"
Thomas stifled a laugh at the young man's expense. "Much better now, thanks. Are you a sheriff, too?"
"He's the barkeeper, actually," Carmen said. She waved a hand at the lieutenant. "Allan, I'd like you to meet the new sheriff in town."
"The new-? Oh, great!" He perked with a smile that Thomas readily returned. "So when do we go back to Calico Canyon?"
"We still have to brief the captain and everything, but maybe after dinner. You'll be there, right?"
"I'll be there," he promised. Tentatively, his hand reached out and found hers. Neither acknowledged the way their fingers laced together. "I uh, I should get back to work now," he said presently. "I'm glad you're okay."
She nodded, saying nothing, but her eyes followed him all the way across the room, and even after he left, her gaze remained on the back of the door.
"So…" Thomas piped up. "That young man?"
"What about him?"
"You tell me."
Carmen let her gaze drop to the floor. With a sigh, she sank down onto the edge of the bed. "He's...he's different, you know? He just accepts things the way they are. Doesn't fight them like I do." A sad smile pulled at the corner of her mouth. "I love him."
"Sure looks like he loves you, too," Thomas said. She nodded.
"He does. And I've never doubted that. It's...it's making this really hard. I mean, I know he'd wait for me, but how can I ask that of him? How can I ask him to put everything on hold for so long? If my own parents couldn't do it…"
Thomas swung his legs over the edge of the bed, planting his elbows atop his knees. "You know, I've been thinking about what you said."
"Yeah. And I think you're right. I think your parents would have wanted you to be more than a soldier. But did you ever think...maybe they wanted you to be more than an explorer, too?"
Her brows pulled together, wrenched in confusion. "I don't know what you mean-"
"Happy. Maybe...they just wanted you to be happy."
For a long time she said nothing. Her eyes drifted downward, staring at her hands that sat clasped in her lap. Thomas scooted down the bed until he was almost shoulder to shoulder with the young woman.
"So where would you be most happy?" he asked, giving her a nudge. "If you can decide that, I think you'd have your answer."
She drew in a deep breath and slowly let it out again. Just as slowly, a smile spread across her face. She lifted her gaze, turning to look at him.
"You made up your mind?" he asked.
"Yes." She threw her arms around him suddenly, catching him by surprise. "I've made up my mind. Thanks, Uncle Thomas."
He winced at first, reminded of how sore he still was, and of how long it had been since anyone hugged him so earnestly. But it wasn't long before he was wrapping his arms around her shoulders, and before he was tucking his chin over her head, and before he was hugging her just as earnestly in return.
Across the way, Dr. Crusher cast him a smile.
One more chapter to go! Stay tuned!