Malcolm paused for a brief second to hail the Armory. "Have a security team meet me in the Launch Bay," he ordered as soon as the page was answered.
He and Tucker continued quickly along the E-deck corridor. Trip glanced at him. "You don't like this, do you?"
"How'd you guess?" Reed replied grimly.
"Relax," Trip said, unhelpfully. "There's no proof these aliens are hostile."
"There's no proof they're not."
"Unless you count the fact they haven't done anything hostile."
They reached the Launch Bay and began prepping Shuttlepod Two for launch. "Point taken," begrudged Reed. "But that doesn't mean they won't. They're still an unknown."
"I never realized you were such a pessimist," commented Trip.
"I'm a realist," countered the lieutenant. "And it's my job to be suspicious."
Further debate was suspended as security team arrived. Malcolm glanced up at their entrance and was surprised to find Ensign Cormack at the lead of the trio. She was backed up by crewmen Griffith and Martinez.
"Security team reporting," she said. Seeing no immediate threat, she slung the pulse rifle she carried over one shoulder and awaited her orders.
"Ensign," said Reed. "Back on duty already?"
"Dr. Phlox released me." He gave her a doubtful look, remembering the last time she'd said that. "Honestly," she assured him.
Trip looked at the team, noted the artillery. "You can leave the rifles behind," he said.
Cormack looked questioningly at Reed.
"Can I have a word with you, Commander?" Reed said, turning to the engineer.
They moved several paces away before Trip said, "I know what you're going to say."
"Then I presume you have an explanation as to why you're overriding my authority over my team."
"We're not going over there for a fight. Bringing in the big guns isn't the friendliest way to say hello."
"With all due respect, my first priority is safety, not manners."
"We'll be fine with the phase-pistols. How would you feel if they showed up here toting huge rifles?"
"There's no reason to believe they won't."
"That's enough, Lieutenant," said Trip, ending the argument with a simple pulling of rank.
Tight-lipped and angry, Reed just nodded sharply and returned to the waiting security team. "You're to take phase-pistols only," he told them. "This is ostensibly a diplomatic mission and we wouldn't want to accidentally start something." He briefly outlined the mission while Trip continued final preparations of the shuttlepod.
The Captain's voice came over the comm. "Archer to Tucker."
Trip hit the button on the nearby comm panel. "Go ahead, Captain."
"How's it going?"
"Just about ready to launch, sir. Give us five more minutes, and we'll be all set."
"Understood. Archer out."
"According to scans," Reed said, checking the data, "the atmosphere over there has a slightly higher oxygen level than our own."
"Anything else we need to know?" asked Trip.
"No. At least, not as far as our sensors can determine."
"Then let's get moving." Tucker climbed into the waiting shuttlepod.
Cormack collected the pulse rifles from Griffith and Martinez as they followed him in, allowing her to steal a moment with the lieutenant as she passed the weapons off to him. "Don't worry, sir," she said quietly. "I'll keep everyone safe."
He gave a brief nod of acknowledgement and thanks. "Make sure that includes yourself. Be careful over there," he said. "We don't even know what these aliens look like."
"Estvali vessel Mskretu, this is Enterprise Shuttlepod Two, requesting clearance to dock," said Tucker, doing his damnedest not to stumble over the unfamiliar alien words. Not for the first time, he wished he had even one quarter of Ensign Sato's skill with languages.
A deep voice came back through the comm. "Enterprise Shuttlepod Two, move to the following coordinates and cut your engines. Our guidance beam will lock on and direct you into our docking bay."
Cormack's hackles went up at this new information, and even Trip wasn't overly thrilled. The two traded glances.
"Understood." He checked the coordinates and piloted the shuttle to them. Reluctantly, he shut down the engines.
The pod was immediately grabbed by the guidance beam. All of its occupants felt compelled to peer out at the enormous vessel reeling them in like fish on a line. It wasn't more than a few seconds before the ship completely filled their line of vision.
Tucker and Cormack exchanged another look, and the ensign double-checked her phase-pistol.
Archer and Reed were in Enterprise's docking bay to meet the arriving aliens. So too were a well but discreetly armed security team. The Captain had raised an inquisitive eyebrow when he'd arrived and found them there. His Tactical Officer had simply returned the look with his most neutral expression. The corner of Archer's mouth had quirked in the tiniest of smiles, and he'd nodded slightly. No further comment was made.
The hatch in the alien shuttle opened with a metallic clang, and four figures stepped out.
It was all Archer could do to keep from taking an involuntary step back. For his part, Reed's only sign of discomfiture was a discreet widening of the eyes. He could only hope his security team remained equally impassive. He heard Archer swallow tensely and couldn't blame him for the reaction.
The Estvali were bipeds like the humans, but that was where the resemblance ended. Their captain was head and shoulders taller than Archer. By Reed's estimation, none of the four was less than about two and a half meters in height. They were also the furriest creatures he'd seen outside London Zoo. Due to what looked to be leather body armor, he couldn't see as much of them as one did of the animals at the zoo, but they certainly appeared to be completely covered in varying shades of reddish-orange fur. And--he just couldn't help thinking it--they were ugly. Hideous to the extent he was sure he'd once read a Grimm's Fairy Tale involving one or two of them.
He looked closely at the tallest Estvali--the captain. Large, somewhat protruding eyes sat wide apart above a flexible, snout-like nose. A quick glance showed him all their noses were quivering as if they were testing the atmosphere. Hmm, thought Reed. That's probably just what they're doing. Their mouths were little more than lipless slashes, which exposed many surprisingly small but decidedly sharp-looking teeth whenever the Estvali spoke.
However, their physical appearance wasn't Reed's primary concern. It was the weaponry carried by the three shorter Estvali that interested him most. While Archer greeted the arrivals, Reed tuned out the generic pleasantries and focused on their weapons. He was relieved to see they hadn't come "toting huge rifles," as Trip had put it. But that didn't mean the small handguns they carried were any less deadly.
Hearing his name suddenly, he put on his most diplomatic face and turned his eyes back to the tallest Estvali.
"Captain Vaktse," Archer was saying, "this is Lieutenant Reed, my Tactical Officer."
"Captain," said Reed in greeting. He hesitated to say "Sir" or "Ma'am" as he honestly didn't know which the Estvali Captain was, if either.
"Can we offer you any refreshment?" Archer asked, always the host. Reed wondered if he was like that at home, or if it was just a "Captain" thing. He guessed it was the former, but doubted he'd ever have the opportunity to find out.
"No," Vaktse said. "We will discuss your presence here and what will be done about it. Is there a place for this on your ship?"
"Of course. Follow me."
Leaving one Estvali guard and one security crewman to watch over the alien transport, Archer led the procession to the Situation Room. Once there, he and Vaktse entered accompanied by two guards, once again one human and one Estvali. Reluctantly, Reed left the remaining pair staring suspiciously at one another outside the Situation Room's door. There was no more he could do there, so he headed to the Bridge where he'd be able to keep a comprehensive eye on both the visiting aliens and the team Enterprise had sent in exchange.
"Whoa," breathed Trip at his first sight of an Estvali. To his credit, the only one who actually heard the remark was Ensign Cormack who stood next to him.
"Yes, sir," she agreed quietly.
Four of them were waiting as the team stepped out of the shuttlepod. The largest of the Estvali stepped forward. "I'm called Amvtou," the tall, burly alien said. "I'm head of security. You will follow me. We prepared a place for you to wait while our Captain is aboard your vessel."
Before Tucker could move, Cormack quickly stepped in front of him, effectively placing him in the center of a triad of security guards. There was an element of absurdity to it in Trip's opinion, as he stood nearly a head taller than the ensign, and Amvtou another head taller than he. Still, the engineer didn't protest. He knew she was just doing her job, if a little overzealously. He looked at Amvtou. "Lead the way," he said.
Clearly the Estvali weren't overly concerned by any possible threat posed by the Enterprise crewmembers. Two of the four who'd met them remained in the docking bay, while only the imposing head of security and one armed crewman escorted them. No attempt was made to relieve the humans of their weapons.
Tucker kept his eyes peeled as they followed Amvtou, taking in everything he could about the alien ship. The corridors were wide and airy and, unsurprisingly, the ceilings were at least half again as high as those on Enterprise. The light aboard the ship had a blue tint to it, making it seem a bit dark to his human eyes. It emanated from wall panels set just higher than Trip's head. Every way Trip turned he saw smooth, gleaming bulkheads. Seeing no seams or joints, his engineer's mind wondered how they were constructed.
Cormack, too, was making detailed observations but with the intent of knowing exactly how far they were being taken from their shuttlepod. She planned to be ready should a hasty retreat be in order. She didn't like leaving the pod unguarded, but that was her secondary concern. It was as secure as she could make it; that would have to do.
The group passed several doors before Amvtou stopped in front of one that looked like any other they'd seen. The Estvali waved a furry hand in front of what must have been a scanner, and the door opened.
"You will wait here," their guide said, gesturing them inside.
Cormack went first, taking a cautious step in and looking around. It was essentially a holding cell. Admittedly, it was a very plush, roomy holding cell, but a holding cell nonetheless. There was no window, and the walls were bare aside from the same blue lightbars of the corridor. A large table with chairs stood in the center of the room, and a cushioned bench ran along two bulkheads. Seeing nothing immediately threatening, she moved away from the door, allowing the rest of the landing party inside.
Once they were in, Amvtou waved a hand over the sensor panel again. Instead of the door closing behind them, an energy barrier crackled to life in the open doorway. All four of the humans started in surprise.
"What the--?" exclaimed Trip, taking an involuntary step back from the doorway.
Amvtou was unperturbed. "I will return when our Captains have reached an agreement," he said. He turned and left, leaving the guard outside the door.
Left alone, the landing party did what came naturally. Cormack removed a small hand-held scanner from one of her many pockets and began to survey the room. Griffith and Martinez took up positions flanking the softly crackling doorway at what they hoped was a safe distance.
"Ensign?" said Tucker as Cormack continued her sweep. The two spoke in hushed tones, uncertain if the energy barrier was as open to sound as it was to sight.
"Nothing, sir," she said. "If there's any surveillance equipment or weapons in these walls, I can't find them."
"That could be good or bad," muttered Trip.
"Yes, sir." Cormack finished her circuit of the room then doubled back for an extended scan of the energy field in the doorway. "Damn. Scanners won't lock on. I'm getting nothing but static."
"Here," said Tucker. He unzipped a pocket and removed an apparently identical scanner. "Try this one."
"I've been working with T'Pol on some modifications. This is the prototype. Give it a try."
Cormack traded her own scanner for the one held by the commander. She turned back to the energy barrier, ran another scan. "I've got something!" she exclaimed. Her excitement faded as she added, "But it doesn't make sense."
"What is it?" asked Trip coming to stand beside her. He looked over her shoulder at the scanner screen. "Let me see." He held out a hand, and she passed the scanner back to him. The engineer tapped several buttons, then ran the scan yet again. "Scanner's working fine," he said. "It just doesn't know what to make of the energy field. The frequency keeps changing, so there's never a chance to lock onto anything."
"Neat trick," Cormack said without enthusiasm.
"Yeah." Trip held up a hand and reached cautiously toward the barrier.
Griffith and Martinez eyed the action dubiously as Cormack said hastily, "Sir, I wouldn't recommend it."
Tucker hesitated then let his hand fall back to his side. "Yeah," he said, again. "You're probably right."
"So, what do we do?"
"Looks like there's nothing to do, Ensign. Except wait."
"Captain's Star Log, supplemental. Despite their advanced weaponry, the Estvali seem to be a peaceful race run by a technocracy. We've come to an agreement with their captain, Vaktse. In reparation for our trespassing into their space, she's demanded a piece of technology. Which piece it'll be, I don't know yet. I see no choice but to let them survey our systems. I expect Mr. Reed will put up an argument."
Captain Archer was right.
"You're just going to hand over an as yet unspecified piece of technology to aliens we've only just met?" Reed asked, trying not to let his disapproval show in his tone.
"We've run out of choices, Lieutenant."
It was a rushed conversation held over the ship's comm. Reed and T'Pol were at one end on the Bridge; Archer at the other, presumably out of earshot of their Estvali guests.
Malcolm sat even straighter at the tactical station. "What could we possibly have that they don't? I've run a number of scans of their vessel, and what I can make out isn't encouraging. Their weapons and defensive systems well outmatch our own, and the readings on their engines are off the scale. I can only imagine how fast that ship can travel."
"And bearing all that in mind," the Captain said logically, "what do you think our chances are of getting out of this without handing over a system or two?"
"I understand, sir, but I wonder what our chances are of getting out even after we've handed them over."
"Your view is noted, Lieutenant," Archer said, ending that discussion. "T'Pol, I want a constant sensor lock on our team over there. If their status changes, I want to know about it."
"Understood." The Vulcan checked the ship's sensors, noted the location of the landing party and the shuttlepod. "They are currently 273 meters from the shuttle," she said. "Life signs are strong and regular."
"Good. Keep me updated. I'm taking our visitors on a little tour. Archer out."
Reed hailed the Armory.
"Young here. Go ahead."
"Ensign, I want a guard posted at each of the following locations." He rapidly listed a number of locations throughout the ship including the Bridge, Main Engineering, Sickbay, and the transporter chamber. "They're to be armed with phase-pistols only, set on stun."
T'Pol looked at him across the Bridge. "Lieutenant?" T'Pol inquired. "The Captain requested no such action."
The Vulcan raised an eyebrow, but made no further comment. The Tactical Officer's actions were logical, given the circumstances. She saw no reason to contradict them.
Sato and Mayweather silently exchanged puzzled glances.
The lift opened at that moment, and a tactical crewman stepped out. He nodded his crew-cut head to T'Pol. "Ma'am?" he said. She simply nodded in response. He looked to Reed, who also acknowledged him with a nod and a "Crewman." The young man took up a position just to one side of the lift door and stood ready.
It was an odd sight to anyone unprepared for it, and no one was prepared. Archer led the small train of people through Main Engineering. Following him closely was the towering Vaktse, flanked by her guards. His own pair of security guards were only a few steps behind them.
He gave them a brief overview of the warp reactor. As he'd suspected, the Estvali were unimpressed. "Of course," he said, "my Chief Engineer could tell you more about it. I know the systems pretty well, but he's the expert."
Vaktse looked at him. "You are not the master of this technology?" she asked.
"No," Archer replied, puzzled by her reaction.
"Then why do we waste our time with you? Where is this Chief Engineer?"
"He's aboard your vessel."
Her already protuberant eyes bulged farther. "What?"
"The exchange required a top-ranking officer. The terms were yours," he reminded her. "I don't understand the problem."
"You say you are Captain, but you are not master of your ship's technology. This makes no sense to me."
Realization struck Archer. "Unlike you, we aren't a technocracy. I hold the position of Captain through experience, training, and rank. The specific technologies of the ship are divided among officers who specialize in different fields."
"You have many technicians of rank?"
"Strange." Vaktse glanced again at warp reactor. "This technology doesn't interest me. What else do you have?"
"Follow me." He turned and led them back out of Engineering, much to the relief of everyone working there. Archer noticed a security crewman standing just outside the main entrance as they passed through. He hadn't ordered it, but he wasn't surprised. Reed was very thorough at his job; that's why the Captain had recruited him.
They passed another guard at the transporter chamber.
"This is the transporter," Archer began. "It allows us to convert physical objects into energy, then reassemble them at another location." He wasn't adept at reading the Estvali's facial expressions, but he thought the alien captain looked intrigued.
"What kind of objects?" she wanted to know.
"Equipment, generally. Cargo. It's also rated for organic matter."
Archer was hesitant. "People," he said, finally. "But it's not perfected," he quickly added. "We've transported a small number of people safely, including myself, but there have also been…problems."
"Your problems don't concern me. This is the technology we will have."
"I'm not sure--"
The Estvali cut him off. "I am sure. Your engines are of no use to us. Our scans show your weapons to be largely ineffectual against our own systems; they would be useless against our enemies. But this…" She gestured at the transporter. "…I like. This I can use. I have no doubt I can solve the 'problems' you mention once we have created our own transporter." She looked down at Archer. "You said your Chief Engineer is in our custody?"
"Yes," he answered. He knew where this was going and he wasn't pleased.
"Transmit all designs for this device to my ship. When we have constructed our own, with the help of your Chief Engineer, you will be allowed to continue your journey. I will even grant you safe passage through Estvali territory. It is several light-years back to our border. You would be delayed should you be forced to go around."
"That's…most generous of you," Archer replied, wondering just how he'd gotten himself into this situation and just how long this construction was going to take. He had the sinking feeling they were going to be stuck there for several weeks. "I'll see that the information is transmitted right away." He put in the brief order to Engineering. A startled but unquestioning Dillard acknowledged it.
"I will return to my ship now," said Vaktse.
"Of course." With mixed emotions, he guided the group back to the docking bay where their shuttle waited.
Cormack had never thought being held prisoner would be dull. A quick look around the cell told her the others were just as bored. She and her security team had each stood a turn at watch, and Martinez was on her second go in the rotation. Not that there was anything to watch. The narrow doorway gave a limited view of the corridor beyond, and the Estvali who stood outside blocked much of that.
She glanced at Commander Tucker who sat at the table. He'd given up working on his prototype scanner and was now practically twiddling his thumbs with ennui. Stephanie was beginning to wish she'd brought her traveler's mah-jong set with her. It had been a going-away present from her sister, Kathryn, when she'd left for her tour on Enterprise. The small box of cards and the miniature dice would have fit easily into one of the numerous pockets of her cover-alls. Granted, it would have been unprofessional, but at this point Cormack doubted any of her companions would have faulted her on it.
Everyone was thankful for the distraction when the commander's communicator chirped. He quickly pulled it out and flipped it open. "Tucker here. Go ahead."
The team listened intently as Captain Archer's voice came from the communicator. He gave them a brief run-down of the technocratic Estvali government. "So under their system, Trip, you're the most valuable member of the crew."
Trip chuckled, joking, "Hell, Captain, I could've told you that."
"That's not everything," Archer continued, his tone bringing a sober expression to the engineer's face. "In order to get out of here, we have to do them a favor."
"They rule through control of technology. Well, it turns out we have some technology Captain Vaktse wants." He quickly explained the agreement he'd reached with the Estvali.
"I beg your pardon?" said Tucker incredulously when Archer finished.
"You heard me, Trip."
"Yes, sir. I just don't feature being stuck over here for as long as it's going to take to build a functioning transporter."
"You won't be stuck there the entire time. It'll be just like any repair work. We'll rotate engineering teams. You'll be back on Enterprise every night."
Tucker pondered the last repair job they'd done on the freighter Fortunate. He sincerely hoped this would be a smoother assignment. "Yes, sir."
"On the up side, Commander, you'll like the Estvali's engines. Malcolm says they're so powerful our sensors can't determine their extent."
"You're assuming I'll get a look at them," Tucker answered morosely.
"Relax, Trip. You're starting to sound as pessimistic as Mr. Reed. Archer out."
Trip closed his communicator, looked at his companions. "You heard?" They nodded. He caught movement out of the corner of his eye and glanced toward the door. Tucking his communicator back into his sleeve pocket, he stood. "Apparently, so did our hosts."
They all turned to look at Amvtou who stood outside the cell. He waved a hand, and the energy barrier disappeared. "My apologies," he said deferentially. "Please come with me." He bowed his head slightly as he gestured for them to exit the holding cell.
They stepped out into the corridor--Cormack first, as before, followed by Tucker, Martinez, and Griffith. Amvtou led them deeper into the ship and up several decks before stopping in front of a large set of doors.
"Enter," said a voice from the other side of the doors although none of the humans could see any sign their arrival had been detected.
Their guide waved a hand across another panel, and the doors slid open. On the other side was the most advanced technology Trip had ever seen. He doubted even the late Daniels would have been able to decipher it all; and it certainly put anything he'd seen of the Vulcans' to shame.
"Which of you is Tucker?" asked Vaktse, approaching from across the huge, vaulted room.
The commander stepped forward to stand beside Cormack. "That's me," he said.
"And these others? Are they technicians?"
Trip surveyed the trio, deciding what the best answer would be. "Depends," he said at last. "They're all familiar with the transporter, if that's what you're asking."
"But can they construct it?"
"Then they will return to Enterprise," she said dismissively.
"Now wait a minute," Trip began, just as Cormack was about to protest. "I can't do this by myself."
"Of course not. I will work with you, and Archer is sending what he called an Engineering Team to assist. I don't see this transporter as taking a long time to construct."
He looked at her doubtfully. "Excuse me, but what exactly do you see as a 'long time'?" His mind flashed to Vulcans and their 200-year life spans, and the even more long-lived Axanar.
"No more than three days, if I understand your time scale accurately."
Vaktse's comment made Trip wonder if she did understand their time scale accurately. It seemed unlikely. Three days to build a transporter that didn't just work, but worked in conjunction with Estvali technology? Trip had sincere doubts. "What makes you think our power sources are even compatible?" he wanted to know. "Or that you'll have the materials you need to do this? I can tell you straight up we don't have them on board Enterprise."
"I've thoroughly reviewed your schematics. We have much of what will be needed in our ship's stores. What we don't have, we can construct. Adapting the power system is a simple matter."
"You think so?"
"I do." Vaktse turned to her head of security. "Amvtou, escort these three to their vessel."
"Captain," Cormack spoke up quickly. "Request permission to remain aboard."
The Estvali looked at her disparagingly. "Why?"
The ensign was ready; she'd thought up her argument while the others were talking systems. She crossed mental fingers, hoping she'd understood Archer's explanation of the Estvali hierarchy correctly. "Commander Tucker is too valuable an individual to allow to remain here unguarded. Meaning no disrespect, but it's my job to protect him." She waited, forcing herself not to fidget under the alien captain's stare. She was banking on a similar policy being in place in the Estvali administrative structure.
"Very well. You may remain. What do you know of the transporter?"
"I'm qualified to operate it."
"That will do. Stay with Tucker. Otherwise, stay out of the way."
Cormack took a second to catch Martinez before she and Griffith were led away. "Juliana, I need you to do me a favor." She quickly outlined her request. Martinez nodded, saying, "Yes, ma'am."
Despite all reassurances, Reed was still uneasy about the Estvali, and he had very mixed feelings about Cormack's unauthorized decision to remain on their ship. However, there was little to be done about it at this point as the remainder of her security team had already returned with the shuttlepod. He understood her motivation and he appreciated that it gave him someone on the inside whose main focus was keeping Trip safe. He only hoped it would turn out to be unnecessary.
Reed contemplated the next few days as he made his way to Engineering. He wasn't looking forward to them. He wished there was a way to complete this job without putting more people at risk. All Archer's assurances of the Estvali's supposedly peaceful nature couldn't convince him it was safe to continue to maintain a presence on their ship. As a result, he was planning to coordinate with Dillard on the crews to be sent over. He wanted to make sure there was at least one security guard assigned to accompany each engineering team.
He was aware he was obsessing a bit. (While he didn't buy into astrology, he knew this was one very Virgo trait he couldn't deny.) If only he could be two places at once--Enterprise and Mskretu-he'd be satisfied. He remembered Trip's recommendation made shortly before leaving that morning: relax. Malcolm took a deep breath and let it out slowly. It didn't help much.
I'm going to have to get Cormack to teach me some of those yoga relaxation tricks, he thought. Once she gets back and I've had a chance to talk to her. She has some serious explaining to do. He was thinking of her appointment with Dr. Douglas, which she was clearly going to miss. He'd only learned about it when Douglas contacted him to confirm that Cormack was indeed away from the ship. He hadn't thought it that important until he discovered the appointment had been made at Dr. Phlox's order. Apparently, the Denobulan had only released her from sickbay under this specific provision.
It suddenly occurred to him that he'd never had the chance to ask her just why she'd been late that morning, either. He'd fully intended to; after her odd behavior in the mess hall the previous night, her tardy arrival had raised a red flag in his mind. But it would all have to wait, as she'd clearly intended. Reed set thoughts of his errant officer aside as he entered Main Engineering. He quickly found Dillard, and the two began to go over the team assignments.
Malcolm couldn't be certain, but Trip sounded almost like he was having fun. He listened as the engineer made his report over the comm system to Archer on the Bridge.
"I'm telling you, Captain, you wouldn't believe the machine shop they've got here! They've been able to make every component we need to construct this transporter. I think it really is going to take only a few days to finish it."
"That's good to hear, Commander," Archer replied, smiling. "I know I for one will be glad when we can be on our way."
"I wouldn't go that far, sir. I could spend months exploring all the Estvali's system without getting bored."
"Sorry, Trip. Enjoy it while you can. We're leaving as soon at you're done over there."
"Yes, sir. Tucker out."
Over on the Estvali ship, work on the transporter was progressing rapidly. Tucker looked at Cormack. "Hand me that plasma torch, will you?" She passed him the item. "So, how're you doing, Ensign? You're not bored, are you?" he kidded.
"No, sir." She grinned. While part of her was ready to be home, she wasn't in the least sorry to have extended her stay. She had her own reasons for not wanting to be on Enterprise right then. And Commander Tucker was right; there was a lot they could learn from the Estvali, given the opportunity. Unfortunately, it looked like the Estvali weren't planning to share. They didn't exactly keep their technology under lock and key, but the humans' access was extremely limited. She'd made mental notes and taken scans whenever possible. Hopefully, she'd be able to bring back some useful information on the weapons and defensive systems for Lieutenant Reed.
She knew she'd be in trouble when she got back--most particularly with Doctors Phlox and Douglas. There wasn't much she could do to appease the medical personnel, but she hoped that by going the extra mile on this mission she'd have her C.O.'s support when explaining to them just why she'd blown off her appointment with the psychiatrist. It was iffy reasoning at best. She knew it, and she held onto it all the same.
In the end, Vaktse's estimate turned out to be wrong. It hadn't taken three days to construct the transporter. It had taken two. Trip was telling Malcolm about it over breakfast once Enterprise had said good-bye to the Estvali and was once again on its way.
"Any time I needed a component, I just asked and it was there in less that five minutes. And you should've seen their engines!" he exclaimed for the nth time. "Fantastic! I can't even begin to describe them."
Malcolm smiled. Tucker's enthusiasm was contagious. It was fun listening to him gush about the alien technology, if only because he was so very excited about it. Trip paused in his praise and took a swallow of orange juice. Reed wasn't surprised he was thirsty--he'd been talking non-stop for several minutes. The lieutenant took the brief window of opportunity to say, "I'm glad you enjoyed yourself."
"You should've seen it. I didn't get a real good look at their weapons, but I know Cormack was taking notes. Have you managed to make anything of the information she brought back yet?"
Reed's smile faded slightly. "A bit. I've seen the scans she took, but I haven't gotten to talk to her about what she saw over there. Actually," he added a little awkwardly, "I wanted to ask you something about Ensign Cormack."
Trip looked at him quizzically. "What?"
"Well, I'm not entirely sure how to put this." He took a drink of his tea, considering carefully. "Did she seem like herself while you were together on the Estvali ship?"
"What do you mean?"
"She's been acting a little strangely lately. I wondered if you noticed anything?"
"I really couldn't say," Tucker had to admit. "I don't know her that well. Just what I've seen in the past few days. She seemed fine to me. Why?"
"Nothing." Malcolm gave a dismissive shake of his head.
Trip gave him one of his patented "bullshit" looks. Reed rolled his eyes, causing the engineer to laugh. "You wouldn't've brought it up if it was nothing," Trip insisted.
"I suppose you're right."
"So? What's up?"
"I can't put my finger on it. That's the problem. She was late to her duty shift the other morning--the morning when we met the Estvali. That in itself's not such a big deal. But then there was the whole incident in the jefferies tube, and she managed to maneuver her way around an appointment she'd been ordered to make."
"Ordered by who?"
"Dr. Phlox. I don't know all the details, but by taking the assignment on the Estvali ship, she broke the appointment. Technically, I don't feel I can reprimand her as she was doing her job, but..." He paused and took a bite of toast as he thought it over. "D'you know, Phlox told me she hadn't even eaten that morning."
"You said she was running late," said Trip, finding it perfectly logical.
"But to volunteer for an away mission of unknown duration without knowing what conditions would be like when she hadn't had so much as her ritual cup of coffee? That's bordering on irresponsible."
"Okay, so it wasn't the smartest thing to do," Tucker agreed, taking a bite of his own breakfast. He washed it down with another swallow of juice before continuing. "She never said a word about it when we were on that ship, though."
"That's not the point."
"Okay. So what is the point?" he asked sincerely. "You're shooting down every argument I make, so what is it you're really trying to get at?"
Malcolm looked at Trip and saw the genuine interest in his face. He pulled his thoughts together before answering. "I guess I feel as though she lied to me," he said at last. "There was a medical reason she should have stayed on Enterprise. Someone else could have gone in her place, but I didn't have all the facts when I allowed her to go over there."
"You mean she played you."
"I suppose so."
"Have you talked to her at all?"
"No. She's very cleverly managed to avoid me whenever she's been on board the last two days."
"How the hell'd she manage that?" Trip wanted to know.
"If I knew that…"
"Right. But she's made it to duty shifts, right?"
"Oh yes. Can't fault her there. But being your personal body guard for the duration of the mission, she spent quite a bit of that time off the ship," he said, tension growing in his voice.
"That was pretty funny, actually," Trip said, not noticing the change in Malcolm's tone. "It was real clever the way she maneuvered Captain Vaktse to let her stay on board." Reed just looked at him. "What?"
"It was that clever maneuvering that got her out of the appointment with Dr. Douglas and allowed her to continue to put it off."
"Huh. I see your point. So what are you going to do?"
"Hunt her down and corner her like the fox she's being, I suppose. It's not what I want to do, but I'm having trouble coming up with another option."
"Well, here's your chance. Look who just walked in." Trip gestured with a tilt of his head toward the mess hall door.
Reed looked up and spotted Cormack immediately. She was following her standard pattern of claiming a large mug and heading with it to the drinks dispenser. "Excellent. If you'll excuse me?" Not expecting an answer, he stood and began wending his way through the crowded room to where Cormack stood in line.
He was less than half way to her when he was unexpectedly waylaid.
"Good morning, Lieutenant," said Ensign Mayweather, appearing as if from nowhere at his elbow.
"I hear the French toast is really good today," Travis continued, sticking close to Reed as he continued his trip across the room.
"I couldn't say," the lieutenant offered distractedly. He was trying to keep an eye on Cormack through the changing mass of people. She was nearly to the front of the beverage line. If he didn't catch her soon, it was a good bet she'd be out the door before he got within speaking distance.
"No?" continued Mayweather. "It's a favorite of mine. You should give it a try." Somehow, the ensign had managed to interpose himself between Reed and Cormack and now blocked the path to her. Malcolm found himself caught in the press of people queued up to fill up their breakfast plates.
"Thanks for the recommendation, but I've already eaten," said Reed as pleasantly as he could. "I was actually on my way out." He peered around the tall young man and could just see Cormack collecting her filled mug from the dispenser.
"Oh. Well, don't let me keep you," Travis continued genially, filling up his plate with a small mountain of French toast. "I'll catch you later."
Stephanie was just heading out the door. "Right. Later," agreed Malcolm, squeezing out of the queue and quickly following after her. When he stepped out into the corridor, she was no where in sight. Still, he knew where she was supposed to be going. He hurried down the corridor, hoping to catch her before she reached the lift.
Travis watched his hasty exit, puzzled.
"What was that about?" asked Cutler, coming up behind him in the line.
"Beats me," Travis said. "But he sure was in a hurry to get somewhere."
"Probably the Armory. Stephanie said she brought back some information on the Estvali's defensive systems. He's probably anxious to take a look at what she found."
"That must be it."
Across the room, Trip had witnessed the whole scene. Not normally the suspicious type, he still had to wonder if Travis hadn't made his entrance a little too conveniently. The sight of his quiet conversation with Cutler afterward only raised more doubts. He knew Cutler and Cormack were bunkmates, just as he knew Cutler and Mayweather were an item. It wasn't unreasonable to think they were in cahoots with Cormack's efforts to avoid her C.O. He shook his head. Accidentally or not, Travis had managed to distract Reed just long enough for Cormack to make her escape. She couldn't keep it up forever, but it was going to be interesting to see just how long she could go.
As it turned out, it wasn't nearly as long as she'd hoped.
"Hold the lift?"
For a split second Cormack considered acting as though she hadn't heard him, but good sense won out. She hit the button to stop the lift door from closing, allowing Lieutenant Reed to join her.
"Ensign," he said pleasantly.
"Lieutenant," she answered, trying to remain nonchalant. "Going to the Armory?"
Cormack requested the deck and took a sip of her latté as the lift engaged. The two officers stood in silence for several seconds until Reed reached out and the pressed the stop button. The lift came to an immediate halt.
"Sir?" Stephanie looked at him questioningly, although she knew perfectly well what was going on.
"How long were you planning to play hide and seek?" he asked bluntly.
"I don't know--" But she stopped herself. She wasn't a liar by nature, and damned if she was going to start now. "As long as I could get away with it, eh?" she said instead.
"Do you plan on explaining that?"
She stared into her mug, intently studying the tiny bubbles in the foam. "I'm not sure I can," she answered finally.
"Listen," said Reed. "I'm not asking you to tell me what your appointment with Dr. Douglas was about or why Dr. Phlox ordered you to make it. I am asking why you chose to ignore that order. You made me an unwitting accomplice, you know. I don't appreciate being used like that."
"I didn't mean to do that to you. I just…needed to get away for a little bit. The assignment to the Estvali ship seemed like the perfect solution." She was still looking down into her mug, unable to make eye contact with her superior.
"You put me a very awkward position, and you didn't have enough respect for me to let me in on it."
"I'm sorry, sir. Really. I didn't want to put you in the middle of this."
"Ensign, I don't even know what 'this' is." He said it gently, not wanting to upset her more than she already was but needing to make his point clear. He watched her, concerned. He'd never been much good at emotional confrontations--as evidenced by his actions last month when she had reached out to him--but he felt the need to do something now. If only he could figure out what.
Finally, Stephanie looked up and met his worried gaze. It was nearly enough to undo her. Pull yourself together, dipshit, she cursed at herself. Since when are you such a wuss? What're you going to do? Burst into tears in front of your boss? Oh yeah. That's professional. She took a deep, calming breath before she spoke. When she did, it was simply to say, "I'm not entirely sure. That's the problem."
Malcolm was at a loss. "I'm afraid I don't understand."
"There's something wrong. I know there's something wrong. But I don't know what it is, or what to do about it." She was fighting back tears again, and she wasn't happy about it. She was trying hard to keep herself under control when Reed spoke up.
"Maybe you should talk to Dr. Douglas." He knew it was an inane suggestion, but it got the response he was hoping for.
Cormack was immediately on the offensive. She glared at him, her eyes flashing. "Well, duh!" she said angrily. She continued to glare at him for several more seconds until she realized what he'd done. She laughed suddenly with the release of tension, and Malcolm smiled.
"That's the Cormack I recognize," he said. He released the lift to continue its downward course. "I understand you have another appointment with Dr. Douglas scheduled for this afternoon."
"You do. It's at 1630 hours. Will you require an escort?"
Stephanie almost choked on her latté. "You wouldn't."
Reed gave her a look that clearly said, Oh wouldn't I?
"Shit." She sighed. "An escort won't be necessary. Thank you, sir."
Malcolm relented and chuckled. "Fair enough," he said. In a more serious tone, he added, "You know you can come to me, don't you? Either as your C.O. or as your friend. I can't claim to have any answers, but I do know how to listen."
Cormack considered for a moment before quietly replying. "Thanks. I'll try to remember it from now on."
End Log 12
As of 1 Sept 06: