Author's Note – My editrix is right—it's time for a Schrodinger's Cat. (Yeah, yeah, I didn't recognize the name, either.) For us layfolk, that's a fancy name for a parallel universe. Yes, like Ace Rimmer, I must take my ship and jump to another dimension. "But wait!" I hear you cry. (Okay, maybe not you, but I can hear someone shouting.) "You've queered up two of the main characters! Aren't you already in a parallel universe?!" My answer, "No." Up until now, I've tried to play the game by TPTB's rules, trying to handle whatever curves they throw me. Well, no more! That's it! I've come to the conclusion that The Powers That Be are reading my mind and deliberately f**king me up! Okay, I know it's not true, but honestly! So, from here on out, if I don't like something on the show, I'm not gonna use it. It doesn't exist in my world. So there! Nyah! :-P
The first two days of confinement went by in a haze of stuffy heads and hacking coughs. Occasionally, Doctor Phlox would make a house-call to check on them, but there wasn't much he could do. A steward came by at regular intervals bearing food and wearing a bio-filter mask of the kind usually reserved for harsh but non-lethal environments. For the most part, the meals went untouched. Neither Malcolm nor Stephanie was much in the mood for eating. It was only when Phlox ordered them to take in some nourishment that they listlessly ate a little.
By day three they were starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Unfortunately, with a return to awareness outside their illness came the normal human responses of people trapped in each other's company with little distraction. They were beginning to get on one another's nerves.
Malcolm hadn't been thrilled with the enforced company to start with, although he knew it could have been a lot worse. At least Stephanie was a friend; he was more comfortable with her than just about anyone else on the crew. And she knew him well enough to know some of his foibles. She was being very careful to keep what little of her own possessions she had with her organized and tidy. He hadn't even needed to ask; she knew he was a bit of a neat freak. Okay, he admitted to himself, a lot of a neat freak.
Still, tempers were wearing thin. Both were relieved for the distraction when the steward arrived bearing not just lunch but the mail. Cormack had offered to wait for her turn with the computer until he was done reading his even though Malcolm could tell she was practically bursting to see what she'd received.
"Go ahead," Malcolm said as they ate their steaming chicken soup. "I'm not in a hurry." As a general rule, he didn't get much mail—just the occasional letter from his friend Mark and technical updates from the weapons development team at Starfleet. He'd been surprised the other week to receive birthday greetings from both his sister and his mother. He wasn't surprised not to hear from his father. Of course, his mother had said he sent his good wishes, but she always said that. Whatever this newest correspondence was, it could wait.
"You're sure?" Stephanie asked. She was desperate for some news from home. It was getting on toward October; she had to know if her team would make it to the World Series.
"Of course," he replied.
"Thanks!" She finished up her lunch quickly and set the bowl aside. Loading the card into the computer, she opened up the letter.
Malcolm took his time over his soup. It was the first real food he'd had since Phlox confined them. He'd simply had no inclination to eat the last two days. It was nice to finally enjoy something again.
He'd just finished eating when Stephanie cried out enthusiastically, "Woo-hoo!" She then spent the next half-minute coughing violently.
"Are you all right?" asked Malcolm. He set his now empty bowl on the desk and reached over to give her a pat on the back.
When the spasm of coughing finally subsided, the ensign managed to choke out, "Yeah. I'm okay."
"Mm-hmm." She took a swallow of water to clear her throat.
"So, what was worth all that?"
"Good news from home," said Stephanie when she'd regained her breath. "The Orcas swept the White Sox in the first round of the play-offs, and now they're two and one over Oakland."
Malcolm gave her a bemused look. "Baseball again?" he asked. He'd completely forgotten about the sport since his brief foray into fandom on Stephanie's behalf that July. He rose and moved to the bunk. Pulling a book off a shelf, he sat.
"Hey, we're down to the wire here," she replied. "Two more wins and the Orcas go to the World Series! Gemma sent a couple of video reports. Want to watch?"
"I really think you'd like baseball if you just tried." She returned her attention to the letter she was reading.
"I'm more of a rugby man." Malcolm took a moment to blow his nose before he leaned back against the bulkhead and settled in to read for a while.
"Oh my gods!" Stephanie exclaimed.
"What?" demanded Malcolm, startled and concerned at the tone of her voice.
"I was on TV!"
"What?" he repeated, certain he couldn't have heard her correctly.
"I was on TV!" she said again.
"How? We're over one hundred light-years from Earth."
"I'm looking. I'm looking." She frantically skimmed down the screen searching for details. "Apparently Cordelia's Sisters' new album just went platinum, and the CBC did a retrospective on them. Wait " She read the paragraph more carefully. "Okay. The CBC did a special documentary mini-series on Canadian bands and it included Cordelia's Sisters."
"I still don't see how that means you were on television."
"Ryn says Oh fuck. She says Mom gave them access to all the home vids of when we played together as Daughters of Lear." Stephanie hung her head, buried her face in her hands. "Bad, bad. Very bad."
Malcolm's interest was piqued. "Why bad?" he wanted to know.
"Are you kidding?" She glanced over her shoulder at him, brushing her wild curls out of her face. "We were just college kids. We were playing Wiccan Punk," she added emphatically.
"You can't have been that bad if their new album went platinum," Malcolm said logically.
"Oh no," Stephanie agreed. "We weren't bad. In fact, we were pretty damn good. But we looked " She couldn't finish the sentence, but hid her face again and shuddered. "Oh, this is so very, very bad."
Malcolm got up off the bunk and leaned on the desk beside the traumatized Stephanie. "Did your sister-in-law send a video of that, too?" he asked curiously.
Stephanie looked up sharply. "Shit, I hope not!" she exclaimed. But she was too slow. Malcolm had spotted the attachment on the screen and called it up. "Oh no! Don't!"
"Are you joking? There's precious little entertainment on this ship—even less stuck in here. You're not going to deny me this one little piece, are you?" He gave her a wicked grin.
"Fine," she relented. "Play it. But if you tell anyone " She let the threat hang in the air.
"Word of honor," he promised sincerely.
Malcolm hit the playback and the clip began to run. He watched the screen intently. "Is that a safety pin?" he asked at one point. Stephanie just nodded. He considered trying not to laugh, but decided it wasn't worth it. He was bound to end up coughing either way, so why not have it out to begin with? When he'd finished laughing (and coughing) however, he began to listen to the music.
Stephanie just sat silently, enthralled and horrified by what she was seeing. She peered through her fingers at the images. "Shit. It's like a car wreck," she said at one point.
"Shh!" Malcolm shushed her. She looked at him, baffled. He seemed quite engrossed in the video. The montage of their college gigs led into an interview with Noel and Lynn. They were looking far less ridiculous these days, Stephanie was happy to note. They talked about the music and the history of the band; she heard her own name mentioned more than once. Then, horror of horrors, there was her picture from Starfleet records split-screened with a shot of her from a concert with the caption "Ensign Stephanie Cormack: currently serving on the Starfleet vessel Enterprise."
"Goddess help me," she moaned. "Tell me no one else on board is going to see this!"
Next, there were clips of songs from the new album. Finally—and Stephanie didn't know whether to be flattered or appalled—they ended the interview with her friends waving at the camera and shouting, "We miss you, Cordy!"
The video ended and silence filled the small cabin. It was Stephanie who broke it. "When the doc lets us out of here, the first thing I'm doing is throwing myself out an airlock."
Malcolm chuckled. "It wasn't nearly as bad as all that."
She just glared at him. "Are you kidding? You saw it all. How can you say that? My hair was pink!" Before he could protest, she added emphatically, "For three years!"
He had to laugh again at that. "No one's going to know that unless you tell them," he said practically. He sat back down on the bunk. "And odds are no one else here will have seen this. It's not exactly the kind of news Starfleet is likely to forward."
"I know, but " She hid her face yet again then looked up at him over spread fingers. "You promise you won't tell?"
"Of course. I gave you my word."
"Thank you." Stephanie sighed and lowered her hands.
"Besides," he added sincerely, "I thought you were quite good. I had no idea you could sing, or play the guitar for that matter."
"You're being way too generous. I only played backup, and singing Well, I suppose technically you could call it that "
"Well, I enjoyed it."
She looked at him doubtfully. "Really?"
He nodded. "Yes."
"Huh. Wouldn't have guessed you'd go in for that kind of music. But, thanks." She sat up straight and turned back to the computer to finish reading her letter.
Malcolm returned to his bunk and was just settling back in with his book when he said, "One question, though."
"Yeah?" Stephanie glanced over at him.
"Do you still wear the safety pin?" he asked with a teasing grin.
Stephanie stood and pulled her pajamas back dangerously far to reveal her bare midriff. "See for yourself," she said wickedly.
Malcolm's eyes widened in surprise. Stephanie thought he might even be blushing. "I'll take that as a no," he said, hastily turning his attention to his book.
She regretted her actions immediately. Quickly resettling her pants and shirt, she said, "I'm sorry. That was uncalled for."
"No, no," said Malcolm. He coughed a little, cleared his throat. "Fair's fair. I should be able to take as good as I get. I just wasn’t expecting that."
"Come on. At least I didn't flash you," she offered, hoping more levity would make the situation better rather than worse. It worked.
Malcolm chuckled quietly. "No, not quite. No offense but, thanks for that."
"Humpf," grunted Stephanie crossing her arms over her chest and pretending to pout. "There are people on this ship who'd be thrilled if I flashed them."
"I've no doubt. I'm just not one of them."
"Touché." Stephanie grinned. She turned her attention once more to the computer screen. "Well, I still need to get the image of those concert shots out of my head. I think I've earned the baseball vids Gemma sent."
"That seems fair," agreed Malcolm with a smile.
Cutler was on her bunk going over the newest edition of The Exobiology Journal when the door chimed unexpectedly. She jumped. It had been a quiet few days, what with her bunkmate quarantined elsewhere, and she wasn't expecting anyone to stop by. "Who is it?" she called out.
"It's Ensign Lawless," came the reply.
Cutler was surprised but rose and opened the door. "Hi," she said, puzzled. "If you're looking for Stephanie, she's still not out of confinement."
"Actually, I'm not." Lawless gave a furtive look up and down the corridor. "Can I come in?"
Confused but curious, Cutler ushered the engineer inside. "What's up?"
"I have something you have got to see." Lawless pulled a clear plastic card out of a pocket. She glanced over at the computer. "May I?"
"Sure." Cutler was becoming more intrigued by the second, although she wasn't quite sure why. She decided it must be due to Lawless's clandestine attitude. "What is it?" she asked as the two crowded in front of the computer screen.
"Check it out," was all Lawless said. She ran the file the card contained.
It was an excerpt from a CBC documentary about a bunch of Canadian bands. Cutler couldn't see what was so special about the video, until
"That's Stephanie!" she exclaimed. "What on Earth is this?"
"She never told me she was in a band!" Cutler's eyes widened as the vid continued to play the montage of concert footage. "And I didn't know she has a pierced bellybutton! We've been bunkmates for six months. How could I not notice that? And I recognize that shirt! "
Lawless was trying not to laugh out loud. Cutler's commentary was almost as entertaining as the video, but she didn't want the other woman to miss anything.
When the clip ended, Cutler just stood there, slack-jawed in astonishment. "Where did you get this?" she demanded finally.
"Sorry. I have to protect my sources," said Lawless only half-joking.
"Do you think she's seen it?" Cutler finally tore her eyes from the screen and sat on her bunk.
Lawless pulled out the computer chair and plopped down into it. "I don't know, but I really hope not."
"Are you kidding? Think of the potential teasing we could do with this information! I mean, what are friends for if not to make your life a living hell once in a while?" She gave Cutler a wicked grin, which the exobiologist slowly returned.
"Oh, you're just mean," she accused, grinning.
"You always hurt the ones you love," Lawless answered.
"You realize she'll kill us."
The engineer shrugged. "I'm willing to take that chance. Are you? It's totally cool if you don't want to help."
Cutler considered it seriously for several moments, her dark eyes almost brooding in their intensity. Finally, she looked across at Lawless impishly. "Oh, I'm in."
"Damn!" swore Trip vehemently.
"Are you okay, Commander?" asked Lawless.
"Yeah," he replied, chagrined. He sat down and rubbed the back of his head gingerly. "Just miscalculated and hit my head on the opening of the jefferies tube. Whose idea was it to make these things so damned small?"
Lawless crawled out of the tube and kneeled next to him. "Do you need anything? Icepack?"
The pair were working on realigning one of the magnetic constrictors. It wasn't far enough out yet to cause trouble with the plasma flow to the warp reactor, but Trip was a firm believer in the "ounce of prevention" theory of engineering—particularly when it concerned his warp engines.
He took a deep breath and let it out slowly as the sharp pain in his head subsided to a dull ache. "That's what I get for not keeping my mind on my work," he muttered.
"Sir?" Lawless looked at him quizzically.
"Nothing." He knew he was like a schoolboy preoccupied with his first crush. He felt foolish enough just admitting it to himself; there was no way he was going to voice the issue aloud.
He hadn't talked to Malcolm since Phlox had confined the lieutenant to his quarters, and it was driving him nuts. At first, he hadn't wanted to bother him. He knew whenever he was sick the last thing he wanted was to be forced to make pleasant conversation; it was a good bet Malcolm would feel similarly. Then he'd learned Cormack was quarantined with him. He'd had to fight not to bite the head off of the poor soul who'd happened to bring him that piece of information. No point killing the messenger, he'd thought at the time. Had he known that Malcolm's current confinement happened to include sharing a bunk, he'd have gone completely ballistic despite all reasoning. Of course he was aware his jealousy of Cormack was absurd—and for a number of reasons. He'd reminded himself of them repeatedly over the past three days. It helped, but not a lot.
The only thing that would really help was to talk to Malcolm—just chat, see how he was doing. But Trip was hesitant to do even that. He knew Cormack was aware of the relationship, new though it was, between him and Malcolm. That didn't mean he cared to have her overhearing a personal conversation between them, which she undoubtedly would if he contacted the lieutenant. Trip was stuck between a rock and a hard place. He just hoped Malcolm would understand why he hadn't even called.
"I hear Lieutenant Reed and Ensign Cormack might be released today," said Lawless unexpectedly.
"Huh?" grunted Trip, completely taken aback. He didn't think he'd spoken aloud, but one couldn't always be sure. He'd never seen anything in Lawless's file that indicated high ESP levels, either, but that possibility crossed his mind, too.
As far as Lawless was concerned, she was just making conversation to pass the time until the commander was ready to get back to work. So, unaware of the depth of the reaction she'd elicited, she continued. "I talked to Cormack's bunkmate, Liz Cutler, last night. She told me Phlox was just about ready to let them out, seeing as no one else has gotten sick. I bet they'll be glad. Stuck in a cabin with the same person for three days knowing you can't leave That can't be much fun." She shook her head.
"No," agreed Trip half-heartedly. In truth, he was thinking three days with no company but Malcolm sounded pretty damn good.
Finally, the pain in his head subsided enough that he was ready to tackle their current project once more. "Ready to go back in?" he asked the ensign.
"Whenever you are."
He started to crawl back into the tube, then remembered why he'd emerged in the first place and stopped. "Actually," he said slightly chagrined. "I gotta I'll be right back." He headed to the nearest lav.
Late into day four Reed and Cormack got a pleasant surprise. Phlox brought them the happy news personally.
"You are no longer in danger of contaminating anyone else aboard," he told them with a smile. "And you're both cleared to return to your duties tomorrow morning."
"Thank you, Doctor," Cormack said emphatically. Quickly, she gathered up her things. Once she had everything together, she looked at Malcolm. "I wouldn't say it's been fun," she began, "but that's nothing to do with you." They exchanged a smile. "Thanks for your hospitality, involuntary though it was."
"Still planning to throw yourself out that airlock?" Reed teased gently.
Cormack hung her head. "You had to bring that up, didn't you?" she moaned.
Phlox just looked them both, uncomprehending. "I beg your pardon?" he asked.
Cormack was too preoccupied to reply. She abruptly re-opened her small case to make sure the card containing the letter from home and the related video clip was safely tucked away.
"Nothing, Doctor," said Reed. "Just a little joke."
"Whew!" sighed Cormack, pulling the card from her case. "As long as no one else gets their hands on this, I think the airlock can wait. Besides, I really want a shower." She shoved the card back in, burying it toward the bottom.
"Agreed. A shower sounds positively splendid. I'll see you tomorrow morning in the Armory."
"Yes, sir!" she smiled. "Getting back to work will be almost as refreshing as sleeping in my own bunk."
Phlox escorted her out into the corridor. "Good evening, Lieutenant," he said to Reed as they departed.
"Good evening, Doctor," the tactical officer replied. He closed the door and looked around the cabin. It seemed strangely quiet without Cormack there. Not that she was particularly noisy; it just felt odd to be by himself for the first time in four days. Still, he had his blessed solitude and privacy back. There were far worse bunkmates on board, he was certain, but he was pleased to be on his own once more.
He gathered up the extra blankets Phlox had brought when he'd first escorted Cormack to Reed's quarters. He began to fold them neatly, then realized the absurdity of his actions and simply tossed them down the laundry chute. The bed sheets soon followed—he could pick up a fresh set on his way back from the shower room. It was a standard routine he remembered from his youth. The first thing his mother had always done after he or his sister had been ill was wash everything they'd come in contact with. Now, he found the ritual comforting as well as simply sensible.
Satisfied, he gathered up his claret-colored bathrobe and a fresh towel and headed toward the shower room.
After several days in her pajamas, Stephanie was surprised how good it felt to put her uniform on once more. She wasn’t as thrilled at getting up early, but the return to routine was almost refreshing. She wove her long blonde hair into its customary french braid as Liz brushed out her shorter brown locks. Naturally, Liz was done first.
"You're out of practice," she teased. She sat on her bunk waiting. They were getting breakfast together today—an unusual occurrence since Liz's duty shift was usually later than her bunkmate's.
"I know," answered Stephanie around the hairband she held in her teeth. She finally reached the end of her braid and wrapped the band around it before tucking the tail under and clipping it all in place.
"That just seems like a lot of effort to go to everyday," Liz commented. "Why don't you just cut it?"
"In my world, this is actually less work than dealing with short hair."
"You've got to be kidding."
"Nope." She quickly pulled on her boots and she was ready to go. "Come on. I'm dying for a latté."
"So," said Liz as they made their way to the mess hall, "how was it bunking with your boss?"
"Actually, it was fine. We both got a bit snarky toward the end, but it wasn't bad at all."
Liz was surprised. "Really? I'd've thought it would be I don't know weird."
Stephanie shrugged. "If he wasn't a friend as well as my C.O. it would have been well awkward," she agreed. "But we were both so sick the first couple of days, I could've been quartered with an orangutan and I wouldn't have noticed or cared."
"Ew!" Liz exclaimed at the image. Then added mischievously, "I'm going to tell him you said that."
"Go ahead. I expect he'll agree."
They entered the mess hall and Stephanie's first action was to order up her traditional double latté. She refused all further conversation until she'd had a sip. She sighed. "Gods, that feels good!" Liz got herself a glass of orange juice, and they headed over to the solid food. "Mm! Pancakes!" Stephanie exclaimed, taking a plate of the golden-brown treat. She set down her latté just long enough to claim a dollop of peanut butter, which she plopped unceremoniously onto the top-most pancake.
Liz looked at her askance. "What are you doing?"
"Peanut butter is great on pancakes," replied Stephanie matter-of-factly.
"I think I'm glad we don't usually get to eat breakfast together." She claimed another plate and topped her own pancakes with the more traditional maple syrup.
"I don't usually eat breakfast, period," her bunkmate said as they found a table and sat. The mess hall was fairly busy at this hour, but quiet. Stephanie harbored the suspicion that the majority of the crew weren't morning people. Silly, considering that time out in space was even more arbitrary than it was back on Earth. "Food and mornings don't usually sit well together in my system. But today I’m hungry, and the peanut butter thing is new to me. I learned it from Lieutenant Reed just yesterday."
"You picked up his bad habits that quickly?"
"Bad habit, singular," Stephanie corrected. "If you can even call it that. Besides, I think it's the only one he has—unless you call fanatical tidiness a bad habit."
"Well, I might not " Liz let the implication hang in the air.
"Ha ha," was Stephanie's flat reply.
"Come on, you know I'm just teasing."
"Yeah." She grinned. "Hey!" she called out suddenly, spotting Mae across the room. She waved the engineer over.
"Hey, yourself," Mae said as she approached. She set her breakfast on the table and took a seat. "You look like you're feeling better."
"You have no idea. I'm feeling positively human again," Stephanie declared.
"Since when do humans eat pancakes with peanut butter on them?"
"I can't speak for the species, but for myself—since yesterday." She took a big bite to emphasize her point.
Mae just shook her head. "So, what was it like being stuck in the same room as your C.O. for four days?" she asked
Caught with her mouth full, Stephanie almost choked as she tried not to laugh. "That's almost exactly what Liz asked," she explained to the surprised engineer as soon as she was able. "It was fine. It was what you'd expect being stuck in a room for four days with only one other person for company would be like."
"That's not a situation I would ever expect to describe as 'fine'," declared Mae, punctuating her sentence with a bite of cereal. She washed the bite down with some cranberry juice before continuing. "Besides, it wasn't just any other person. It was your C.O. I know you guys are friends but I mean, I like my C.O., don't get me wrong. But the idea of bunking with Commander Tucker no. You know what I mean? Just—no. Not even on a normal day—never mind how weird he's been all week."
"What do you mean?" Stephanie wanted to know.
"He's been sort of distracted. I thought he was coming down with that cold at first, he was so spacey. But, nope. Turns out he's just spacey."
"It really is. He's always been pretty laid back in his command style, but I've never seen him so " She hunted for the right word. " unfocused."
"Huh. Hope he's okay," Stephanie said, concerned. She had a guess as to what was causing the commander's distracted state, but couldn't say anything here. She'd thought it a little odd he hadn't once, to her knowledge, called to check on Lieutenant Reed. Granted, she could have been out cold at the time and never noticed. But if Trip had called, surely Malcolm would have mentioned it. Wouldn't he? she wondered. Of course he would.
"Hello? Earth to Stephanie," Liz said.
"Huh?" Stephanie looked at her, startled. "Sorry. Did you say something?"
"Only about three times."
"This is what I’m talking about," put in Mae. "Just like the commander. Are you sure this isn't a symptom of your illness?" she asked.
"Maybe it is. Sorry. What were you saying?"
"I was wondering if you wanted to join my RPG group," said Liz. "We finished up our latest campaign, and I thought you might like it. Mae's already agreed to play."
"Yeah," conmirmed the engineer. "It sounds like fun. My brother used to play when we were kids, but I was always too busy taking apart my dad's motorcycle to pay attention."
"I hope you put it back together when you were done," said Stephanie. "Otherwise, I'm going to fear for my life next time we go to warp."
"Of course she did," interjected Liz, trying to get back to the topic at hand. She and Mae had worked on this set-up over lunch the previous day. It just took a yea vote from her bunkmate to set the ball rolling. "What do you say? Interested?"
"First, tell me exactly what an RPG group is."
"Role-Playing Game group," Liz clarified. "You roll up your characters, and I lead you through a campaign. In our case, it'll be the science-fiction genre as opposed to the traditional fantasy backdrop. So? Sound fun?"
Stephanie thought about it a moment before answering, "Sure. Why not? But when were you going to start?"
"We hadn't really decided. Why?"
"It's nearly World Series time back home. If my team's in, I'm not going to be good for anything else fun until it's over."
"Fair enough. I suppose we could hold off a little—if the other players don't mind." Liz gave an indifferent shrug. She didn't want to push too hard, seem too eager; she had to play it cool. In her lap, her fingers were crossed in the hope that Stephanie wouldn't ask what the new campaign would be.
"I'm okay with it, for what that's worth," said Mae. "Who else is playing?"
"Travis is in, and so is Ethan." Ethan Novakovitch was a friend of Liz's from the science department. Neither Stephanie nor Mae knew him personally, but Stephanie had heard her bunkmate mention him on several occasions. "I'll check with them today. Let me know when you find out about your precious baseball team?" Liz asked teasingly.
"If the Orcas beat Oakland, everyone on the ship will know. Trust me," Stephanie replied, and grinned.
Tucker had hoped to catch Reed that afternoon at lunch, but Archer's sudden announcement and subsequent invitation had taken him completely by surprise. T'Pol was being transferred? It didn't make sense until the captain explained the situation over lunch as he'd promised.
"Sounds to me like they're just looking for a scapegoat," the engineer said angrily. It didn't matter that the Vulcan woman wasn't his favorite crewmate; she was still a crewmate and deserving of his support.
"I know," Archer replied. The lines of frustration were clear in his face, and his shoulders were tensed in a way Tucker recognized well.
"You and I were there, too," added Tucker. "I'd expect them to blame us for the destruction of their sanctuary before they attack one of their own."
"I'm sure they do. But they don't have any jurisdiction over you and me. They do over T'Pol."
"That just isn't fair! I've never been real fond of the Vulcans, but I've always thought of them as fair-minded. It's just logical."
"I'd have thought so," agreed Archer. "Seems to me their repressed emotions are rearing their ugly heads, and T'Pol's a 'logical' target." The last was said with heavy sarcasm.
"Isn't there anything you can do? File a protest or something?"
"I already have—with the High Command and Starfleet. I know Admiral Forrest isn't in control of this one, but I wanted it to be on record." He sat back in his chair, his lunch largely untouched and entirely forgotten. "So, you understand why I'm taking her on this mission?"
"Sure." Tucker shrugged. "I can't say I'm not disappointed—I'd love to see the Coridan shipyards—but I understand."
"Good. I'm going to need you to keep everything here running smoothly until she and I get back from the planet. The Vulcans aren't supposed to arrive for a couple of days, but I wouldn't put it past them to show up early just to catch us unprepared."
Trip looked at his old friend, wished there was some way he could help. The only thing he could do was keep the ship running smoothly, as Jon had asked. He had every intention of doing just that. "No problem," he said. It was a promise.
Unfortunately, it was a promise Trip couldn't keep. There was no way he could have anticipated the attack that brought the captain's shuttlepod down. And even had he been there, there wasn't a thing he could have done to stop Archer and T'Pol being abducted. That didn't keep him from blaming himself, though, no matter how many times he tried to tell himself it wasn't his fault.
Tucker had lost his temper in a most unprofessional manner with the representative from the Coridan government. He knew it. He tried to give a damn and failed. She'd allowed his people to fly into danger without giving them the slightest hint of what they might be in for. He was furious.
Reed wasn't any happier. Tucker could see it in his expression, hear it in his voice as they discussed their options. So far, they were few.
Reed had found what he believed was the captain's shuttlepod in the shanty town that surrounded the Coridan capital city. However, without proof of human or Vulcan bio-signs in the area, going in to check it out was an unnecessary risk. Tucker hated to be the one to play it cautious; his instincts in this case meshed with the tactical officer's perfectly. But when Reed said he had a rescue team standing by, he had to say no.
"Hold on, Malcolm." Tucker straightened up from the screen they'd been examining and shook his head. "We don't even know if this is our pod. I don't want to go down and find it's some alien tractor."
"It's our shuttlepod," Reed asserted, his arms crossed over his chest. "I'm certain of it." He eased off a little, tried another tactic. "All I'm suggesting is we go down and have a look around."
The comm beeped then, suspending further discussion.
By the time Tucker was done taking calls, he was well and truly pissed off. First a rebel with a ransom demand, then a Vulcan captain who seemed awfully contemptuous for someone claiming emotionless detachment. He had one hour until the Vulcans arrived. It was time to plan.
Under normal circumstances, he never would have presumed to use the captain's ready room without his permission. But he needed to talk with Lieutenant Reed and the ready room was both convenient and private.
"Lieutenant?" he said, gesturing to the door. Reed gave him a mildly surprised look, but simply nodded. "Travis, you have the bridge," Tucker shot over his shoulder as he followed Reed inside.
The door shut behind him, and Trip let out a frustrated sigh. "This is not turning out to be a good day." There was really nothing for Reed to say to that, so he remained silent. Tucker looked at him. "I'm open to any suggestions you might have," he said. He leaned against the edge of desk, not quite comfortable enough in the Captain's space to sit down behind it.
"I've already said I have a team waiting," was the lieutenant's reply. He stood stiffly in the middle of the small room, his arms once again crossed in front of him.
The commander wanted to say, "Yes. Send them now." Instead, he shook his head. "I'm just not ready to send people down there. Not when we don't know what they'll be going into. We've already lost the Captain and T'Pol. I'm not risking anyone else until we have more information."
"There's only so much information we can gather from here," countered Reed. "A small team could infiltrate the site, gather data, and be back out before anyone's spotted them."
"I presume you intend to lead the team yourself."
"Commander, with all due respect—"
"Stop right there, Malcolm." He regarded the lieutenant carefully. Despite everything going on, Trip wanted to take a moment just to pause, ask how he was, do or say something to show that he hadn't really been ignoring him for the better part of the past week. He wanted to know what Malcolm was thinking and feeling outside of rescue missions and emergencies. When this is over, the engineer promised himself. First thing.
"Commander?" Reed looked at him inquiringly.
Tucker shook his head a little, realizing he'd been silent longer than he'd intended. "Sorry," he said. "Thinking." One thing at a time, Trip, he told himself. You've got a friend being held hostage on an alien planet. Bring him home, then deal with your own problems. He looked at Reed, considering several possibilities. Finally, an idea struck him. "You and me," he said abruptly.
"Excuse me?" Malcolm wasn't sure what to say. His mind had been thoroughly on the job at hand, and Trip's sudden statement seemed off topic—until the engineer clarified.
"You and me. Two people are even less noticeable than four," he added, thinking of the standard three-person security team the lieutenant planned to lead. "You and I'll take another shuttlepod down to check out the site. We've got an hour before the Vulcans arrive, right?" Tucker was pacing the small room now, thinking hard. "We'll get everything we can from the ship's sensors in the next forty-five minutes, then we'll head down there. The Vulcans can't stop us if we've already left."
"I agree, but why not send my team? We're ready to go."
"I'm not going to put someone else in danger without being willing to step into it myself," said Tucker firmly.
Reed looked at him intently, guessed rightly at at least some of the subtext below the spoken words. "That's a laudable attitude, Commander, but this is my job, and it's what my people are trained to do."
The two men considered each other in silence for several seconds. It was Tucker who looked away first. "That's not all of it," he said at last.
"What do you mean?" asked Reed, as Tucker sat heavily in one of the large chairs in the corner.
"You're right that I don't want to send you down there." He held up a hand to forestall the coming argument. "But that's not it. I would never stop you doing your job just because I wanted you safe here. That wouldn't be fair to you, and it wouldn't be professional." Reed was surprised at the admission, but managed to keep his expression neutral. However, he wasn't able to hide his reaction when Tucker continued. "I have to get Jon out of there."
"Sir?" Although he knew the men were old friends, hr had never heard Tucker call the Captain by his first name, and certainly not by such a familiar form of it.
Trip looked up at him. "No. No 'sir'. No 'commander.'"
Malcolm was uncertain how to react to the tone in Trip's voice. He sounds He shook his head. He couldn't place the emotion he heard. Concerned and puzzled, he moved to sit for the first time since they'd entered the ready room. Malcolm took the seat across from the engineer and said anxiously, "Are you all right?" He was unprepared for the resultant outburst.
"No! I'm frustrated, and I'm angry!" There was a pause again while Trip collected himself. Then he added quietly, "And I'm a little scared." He looked across at Mslcolm, and Malcolm could see the truth of what he said reflected in his eyes. "Archer's my captain, and that means a lot. But Jon is my friend, and that means even more. I owe him my life at least twice over. Malcolm, I've got to get him out of there."
"We will," Reed said resolutely. "I promise you that. Just let me take my team in—"
"I'm going with you. Just you and me." Tucker was determined, and Reed knew there was no point in continuing to argue.
"We'll be leaving Ensign Sato rather in the lurch," he pointed out. "What's she going to tell the Vulcans?"
Realizing he'd won, Tucker relaxed a bit and gave the tactical officer a sly little smile, saying, "She can take it. She's a communications officer. A little miscommunication should be a snap."
They set to work immediately. Sato ran continual scans for human and Vulcan bio-signs, working outward in concentric circles from what Reed still insisted was the shuttlepod. Mayweather had managed to spot a good landing site for them—secluded but not too far away from the initial search area. Their own pod was ready and waiting; Reed's team had prepped it when he'd first alerted them. It was a reasonable plan and it might even have worked had the Vulcans not been early yet again.
"You're letting them come aboard?" asked Mayweather from the helm.
Tucker and Reed were at Tactical, going over what limited information they'd managed to gather in past half hour. "Did you have another suggestion, Ensign?" asked the commander.
That shut the helmsman up. "No, sir."
"There's no harm in hearing what they have to say," Tucker continued.
"Then we'll do exactly what we planned anyway," said Reed so quietly only Tucker could hear him. The engineer had to fight back a smirk. Reed noticed and gave the smallest of shrugs as if to say, "Well, we will." It only made Tucker want to laugh that much more.
He wasn't smiling when the Vulcan captain, Sopek, made his announcement that he'd be taking in his own team. An assault team, no less. He was going to get Archer and T'Pol killed, and he didn't even give a damn.
When Sopek asked for any data they had Tucker relished the moment for two reasons. First, he loved that for once Vulcans were forced to ask humans for help. Second, he thoroughly enjoyed lying to him. "Sorry," he'd said, not the least bit sorry. "We don't have anything." Tucker waited for the small delegation to leave the bridge before looking over at Reed. "Warm up the shuttlepod."
Reed gave the slightest of nods accompanied by the smallest of satisfied smiles. He immediately headed for the launch bay.
Tucker crossed to the comm station. "You know what to do, Hoshi?" he asked.
"Lie, deceive, disrupt the transmission, and hang up," the ensign replied with a falsely innocent smile.
Tucker grinned back. "I knew there was a reason the Captain recruited you," he joked. He turned to the captain's chair and hit the comm button. "Tucker to the Armory."
"Young here. Go ahead."
"Who's on Beta shift for bridge duty?"
"I am, sir."
"Then get up here, Ensign."
Tucker cut the comm and looked to Mayweather. "Are the Vulcans off the ship yet?"
"They just cleared the launch bay," the helmsman replied.
"Good. That's where I’m going." He headed to the lift and stepped inside. "Let me know when they're back on the Ni'Var."
"Aye, sir," called out Mayweather as the lift door shut.
"You're sure you don't want backup?" Cormack asked one last time.
"Absolutely," Reed replied. He was giving their phase pistols one more check while he waited for Tucker to arrive. "You and the team stay here on alert, but don't move unless you hear from me or Commander Tucker."
Tucker arrived then. He'd grabbed jackets on his way and passed one to Reed. "It's liable to be cold down there." The lieutenant took it, traded him a phase pistol. "Coordinates all set?" Tucker asked, holstering the gun and pulling on his coat.
"Yes, sir," replied Cormack. "Everything's ready for you."
Tucker looked at Reed. "Let's go."
Getting down to the landing site was easier than they'd expected. It was night on this side of the planet, and they were well outside the capitol city's sensor grid. Tucker piloted the pod to a gentle landing in the clearing Mayweather had spotted. They locked down the pod and moved out.
The pair saw a number of people scattered randomly around small fires as they made their cautious way through the shanty town, but they were few and far between. At that late hour, most people were inside their homes. "Hovels, more like," Reed muttered at one point.
"I guess not everyone gets to live in Emerald City," replied Tucker just as quietly.
That was when they were ambushed. Reed was still mentally kicking himself over it. He'd been so busy scanning for human and Vulcan life signs, he'd never seen their attackers coming. He didn't even know how many there were. Now, he could see nothing through the bag that had been pulled firmly over his head. He knew Tucker was beside him and, he assumed, similarly restrained. Reed twisted his wrists behind him, trying to loosen his bonds.
A door opened. The two men could hear footsteps and then the sound of the door being firmly shut once again. Tucker heard something more that sounded achingly familiar and terribly out of place in this alien setting. It sounded just like an old chain-pull light being yanked on. The bag that covered his head was opaque; no light seeped through to tell him if he was right or wrong. Then unexpectedly that bag was removed, and he heard a voice he immediately recognized. It didn't fill him with confidence.
"You should have listened to the Vulcan. He warned you against doing anything foolish." The Andorian moved forward just enough for his antennae to be outlined in the dim light.
"What the hell are you doing here?" demanded Tucker.
"Looking out for you pink-skins," he spat, stepping fully into the light. Tucker's instincts were right. It was Shran. "If you had gone anywhere near that shuttlepod, you'd have been killed."
The second Andorian—Tucker couldn't remember his name, if he'd ever known it—leaned over between him and Reed. "They left it in the open for you to find."
That hurt. Reed had known it was a possibility, but hadn't seriously considered it. He'd trusted the Coridan chancellor's belief that the rebels were few and generally poorly organized. It was a clumsy mistake—almost as clumsy as letting themselves be captured by these Andorians. Now he had to figure a way out of here—and they still didn't know where to begin looking for the Captain and T'Pol.
Tucker was still talking to the aliens, and Reed focused on what they were saying. Shran gave them a quick primer on the Coridan political situation: the allegedly corrupt Vulcan-supported government vs. the rebel factions.
"So, you and the rebels figure you both have a common enemy," Reed spoke for the first time.
"The hostage-takers have no plans to return your captain and the female. Once you deliver the weapons, they will be killed."
Reed glanced over at Tucker, tried to gauge his reaction to this flat delivery of the facts. To his credit, the engineer showed no outward signs of distress at the news.
Shran continued. "Fortunately for you, we have a relationship with the downtrodden here."
"You tried to kill us last time we met. Why're you trying to help us now?" Tucker demanded. He didn't know whether to believe all the Andorian was saying or not. His instincts weren't much help here. When it came down to it, he trusted neither them nor the Vulcans.
However, the Andorians had apparently decided to trust the humans. Tucker and Reed found themselves finally released from their bonds.
"I haven't slept well since our encounter at the Vulcan sanctuary," Shran said reluctantly. "I don't like being indebted to anyone, least of all your captain."
It was an explanation Tucker felt in his gut was true. "You're right," he said, standing and rubbing his wrists where the cords had chafed them. "You never would have found that spy station if it weren't for him."
"Once he's free, my debt will be repaid in full," declared Shran. He looked at the other Andorian. "Show them," he ordered.
On a small computer screen, the four examined a graphic of the rebels' enclosure. The Andorians pointed out the positions of the eight guards inside and around the walled camp.
"You're out-numbered four-to-one. Wouldn't you like to improve those odds?" asked Tucker as the Andorians gathered their weapons.
The Andorian second looked at his commander. "They could be useful," he said.
Shran weighed the options before replying. "Give them their weapons."
Tucker and Reed were happy to have their phase pistols back. Reed in particular felt naked without it. He checked the gun quickly and made certain it was set to stun. While he was doing that, Shran handed Tucker an unfamiliar object.
"What's this?" the engineer asked, eyeing it dubiously.
"A communications device. Your captain will be in possession of something similar by now. Contact him."
Quickly, Tucker hailed the captain. He apprised him of the situation as succinctly as he could. "Until then, just sit tight."
"That won't be a problem," came Archer's response. Tucker was too focused to notice the irony in the captain's voice.
It was to be a simple, quiet rescue. Get in, get the hostages, get out.
They were inside the camp. They'd disabled the guards quietly and efficiently, and were making their way to the building where the hostages were being held when, without warning, all hell broke loose. The explosion took out most of one wall of the compound, scattering debris in all directions. Smoke billowed everywhere, making navigation over the unfamiliar ground nearly impossible.
"What the hell's going on?" demanded Tucker to no one in particular. Then suddenly they were in the middle of a fire fight. Rebels poured from the buildings, and Tucker could just make out figures coming through the new hole in the wall. Squinting through the smoke, he saw "Sopek," he muttered angrily. But there was no time now to deal with them. They had to get to Archer and T'Pol.
The rescue team huddled low in one of the flimsy, corrugated aluminum buildings. They knew full well it would be of no protection against the particle weapons should anyone fire in their direction.
"Vulcans!" spat Shran. He glared at Tucker. "Did you know they were planning to do this?"
"You're the ones who have their comm system bugged!" countered Tucker just as angrily.
In his usual pragmatic way, Reed pointed out, "Our escape plan's shot to hell."
Another, smaller explosion erupted near by. "We've got to get them out of there," said Tucker. Exchanging quick glances with their partners, Tucker and Shran moved out, leaving Reed and the Andorian second to cover them.
Everything happened so quickly that Reed didn't even have a moment to say, 'Be careful.' Instead, he did the only thing he could to keep the others safe as they made their way to the shack where Archer and T'Pol were being held. He quickly laid down covering fire as the pair worked their way across the camp. He was gratified when one of his shots connected and he saw a rebel go down.
Reed allowed himself a small sigh of relief when he saw Tucker and Shran reach their target and enter the building. The tactical officer continued to watch the fire fight between the Vulcans and the rebels. The analytical part of his mind found it fascinating that the "peace-loving Vulcans", as Shran had put it, seemed more intent on shooting rebels than finding the hostages. However, his more immediate concern was keeping the rebels pinned down; and he couldn't complain at the Vulcans' assistance in that particular task.
Inside the other structure, Shran went to T'Pol while Tucker quickly untied Archer. "Good to see you, Captain."
"What's going on?" Archer asked.
"Vulcans crashed our rescue party," the engineer replied.
Archer looked up from his position on the dirt floor and was surprised to see a bright blue hand held out to him. He took it, allowed the Andorian to help him up. "Thanks." He turned and reached out to pull T'Pol to her feet.
Archer was even more surprised when the Andorian handed him a scanner, saying, "I believe this is yours." He took it, a quizzical look on his face. "It's the scanner she gave me from the Vulcan listening post," Shran explained shortly.
The Captain handed it to T'Pol. "Seems you went to a lot of trouble to return it," he said.
"I'm here for only one reason," Shran said emphatically. He gritted his teeth almost as if it pained him to say it. "I need a good night's sleep." He strode to the door, but took one more moment to look back angrily at the captain. "My debt is repaid."
Before he could step outside there was another explosion. Tucker flinched in response; it was close enough he could feel the abrupt increase in the temperature of the air. He could hear men crying out, but couldn't place the one that mattered most to him. "Malcolm!" he breathed tensely and rushed past Shran at the door. He never saw the look Archer gave him at his quiet exclamation.
Outside, the chaos was beginning to settle down. The shooting had stopped, and Trip scanned the area with his eyes, trying to spot the tactical officer in the confusion of fallen bodies and industrial debris. He released the breath he hadn't even realized he held when he saw Malcolm emerge from the building just a few meters away. He looked to be whole and uninjured as he and the Andorian joined them.
They met up with the Vulcan delegation. Weapons were drawn on both sides. Reed was at a loss, stuck to one side between the two parties as Captain Sopek and Shran argued. He looked back and forth, uncertain. It was a feeling he didn't like—not knowing which side he was on. Finally, the immediate situation took precedence in his mind and he faced the Vulcans, his phase pistol still drawn but pointed at the ground.
Reed was too far away to see the Coridan pick up his weapon and take aim. He didn't know what was happening—only that T'Pol was moving suddenly. She threw herself at Sopek, knocking him out of the line of fire. As one, the Andorians turned and fired back, killing the rebel. It was only then Reed discovered T'Pol had taken the shot meant for Sopek.
Archer was gathering her up, saying, "Let's get her to the ship."
"She's no longer your responsibility," Sopek said dispassionately. "We'll treat her on the Ni'Var."
Archer looked up at the Vulcan with an expression Reed recognized too well. Sopek would have been well advised not to argue further. "She's still my science officer," said Archer, rising with the unconscious T'Pol in his arms. He looked to Reed. "Is the pod close?"
Tucker quickly opened the compound's main gate. The Enterprise crew hurried away to their shuttlepod, leaving the Vulcans and Andorians alone with their own fight.
It was a tense flight back to the ship. Archer took the helm, hailing Enterprise as soon as they were off the planet's surface. Reed performed what first-aid he could on T'Pol's wound using the pod's med-kit, but the damage was severe. He sat back, shaking his head.
"She going to be okay?" Tucker asked him quietly.
"I have no idea," admitted Reed. "There's nothing more we can do here. It'll be up to Doctor Phlox."
Eventually, they got the word that T'Pol would be all right—and that she'd be remaining aboard Enterprise. The Vulcan ship had departed shortly before the announcement. Tucker wondered if the Captain hadn't planned it that way. He'd have laid odds he had.
The past several hours had been tense. He was exhausted and wired at the same time. He wanted little more than to collapse into his bunk and sleep for the next twelve hours. But Trip had one more thing to do before he, like Shran, could get a good night's sleep.
He checked the ship's internal sensors and located Lieutenant Reed. The tactical officer was in his cabin, and Trip covered the short distance there with long, determined strides. Reaching the door, he took a deep breath and stood up straight before ringing the chime.
"Come in," came the somewhat puzzled sounding reply.
Trip opened the door. Malcolm looked up from the computer, surprised. He stood. "Come in, Commander," he said, gesturing Trip inside. Hesitantly, Trip entered the cabin, and the door slid shut behind him. There was an awkward pause while Malcolm waited for him to speak, uncertain what was going on. But in the end, it was the lieutenant who broke the silence. "Was there something I can do for you?"
"I wanted to thank you," Trip began. "For what you did tonight."
"It's my job. You don't need to thank me."
"Not just the rescue mission." He fidgeted uncomfortably like a anxious pupil called before his headmaster. Malcolm didn't like the idea that he was the one making Trip so uneasy.
"Do you want to sit down?" he asked, trying to put the younger man at ease.
Trip shook his head. "No, thanks. I just need to say what I came here to say." He looked intently at Malcolm, pale blue eyes catching brighter blue. "You stood by me when I was upset. You didn't argue. Well," he added with a wry smile, "you didn't argue a lot. And you never told me I was being an idiot—and I know I was."
Malcolm tried to protest, but Trip cut him off. "Oh, come on. We could have been in real trouble down there. It was just dumb luck that the guys who jumped us just happened to be on our side—at least for the moment. My stubbornness could have put everyone in danger, but you understood why I needed to go after the captain myself. I wanted to thank you for that."
Malcolm took a deep breath, trying to take in everything Trip had just said. He really felt the commander was giving him more credit than he was due. If he'd truly believed Trip was putting them in danger, he'd have said so. Still, he could understand where the engineer was coming from and decided his best answer in this situation was not to contradict him. Instead, he said simply, "You're welcome."
That seemed to take a weight off of Trip's shoulders. He relaxed visibly. When he said nothing more but didn't turn to leave, Malcolm looked at him inquiringly. "Was there something else?" he asked.
Trip considered him, his head cocked slightly to one side as if he was listening to something just out of range. "Yeah," he said with the hint of a smile.
Before he realized what was happening, Malcolm found himself in Trip's embrace, their lips pressed together. Slowly, his shocked mind gave in to the desires of his body, and he returned the kiss amorously.
Both men were short of breath when they finally parted. Malcolm was beyond the power of speech and simply stood in a pleasant daze for several seconds trying to gather his wits together once more.
Trip looked at him, a slightly concerned expression on his face. "That was okay, right?" he asked nervously.
Malcolm could only nod until, finally, he found the words. "Oh yes," he answered, still regaining his breath. "That was much more than 'okay'." His simple statement was rewarded with a bright, ingenuous smile that lit the engineer's face and Malcolm's heart.
"I just wanted to make sure I'd done that," Trip said artlessly, "before one of us gets put in yet another life-threatening situation."
"I'm glad you did," replied Malcolm. "Allow me to return the favor." He leaned forward, happy to initiate the contact this time. They kissed again, and Malcolm's hands slid up Trip's back, fingers lacing their way through his short, honey-colored hair. This time when they parted it was Trip whose senses were spinning with excitement.
"Uh uhhh " He babbled for a moment before Malcolm stopped him with one more warm, gentle kiss.
"We've both been in several life-threatening situations," the tactical officer said slyly. "I just wanted to make up for lost opportunities."
Finally, Trip managed to splutter out, "Good thinking."
Malcolm fought back a laugh. He found the engineer's response terribly endearing. He briefly considered inviting him to stay the night, but decided he didn't want to overwhelm him—he looked stunned enough as it was. They'd both had a rough day. Better they both sleep now in their own bunks.
So, slowly and quietly, Malcolm moved to the door and opened it. "Good night, Commander," he said, the hint of an ironic smile playing at the corner of his mouth. "I'm glad you stopped by."
It took a moment for the open door to register in Trip's brain. For a split-second, his heart nearly stopped as he thought he was being dismissed; he'd been found lacking and was being sent on his way. One look at Malcolm, though, and he knew that wasn't the case. He let out a relieved sigh and smiled.
He stepped to the door. "Good night Lieutenant. See you tomorrow?" he asked with more depth of meaning than the words alone suggested.
Malcolm returned his smile willingly. "Count on it."
End Log 16
As of 1 Sept 06: